There's always the pressure, if you write about books, to be constantly on top of the latest fiction, but in 2008 some of my best reading experiences came about as I filled in gaps with things I should have read long before. Some of these books I've written about before so just follow the links back to fuller reviews.
Ian McEwan's Atonement and Nabokov's Lolita ( a reread this) are were both superb, and I think easily weigh in as my favourites of 2008.
Half of a Yellow Sun was another highlight of the year for me, as was We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver' s 2003 novel which (deservedly) took the Orange Prize in 2005.
The novel is narrated by the mother of a boy who has taken part in a mass killing in a high school killing in a series of letters to her estranged husband. The novel is deeply disturbing - not just because of the horror of the ending (the last fifty pages is a ride of white-knuckled terror worthy of a thriller), but because of what it implies about human nature - that a child can be entirely evil from birth even if he is given every opportunity in life and has completely committed parents who try their best to do everything right.
Shriver says in this interview with the BBC's Woman's Hour that the book caused a great deal of debate especially in the US because it broaches one of the last taboos - that parents must love their children and that children are inherently innocent, corrupted by life. She explains that she was really writing from her own fears about having children. (These were, I must say, fears I could strongly identify with myself.) (There's another excellent interview with Shriver at salon.com.)
Another of my books of the year was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dias which took the Pulitzer prize for Fiction this year. I love, as I've said before, "voicy" books : here the narrative voice is especially strong, and there's a terrific energy in the writing. This is a tragi-comic tale of an overweight dude called Oscar who writes fantasy fiction and :
... wore his nerdiness like a jedi wore his light sabre or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for normal if he'd wanted to.Two questions propel us through the narrative - will Oscar manage to get laid? And will he finally manage to beat the fuku or curse which has destroyed lives down the generations? (The story isn't Oscar's alone but embraces a broad sweep of family history both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States.) I also mighty curious to find out who the narrative voice actually belongs to. (For the most part, it turns out to be Yunior, his sister's boyfriend.)
There are copious footnotes - unusual in a contemporary novel -but it's hard to see how Dias could have avoided using them. They provide much necessary background information for those of us who know next to nothing of the Dominican Republic, and add considerably to the texture of the story.
If you want a much better review than you will find here, A.O.Scott's discussion of the book at the New York Times is a real pleasure to read.
I have more bests of the year to come, so hold on!