It's that time of year for looking back, so here are five of the books I most enjoyed reading in 2011. All of them received their first UK publication this year.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Rose Edelstein is on the verge of turning nine when she discovers that, whenever she eats something, she can taste the feelings of the person who made it. At that particular moment, she's tucking into is a piece of the birthday cake her mother has made, and Rose can sense hollowness; this is the first sign of the troubles within the Edelstein family which form the basis of Bender's novel. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a beautifully nuanced portrait of its characters, but what makes it so great is that it works just as well whether read metaphorically or literally.
We Had It So Good by Linda Grant
American Stephen Rhodes gains a scholarship at Oxford in the 1960s, but is shortly expelled; he marries Andrea, an English girl he met at university, as a way to remain in the UK and so avoid being drafted to Vietnam. The novel is then a portrait of the couple's married life, also touching on the lives of their children and parents. Central is the notion of life's decisions having broader, perhaps unanticipated, consequences (this is mirrored in the book's non-linear, episodic structure, as individual narrative snapshots coalesce into a larger portrait of the generations); and the distance between then and now, even within a single life. I found We Had It So Good to be sharply observed and insightful.
Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit
A novel in the form of a walking guide. Graham Underhill is a rambler and writer whose wife has gone missing; the novel is a chronicle of his search for her, with Underhill's personal life increasingly intruding upon the conventions of the guidebook format. Amusing though this is, what takes it beyond a mere gimmick is the way that Segnit uses the rambling-guide structure as a means of characterisation: that structure represents Underhill's attempt to impose order on the world; and, when his voice slips into a more novelistic register, it's a mark of his increasing desperation to hold on to any sort of stability. This is a rich first novel that leaves me with a sense that its author could take his career in any direction, and keen to see what he chooses.
Everyone's Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
One of the two best short story collections I read in 2011 (the other being Shearman's own Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical), Everyone's Just So So Special intertwines the strange and the everyday in a broad examination of the relationship between individuals and the grand sweep of history. One story asks whether history is the sum of our memories, and what then happens if we start to forget; but others see reality itself warping around their characters. Elsewhere, the tale of a lecturer's relationship with a student obsessed with her own romantic image of Russia reveals that both characters are constructing their own realities. The changing nature of self is examined in the story of a woman who literally sheds her skin with each passing year. Whether the characters are special or not, Shearman's collection certainly is.
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood
Another fine debut novel, this one set in a divergent history where the Church gained political power in 1950, and members of the Secular Movement were banished to an island off the English coast. Now, in 1986, an English girl named Sarah Wicks travels in secret to 'the Island' in the hope of finding her mother, whom she believes to be there. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, who falls in love with her and tries to keep her hidden from his fellow-members of the Malades, a gang of boys determined to root out any English spies. There's a wonderful sense of place about Wood's novel, and the author treats the issue of faith with subtlety: whatever differences of politics or belief underlay their parents' opposition to the Church, it's different for the young Islanders, because they have no experience of religion and don't know what it is - more than anything, they oppose it because that is Island tradition, and because religion represents the antithesis of the wild freedom they enjoy. The ending of The Godless Boys is brilliantly tense, and the whole book marks Wood out as an author to watch.