Books of the year: Fiction

The titles selected by critics as the best of 2009

1. Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel

(Holt, $27)

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It takes a novelist of unusual gifts to turn one of Western history’s most notorious hatchet men into a sympathetic hero, said David Plotz in In Hilary Mantel’s electrifying tale about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the savvy advisor to King Henry VIII is no longer the callous executioner of Thomas More and beady-eyed engineer of England’s break with the Catholic Church. He comes across as “a man of infinite complexity: tolerant, just, loyal, flexible, ruthless, generous, witty, careful, and four steps ahead of the dopey earls and rigid bishops who oppose him.” Spending the whole novel in his company isn’t just a pleasure, it’s “a 560-page man crush.” No reader should be scared off by the prospect of ruff collars and men in tights, said Joan Frank in the San Francisco Chronicle. Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novel “reads the way a great film races”—it’s “a breathtaking, brainy, sexy, political thriller.”

A caveat: Though Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is convincing, said Stephen Greenblatt in The New York Review of Books, it’s probably not accurate.

2. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

by Daniyal Mueenuddin

(Norton, $23.95)

America’s best new short-story writer lives in Pakistan, and in his first book makes that country the center of his world, said Alan Cheuse in the Chicago Tribune. A former New York lawyer, Daniyal Mueenuddin now resides in the southern Punjab on a family farm, which has afforded him “wonderful” insight into all strata of Pakistani culture. The eight linked stories in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders show us a culture that’s both strange to us and immediately recognizable. More striking still is that “from the sentence level to the mastery of complex psychological states,” Mueenuddin’s debut outing shows him to be “as accomplished as any young writer working today.” On “every page,” said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, “there are wonderful, surprising observations and details.”

A caveat: If I really think about it, says Dirda, I can name one moment in one story that doesn’t ring true.

3. A Gate at the Stairs

by Lorrie Moore

(Knopf, $25.95)

Lorrie Moore’s “incisively funny,” sneakily profound novel is “difficult to pin down,” said Yvonne Zipp in The Christian Science Monitor. On the surface, it’s simply a coming-of-age story about a bright but inexperienced college student hired to care for the adopted biracial child of a liberal white couple. But Moore, who is “one of the finest short-story writers in North America,” segues from her ambling and amiable opening to finish with “a guided tour” of grief. “Get ready to expand your idea of what a novel can do,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. The “bemused observations” of Moore’s heroine at first merely reawaken us to how “baffling, hilarious, and brutal” the initiation to adulthood can be. Eventually, though, that humor lures us into the “surreal boundaries” of experience, where people do things “we can’t believe anyone would do.”

A caveat: Moore’s wordplay can become “too clever by half,” said Charles.

4. Await Your Reply

by Dan Chaon

(Ballantine, $25)

This “clever, insinuating” novel nicely “bridges the gap” between literary and pulp fiction, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “Nobody is exactly who he or she first appears to be” in the three narrative strands that Dan Chaon braids together. We see a young man leave his family to join his biological father in a counterfeiting business. We see a young woman run off with her high school history teacher. We see a brother head to the Arctic Circle to find his twin. Ultimately, Chaon’s purpose is to show that we live in a world where identity is unknowable. The “brilliance” of Await Your Reply is that all of its scams, deceptions, and even its violence “feel organic,” said Karen R. Long in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “This is adult stuff,” an entertainment that “seeks the truth” even when it sometimes repels us.

A caveat: In his “awkward” attempt to reach a mass audience, said Alexander Cuadros in The Boston Globe, Chaon too often introduces plot twists that are “hard to swallow.”

5. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

(Pantheon, $24)

Geoff Dyer’s latest novel is as “unclassifiable” as it is “unforgettable,” said Penny Allen in the Portland Sunday Oregonian. Split into two seemingly unrelated stories, it first follows a jaded journalist named Jeff to the Venice Biennale as he fights off boredom with Bellinis, cocaine, and a brief, lusty romance with a beautiful woman. That story done, the novel then becomes the chronicle of an unnamed journalist’s sojourn to the holiest of India’s holy cities. Dyer is a brilliant observer, capable of “writing wonderfully about anything, or nothing at all,” and gradually the reader intuits that the book’s two halves actually tell the same story “cosmologically transformed.” In both his fiction and nonfiction, Dyer “delights in producing books that are unique,” said James Wood in The New Yorker. Once again, he’s created a volume that will always belong to a genre of one.

A caveat: Because it suggests that happy endings are not possible, Dyer’s virtuosic novel feels “stony at the heart,” said Jan Morris in the London Guardian.

How the books were chosen

Rankings are based on end-of-year recommendations published by The Atlantic Monthly,, the Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Kansas City Star, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Publishers Weekly,,, Time, and The Washington Post.

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