The ten novels I liked best in 2011, one of which was actually published in 2011.
10. The Summer That Never Was / Peter Robinson
Once or twice a year, I want to be comforted by crime fiction, by a detective who sets things right, and importantly, Robinson writes page-turning, well-plotted fiction about Inspector Banks without the cringeworthy prose of others I’ve tried.
9. The Bloodstone Papers / Glen Duncan
A sharply written novel about an Anglo-Indian man and the legacy of his parents. Duncan is one of those precious writers who get to the essence of things, his sentences giving frequent small thrills of insight.
8. The Historian / Elizabeth Kostova
Three generations of researchers at different times in the twentieth century search through archives across Europe for clues to the whereabouts of Dracula’s tomb. A bibliophilic thriller following its questers through ancient libraries and monasteries.
7. Due Preparations for the Plague / Jeanette Turner-Hospital
Years later, the events around the hijacking of a plane and the deaths of all the adults aboard still haunt the child survivors and relatives. It starts so well that I thought this would be a brilliant novel about living in the aftermath of grief; her prose is distinctive and her characters fascinating. Yet the novel falls apart in the second half, the worst section being an excruciatingly unrealistic transcript of the victims’ final speeches.
6. To Your Scattered Bodies Go / Philip Jose Farmer
The kind of science fiction I read as a teenager and I wish I still did more often. It is the first of the Riverworld sequence, as everyone who ever lives finds themselves resurrected in a strange world without explanation.
5. The Ghostwriter / John Harwood
A quaint and fascinating ghost story by the son of the poet Gwen Harwood. The prose is beautiful and the story a strange and unexpected one, as a shy librarian uncovers the truth about his mother’s past and his own mysterious penfriend.
4. Swann: A Mystery / Carol Shields
Swann is simultaneously a sharp satire and an engaging drama about the minor industry of publishers, tourism, and academics which springs up around the poems of an untalented murdered farmer’s wife.
3. The Stranger’s Child / Alan Hollinghurst
I read this novel twice because I’m discussing it in my dissertation, and it holds up well. The changing reactions to a minor war poet’s work over the century after World War One are used to create a novel of the changing fabric of British society and its attitude toward remembering and toward homosexuality. It’s a big novel and yet also an intimate one.
2. Runaway / Alice Munro
These stories were perfect, and moved me deeply, yet months on I can’t remember them clearly, which is why I can’t give the collection the top spot.
1. The Poisonwood Bible / Barbara Kingsolver
I haven’t even finished this book yet; I’m listening to it on tape and I’m not in the car alone enough over the holidays. But I have nearly finished it and I declare it to be brilliant: the story of the daughters and wife of a missionary in Congo in the late 1950s and the long shadow that time casts over the lives of these women. Kingsolver’s achievement is immense, narrating the novel with five distinct, compelling voices, creating characters I feel I know and love.