With those caveats in place, here’s the selection, in no particular order.
Geoff Dyer’s Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi was striking for its two-part structure, flaneur-like musings and part-droll, part-meditative insights. I haven’t read Dyer before, but this novel makes me even more determined to seek out his other work, especially Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered To Do It.
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence was less experimental than some of his earlier work, but more than made up for it in its depiction of obsessive, quirky love and rendering of Istanbul’s domes, alleyways and modes of thought. The word ‘evocative’, so often over-used in book reviews (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), comes to mind. So does the word ‘masterful’.
Also noteworthy was Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger: a decaying Georgian mansion, fraying class relations in post-WW II Britain and things that go bump in the night, all in one riveting package.
Then, there was J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime. If his earlier Diary of a Bad Year subverted fictional conventions with its parallel-track footnotes, this one goes a step further by taking as its subject one John Coetzee who – or may not – be the author himself. Unsettling, intriguing and, given its aims, very readable.
The universal acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall left me slightly skeptical, but upon reading it, there’s no question that the praise and the prize were very well-deserved. The charged present tense, compelling string of incidents and marvellous detail were expertly handled. I must confess though that on more than one occasion I was assailed by the feeling that a better knowledge of British history on my part would have helped.
Among Indians writing in English, Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo -- a Mughal murder mystery set in 15th century Shahjahanabad featuring the intrepid Muzaffar Jang -- was deft and charming. More please.
To turn to short stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders, in its unsentimental depiction of the landless and the feudal elite in Pakistan, was pitch-perfect and moving. Palash Krishna Mehrotra's Eunuch Park was also impressive, with its cool urbane voice serving as a counterpoint to the pathos of the material. Two other lovely short story collections that came my way in paperback in 2009 were Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage and the handsome Faber edition of Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories. (Which reminds me – heard of a bookshop in Mumbai that stocks her A Gate at the Stairs yet? Thought not. Amazon it is, then.)
In non-fiction, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History managed to be both magisterial and puckish, full of unorthodox readings that either had one slapping one’s forehead for not thinking of them oneself, or – more often – simply reading on in slack-jawed awe.
Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind was also notable for the felicity of her prose and the sparkle of her opinions. To read her on Kafka, on Forster and on Nabokov is to come away with a renewed appreciation of those authors, and as for would-be writers out there, I’d urge you to read her ‘A Crafty Business’. (Though strictly speaking, it’s not a ‘new’ book in the sense that most of these pieces have been published earlier.)
Since I didn’t feel that new work by Toibin, Banville and Trevor – so commendable in so many ways – was among their best and therefore merited inclusion here, I shall now turn to another admirable Irish product, a dram of Jameson’s. With the hope that 2010 affords more hours available to spend with a book, an e-reader or – should it ever materialise – Apple’s netbook.