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2005: The year in fiction

Nilanjana S Roy | December 22, 2005

The death of the novel was confidently announced in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, though some would say that the novel was first seen to be ailing about five decades ago. I like to think of 2005 as the year when the novel confounded its detractors by making a complete recovery.

If you spent the year reading nothing but Paulo Coelho and Chetan Bhagat, you still have some 10 days to redeem yourself before 2006 rolls around. For reasons of space, this is just a selection of the most interesting fiction this year, not a comprehensive listing.

Much of the fiction published in 2005 attempted to deal with contemporary history. Ian McEwan's Saturday wrapped its day-in-the-life of a neurosurgeon around the great London demonstration protesting the Iraq war; it ends by invoking Dover Beach against a more internal kind of violence, with its lines about ignorant armies struggling together on a darkling plain.

Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies brings together a delightful expert on fraud confusion and twisted histories with a man seeking redemption after a battle with lung cancer; the ode to America and Brooklyn slams the 2000 election and stops as 'the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies' comes pouring down on New York in a 'white cloud of ashes and death.'

Salman Rushdie set himself up as ringmaster of the circus that was Shalimar The Clown, taking on Kashmir via Nazi Germany and contemporary America. It was a rambunctious, messy novel whose big themes couldn't quite compensate for the heavy-handed clowning around.

Cyrus Mistry and Siddhartha Deb chose smaller canvases, but both told their stories brilliantly. Mistry evoked a Bombay on the cusp of change in The Radiance Of Ashes, just before the stormtroopers of hate took up permanent residence in the city's psyche. Siddhartha Deb explored the hidden history of the north east through the tangled tale of an abduction and a killing in Surface. And E L Doctorow's The March, while not directly political, explored the fractures in the US through an unflinching account of Sherman's army on the move.

Though John Banville's mannered tale of childhood's end and a man's dark past, The Sea, was the surprise Booker winner this year, the real surprise was the strength of every book on the shortlist. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is not the first book to discuss human clones, but few writers have written about the social consequences of cloning with such insight, empathy and terrible melancholy.

Zadie Smith's On Beauty, part homage to E M Forster's Howards End, part tongue-in-cheek send-up of academia, was a hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Among the score of heavyweights from Coetzee to Kelman who published new work this year, the most exciting came from Ismail Kadare, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Kadare's The Successor is set in a dictatorship where the upheaval is by turns comic and tragic. Murakami's Kafka On The Shore is a typically dense, playful work that takes in several genres at once. And Garcia Marquez' Memories Of My Melancholy Whores is narrated by a nonagenarian who rediscovers the pleasures that are beginning to leave him through the medium of a young whore he spends chastely erotic nights with.

The Great Indian Novel was elusive, but the Really Decent Indian Novel wasn't hard to find.

Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled gave us modern-day parables and fables told by travellers stranded at the airport.

Nilita Vachani's HomeSpun dismantles khadi nationalist stereotypes through the story of a broke and embattled freedom fighter, setting this narrative against the myths that grow up around a fighter pilot's death in free India.

Altaf Tyrewala did a montage of Mumbai stories, riffling through the lives of gangsters, abortionists, handicapped grooms, bar dancers and a host of others. He does with No God In Sight what a stage magician does with a tricky but impressive card trick.

There was no lack of variety. Kalpana Swaminathan's Bougainvillea House, with its dying, malevolent protagonist, may have invented Goa Gothic singlehanded; Sudeep Chakravarti's Tin Fish brought the nostalgic school story up to date and Samit Basu came out with The Manticore's Secret, the second in his Pratchettian fantasy trilogy.

If you have room for only one Xmas stocking stuffer, pick up Gregory MacGuire's Wicked -- The Wizard Of Oz retold from the witches' point of view, with a definite R rating. In MacGuire's Oz, the Wizard is a dry, bureaucratic Dr Evil, while the Emerald City's glitter hides a nasty history of specieist violence. Dorothy is a sweet little twit who wreaks havoc with the best of intentions. Just follow the Yellow Brick Road; in MacGuire's reinvented world, it's a crooked but compelling path.

2005: The best of non-fiction


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