A review of the year - Fiction: From classical gold to future shock

Robertson's novel is a fine version of the family saga, the family being the Scottish people

• James Robertson gave us a story for the generations with his ambitious And the Land Lay Still. Picture: Sean Bell

James Robertson's And The Land Lay Still (Hamish Hamilton, 18.99) deservedly won the Saltire Prize for the best Scottish Book of the Year. One of the most ambitious Scottish novels since Alasdair Gray's Lanark, though unlike it in eschewing modernist and post-modernist tricksiness, it is a fine version of the family saga, the family being the Scottish People. Stretching over half a century, it has all the traditional virtues of naturalism. In many respects it resembles the much-hyped Freedom by the American novelist Jonathan Franzen. Both books seek to deliver a state-of-the-nation assessment, and both, despite flat passages of reportage, are humane and intelligent.. Robertson, however, is better than Franzen.

The attention properly given to Robertson's novel shouldn't obscure Ronald Frame's achievement in Unwritten Secrets (Telegram, 10.99). Set mostly in Vienna, this story of two opera singers moves back and forward in time, exploring dark passages in individual lives and their relation to buried history. A lesser writer would have stretched the material to twice the length.

Two of the best novels of the year were by Algerian authors writing in French: What the Day Owes the Night (Heinemann, 12.99) by Yasmina Khadra and An Unfinished Business (Bloomsbury, 16.99) by Boualem Sansal. Both, like Frame, examine painful moments in history. The theme - the dilemma of crossed loyalties -- is similar, though the tone of the novels is very different. Khadra's, set almost entirely in Algeria, has wonderful lyrical passages and is distinguished by its sympathetic intelligence. Sansal, likewise tracking back to the Algerian war, also gives a vivid picture of life today in a banlieue of Paris where the young narrator rebels against an Islamist group seeking to dominate and control the local youth. Khadra writes with a beautiful lucidity, Sansal has a sometimes harsh demotic voice.

Andrei Makine vies with Javier Marias for the title of the finest living European novelist. The Life of an Unknown Man (Sceptre, 16.99) is not Makine's best novel, but it is still very good and better than almost anything anyone else can write. The evocation of the horrors of the siege of Leningrad is superb. A lighter satirical note, new to Makine's work, is sounded in passages dealing with the literary life of Paris today and the Americanised nouveaux riches of Putin's Russia who are so ghastly as almost to invite feelings of nostalgia for the Soviet days.

After Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall historical novels are suddenly more fashionable than they have been for a long time. The Golden Mean (Atlantic Books, 14.99) by Annabel Lyon, a Canadian novelist, is an outstanding example of the genre. The story of Alexander the Great's youth and education, told by his tutor, the equally great philosopher Aristotle, is quite simply wonderful, the best novel about the ancient world for a long time. She makes the young Alexander completely convincing: attractive, dangerous and disturbed.

I enjoyed two other very different historical novels. Hero of Rome (Bantam, 12.99) by Douglas Jackson tells the story of Boudicca's rebellion from the Roman point of view. It is well researched and the narrative is gripping, Jackson being excellent in his battle-scenes. To Kill A Tsar (John Murray, 18.99) by Andrew Williams takes us very convincingly into the world of idealistic terrorists seeking to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of a British doctor resident in St Petersburg. The atmosphere of time and place is finely realised and the plot is compelling. Best of all, however, is the moral discrimination with which Williams presents his terrorists to us, showing how high ideals may be corrupted by what is perceived to be necessity.

The Anonymous Novel (Vagabond Voices, 14.50) by Alessandro Barbero is quite remarkable. Barbero is a historian as well as a novelist, author of a biography of Charlemagne and a notable work on the disastrous battle of Adrianople. This book, however, purports to be written by a Russian novelist, a dissident in the Soviet years. It is both a crime novel and a political novel, and it reads so authentically that it would never have occurred to me that the author wasn't Russian if I hadn't happened to meet Barbero some years ago at a book festival in Tuscany.

I don't know how many novels Francis King has published, but the first appeared in 1949. This makes the continuing vitality of Cold Snap (Arcadia Books, 11.99) extraordinary. The story of a love affair between a German prisoner-of-war and an English student in the chill of a post-war Oxford winter, it is beautifully written and very moving.

Robert Edric is one of England's best living novelists, far less celebrated that he should be. This is partly perhaps because he lives in the north of England and doesn't belong to literary London, partly because he is a writer who demands the reader's close attention, and partly because, despite an unmistakable voice, each new novel is a departure, very different in theme and setting from its predecessor. Salvage (Doubleday, 16.99) starts, as it were, with the questions: what if the worst predictions about climate change come true? What would England be like then? The result is a dystopia which Edric's penetrating imagination makes all too credible.

And two other novels by established writers also don't seem to be given their due. The Misogynist (Bloomsbury, 16.99) by Piers Paul Reid offers a nicely ironic picture of modern morality. Nicholas Shakespeare's Inheritance (Harvill Secker, 12.99) is a splendid Romance in the Stevensonian sense of the word, moving with assurance from a wildly improbable opening to a reconciliation with things as they truly are.

Some of the most interesting and pleasing novels come nowadays from small publishers - a reflection perhaps of the current state of the book trade. One such was Matthew Yorke's Pictures of Lily (Corsair, 7.99), a convincing and moving portrayal of a troubled young girl; a work of fine energy and real distinction. One hopes it has found a prominent place in bookshops, but fears it hasn't. Certainly it didn't get the notice it deserved.

Comic novels are rarer than they should be, even though Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question won the Booker. Still, there were two good ones: Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky (Bloomsbury, 11.99) and Bestseller (Alma Books, 12.99) by Alessandro Gallenzi, a delightfully wry look at the world of writers and publishers.

Finally, what the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham called "a lollipop" - the pleasing but not entirely serious piece with which he might end a concert or play as an encore. At the Chime of a City Clock (Constable, 12.99) by DJ Taylor. A sort of crime story set in the Thirties, it lovingly employs a wealth of period detail paying homage to writers Taylor admires: Graham Greene, George Orwell, Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross. A feast for the well-read and a thoroughly engaging novel in its own right. Just the thing for the dark days between Childermas and the New Year.

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