Fiction books of the year – review

From Lionel Shriver on older brothers to the latest Donna Tartt, we pick the best fiction books in the 'year of the doorstop'

One of the most exciting and infuriating books I have read this year is Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins), a very funny, ultra-original tour de force about a woman's relationship with her obese older brother. Loosely based on Shriver's own "big brother" (he died in his 50s), it plays on the "what if?" themes Shriver covers so perfectly. What if you had a sibling in that condition? Is it wrong to intervene? Or wrong not to? It has an extraordinary narrative twist that had me throwing the book across the room in disbelief and reluctant admiration.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (Doubleday), the "novel about psychic twins which is not really about psychic twins", is a must-read: it's the best dissection of a life spent among small children I've ever read. Equally original and daring is Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs (Virago), an extraordinarily brilliant book, fizzing with anger and wit, which reminded me of the energy of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal (even though the ending made me very cross).

For an elegant meditation on war and its impact on family life, Elizabeth Day's lyrical Home Fires (Bloomsbury) comes highly recommended. Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings (Chatto & Windus) is a complex, cleverly interwoven analysis of the moment when the lives of six friends begin to unravel. Mark Lawson's The Deaths (Picador) is a must for anyone who hates their own obsession with Waitrose, a satire on Middle England where "every home is almost a village of its own".

Unexploded by Alison Macleod (Hamish Hamilton) is a quietly poetic deconstruction of a marriage imploding in Brighton during the second world war. Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury) is a madcap revision of Richard Coeur de Lion: think The Da Vinci Code for intellectuals. Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant (Virago) is a wonderful reimagining of the lives of the Borgias.

And, if you must have another doorstop in the year of the doorstop (after Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the Booker), then go for Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (Little, Brown): a literary page-turner about love, betrayal and the art world. My own 500-pager of choice? Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things (Bloomsbury). Don't read anything about it (spoilers are too easy with this novel), just read it. In some ways 19th-century botanist Alma Whittaker sees all life has to offer. In other ways she gets trapped in a binding closet. Hugely enjoyable.

From the Costa shortlist, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell (Headline) is a reliably great read, like all her books. This is the saga of an Irish family in London set in 1976. O'Farrell has a wonderful ear for dialogue and an eye for the irritating quirks of domestic life. Far less cheering but just as much of a page-turner is All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape), a weird and wonderful novel about isolation, memory and a dog called Dog. It tells the story of a young woman trying to run away from a complicated past. She ends up on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain, tending sheep which keep mysteriously disappearing.

Of all the novels on the prize shortlists, I most loved two books which have been around for a while and are now in paperback. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Phoenix House, shortlisted: Baileys prize), is a dazzling comic novel about a misunderstood architect. It's an eccentric and brilliantly accomplished story with a real screenplay quality to it. Just as funny (and just as American) is May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (Granta, winner: Baileys prize), a hilariously clever analysis of two brothers. Of the two, AM Homes has more serious aims and her work just gets better. Great stocking fillers. Or get AM Homes's whole back catalogue for a more substantial gift.


Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Best holiday reads 2016
From gripping fiction to history, brilliant poetry to biography, our guest contributors offer their recommendations for the beach and elsewhere

The Observer

10, Jul, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Art books of the year – review

Bulky books on ecclesiastical spoils and the racy side of the Renaissance offered contrasting thrills, while an art deco history was chilling, writes Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

08, Dec, 2013 @9:30 AM

Article image
History books of the year – review

From Bill Bryson on a single year to Simon Schama at his very best, 2013 was a fine year for history books, writes Ben Shephard

Ben Shephard

08, Dec, 2013 @10:00 AM

Article image
Architecture books of the year – review

In an age of austerity and dwindling resources, there's no shortage of big, beautiful books about all kinds of buildings, writes Rowan Moore

Rowan Moore

08, Dec, 2013 @9:30 AM

Article image
Science books of the year – review

From Mark Miodownik's splendid study of materials to the also-rans of the A-bomb race, Robin McKie's pick of 2013's science writing

Robin McKie

08, Dec, 2013 @10:30 AM

Article image
Psychology books of the year – review

Books with a literary or philosophical angle gained the ascendancy in 2013 after a period of domination by the neuroscientists, writes Lisa Appignanesi

Lisa Appignanesi

08, Dec, 2013 @10:30 AM

Article image
Graphic books of the year – review

Stark images of the Somme, overheard mobile phone chat and an Art Spiegelman retrospective are among Rachel Cooke's highlights in a great year for comics and graphic novels

Rachel Cooke

09, Dec, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
Photography books of the year – review

Retrospectives by Sergio Larrain and Garry Winogrand contrasted with bold modern takes on London's streets, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

09, Dec, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
Biographies of the year – review

Heavyweight studies of Margaret Thatcher and Laurence Olivier were standouts but the real gem was a life of an Italian poet, showman and fantasist, writes Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

08, Dec, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Observer's books of the year

Writers, Observer critics and others tell us their favourite reads of 2013 – and what they hope to find under the tree

The Observer

24, Nov, 2013 @12:05 AM