2011: The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 30, 2011
In my life, 2011 will go down as the year of extremes. On the one hand I lost two amazing people in my life, one truly tragically, and had a close call with a third. On the other I had my first story published in an annual publication that I love and have been reading for years, and then saw another of my stories (that just happens to be the prologue to a book I've been working on forever) win The Age Short Story Award . Plus, just as the year was drawing to a close, I got Louie, my stupidly adorable, vicious, man-eating Toy Poodle puppy who will be keeping my toes company as I sit at my desk and write over the coming years.

Throughout it all I managed to get through 151 books, many of them quite exceptional. I probably could have made a Top 30, but I annoy you with my rambling as it is so I'm trying to keep it short. Tomorrow I will be revealing my book of the year, but for now here's my Top 10, books 10 through 2.

10. The Submission by Amy Waldman. Ten years after the fact, we finally have the first almost-great American post-911 novel. From the simplest of premises - a Muslim wins the competition to design the memorial at Ground Zero - Waldman weaves a startling examination of grief, fear and the complexities of healing. Although mired by a clunky ending, The Submission is a well-rounded, thought-provoking work from a debut novelist to watch.

9. Pure by Andrew Miller. I'd put Miller's debut, Ingenious Pain, amongst my favourite novels of all time. Its follow-up, Casanova In Love, was so appalling that it appeared to put Miller off historical fiction for good. Thankfully, after three mediocre contemporary tales, he's finally dipped his toe back in the historical pond, because this story of the late-19th century exhumation of an entire cemetery in the centre of Pairs was an absolute winner. Criminally overlooked by Dame Stella's Booker mob.

8. The Postmortal by Drew Magary. Debut novels really were the go this year and The Postmortal was easily the most absurd of the lot. Magary depicts an hilariously horrible future in which a cure has been found for ageing and death becomes a highly-prized niche product. Like The Submission it was hampered by an unremarkable denouement, but the complex totality of the future Magary imagines made any hiccups easily forgivable.

7. Cain by Jose Saramago. The late, great Portugeuese scoundrel went out with a bang thanks to this middle finger reinterpretation of The Bible. Often hilarious, always daring, Cain was Saramago at his very best.

6. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. Another debut, another winner. Deliciously twisted family tale of performance artists using their children as props. The stunts work (for the most part) and the consequent derailment of the children's lives make for a frighteningly funny read.

5. Caribou Island by David Vann. Unremittingly bleak family saga from Alaska's answer to Cormac McCarthy. Vann delivered on the promise of his debut linked story collection Legend of A Suicide with a novel as cold and unforgiving as the frozen wasteland in which it is set.

4. Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teule. The shortest book on this list, but still one of the best, Jean Teule draws upon the real life tale of a town whipped into murderous frenzy during the Napoleonic wars. Not too far a stretch to find parallels with the current state of the world this can be read as warning against nationalistic excess as much as a comedy of awful errors.

3. I Hate Martin Amis Et Al by Peter Barry. As I said in my review, you have to have serious cojones to give your book a title like this. A weird amalgamation of anti-publishing industry tirade and Balkan War adventure story, it's hard to believe that this could possibly work. It does. Spectacularly.

2. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. I'm not 100% certain that this isn't actually a 2010 book, but it came out in Australia this year so I'm going to let it go through to the keeper. A deeply moving exploration of the ongoing effects of childhood loss, The Fates Will Find Their Way resonates in much the same way as Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but is by far the more exceptional book. And did I mention that, once again, it's a debut!


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