Fiction of the year: 2012 was a year that made history

Booker Prize winner Hillary Mantel. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Booker Prize winner Hillary Mantel. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT WAS once again Hilary Mantel’s year, as she again scooped the Man Booker with the second book in her Cromwell trilogy, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20).

Will she win a Triple Crown with the last volume? Future Booker judges will be severely tested. Meanwhile her achievement has been such that Thomas Cromwell is now probably better known to more people than Oliver Cromwell.

Nevertheless it wasn’t only Mantel’s year. There were lots of other fine novels. Certainly more good ones came my way than bad – a reflection in part on the discriminating taste of our literary editor. Some of the best weren’t of course eligible for the Booker. Ron Rash, for instance, is the best American novelist I have come upon in recent years; The Cove (Canongate, £14.99), set in the backwoods of Madison County, North Carolina during the 1914-18 war, is short, intense and dramatic. The setting invites comparison’s with Faulkner, though Rash’s style is much more direct.

Where I left My Soul by Jerome Ferrari (Maclehose Press, £12) is a short novel more admirable than enjoyable, but one that you can’t get out of your head. A study of torture, and its effects on both the tortured and the torturers, the characters officers of the French Army during the Algerian war, it invites questions that can have only uncomfortable answers.

There were two novels I was surprised not to see on the Man Booker short-list: The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown, £16.99), and AN Wilson’s The Potter’s Hand (Atlantic Books, £17.99). Mawer’s novel about a SOE agent in war-time France is enviably good, and the picture of wartime Paris as a city where no -one can be trusted and everyone has something to fear, is chilling. Wilson’s loose baggy novel about Josiah Wedgwood, the early stages of industrialism, and the influence of Enlightenment ideas, is a delight, easy reading that is the result of deep research, high intelligence, and a masterly style.

It is no longer rare for good novels to come from small publishers. One such was Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul (Sandstone, £8.99) by Canadian author David Adams Richards. Though he is highly esteemed in Canada, winner of the Governor-General’s Fiction Prize, this murder mystery which is also a study of deprivation, the injustice that springs from prejudice and hysteria, escaped the notice of metropolitan publishers, and came to us from Sandstone Press in Dingwall. Good for them.

All reviewers are happy to find a good first novel by an author of whom they know little. One such that came to my attention this year was by Stuart Evers. Entitled, If This Is Home (Picador, £12.99), is a story of lost love, dislocation, an attempt to flee the past. It is perceptive and beautifully written. “He was in his late thirties and his white-toothed grin looked stolen from a magazine”. Raymond Chandler would have been happy to have written that sentence.

David Park, from Ulster, is an established novelist, The Light of Amsterdam (Bloomsbury, £11.99) being his eighth book. A description of it might sound bleak, the themes being missed opportunities, loneliness and doubt. Yet this account of a weekend cheap flight excursion from Belfast to Amsterdam isn’t bleak at all, a reminder that the success of a novel depends less on the material than on what the author does with it.

We tend here in Scotland sometimes to disregard Scottish novelists who have the temerity to set their books out of Scotland. One such is Andrew Nicoll. If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead (Quercus, £12.99) is a splendid tall story, based on the tale of a German acrobat who claimed that he had managed to get himself crowned King of Albania in 1913. Nicoll is a natural story-teller, not as common a quality among novelist as might be supposed, and the narrator’s voice is captured splendidly. Written with zest, and enormous fun.

Chris Dolan doesn’t apparently have Nicoll’s happy fluency, it being 30 years since he first happened on stories of Scots living as poor whites in the West Indies before he at last got round to writing Redlegs (Vagabond Voices, £9.95). The long wait was worthwhile. Dolan handles big scenes with authority and has a keen eye for the significant detail.

The Nobel prize-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was doubtless attracted to the story of the Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement, hanged for treason after the Easter Rising, by Casement’s record as a investigator of the horrible abuse of native people in the Congo and Peru. The Dream of the Celt (Faber & Faber, £18.99) is solid, workmanlike, dutiful, somewhat lacking in flair. Probably he doesn’t get to the heart of the man – nobody has – and the treatment of Casement’s conversion to Irish Nationalism is a bit unquestioning. On the other hand the record of his work in Peru, probably little known to most readers here, is a dreadful story of man’s inhumanity to man.

Casement’s wartime activities in the Kaiser’s Germany feature also in Andrew Williams’s spy thriller The Poison Tide (John Murray, £17.99), though most of the novel is set in the US. Williams is establishing himself as the master of the historical thriller in which real-life events and characters are given a fictional twist or gloss. This novel is every bit as good as its predecessor, To Kill a Tsar.

Real history is one things, counter-factual history a fashionable other. Many of us must have wondered how things might have turned out if we had made peace with Hitler in 1940. CJ Sansom offers an answer in Dominion (Mantle, £18.99). The alternative history of Britain is convincing, and the plot, concerning the work of a unit of the British Resistance, rattles along.

And so to crime: Rebus is back, thank goodness, as awkward, devious and persistent as ever. One didn’t think Ian Rankin could let him go, and Standing In Another Man’s Grave (Orion, £18.99) takes its place happily in the canon. Susan Hill’s Serrailler series of novels are as addictive as Rankin’s, and this year’s offering A Question of Identity (Chatto &, Windus, £16.99 is very good indeed. Hill never allows us to forget that horrible crimes happen in the midst of ordinary life. DJ Taylor’s Second-hand Daylight (Corsair, £14.99)is billed as “a James Ross mystery”, but the crime is really incidental, an excuse for a loving evocation of 1930s Soho. Agreeably seedy with conscious echoes of early Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton.

White collar crime, stupidity and conceit, all contributed to the great financial crash, which is producing nice pickings for novelists. This year we have had CK Stead’s Risk (Maclehose, £16.99) and John Lanchester’s Capital (Faber & Faber, £17.99), both catching the mood of masters of the universe galloping over the precipice. For a real-life historical equivalent, I would recommend Martin Vander Weyer’s gripping account of a great financial scandal and crash immediately after the 1914-18 war. Fortune’s Spear (Elliott & Thompson, £18.99) also shows us company directors as happy to pocket their fees and ask no awkward questions as the non-executive directors of RBS and HBOS seem to have been. The more things change, the more they stay the same.