The Best Fiction Books of 2005

by PopMatters Staff

3 January 2006


by Ian McEwan

>(Nan A. Talese)

“Perhaps it’s one of those cases of a microcosm giving you the whole world,” ponders Henry Perowne, the hero in Ian McEwan’s powerful novel, Saturday. Perowne is referring to his son’s fascination with the Blues, but the statement also charts Saturday‘s grand ambition: to show the plight of the West after 9/11 through a day in the life of one man. Perowne’s London world is a cosseted one; he’s a successful neurosurgeon, loving husband, proud father, and — how can you blame him? — a bit smug. But on this particular Saturday, while anti-war protesters are flooding the streets, a series of unusual events — a burning plane crosses the sky, a run-in with an aggressive thug — throw that world, and Perowne’s view of it, into question. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, Saturday‘s important exploration of moral responsibility, both on an individual and international scale, becomes all the more hauntingly resonant.
Ratha Tep PopMatters review Amazon

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)
by J.K. Rowling


J.K. Rowling took it up another notch with The Half-Blood Prince. Almost unexpectedly bleak, the sixth book in her record setting series is her best yet. The ultimately comforting boarding school hi jinx have been replaced by a suffocating sense of foreboding and the desperate unhappiness of a society at war with itself. The skies are growing necessarily darker as the final deadly conflict looms, and the humor is blackening steadily to suit. Of course, Harry, Ron and Hermione must still cope with all the pressures of their teenage years, but they hardly have time to count their spots, let alone paint their bedrooms black and get into the Cure, as Voldemort’s armies begin to gather strength and exercise their growing magic muscle. Of course, the surprising death at the end of The Half-Blood Prince leaves you wanting more, and hoping for the redemption and the resurrection that the clues seem to suggest will come. Whatever happens next, one thing’s for sure: book seven will be bigger than the Beatles.
Roger Holland PopMatters review Amazon

Willful Creatures
by Aimee Bender


Aimee Bender once again proves herself a master of the contemporary short story. Willful Creatures, her second collection, confirms her as one of the most imaginative and innovative writers around, constantly pushing boundaries as she explores the dark side of the human psyche. Willful Creatures is far more sadistic than The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which romped and played much more than it bit. While Bender trades in some of her fantasy fiction for more straightforward realism, her stories here lose none of their magic. Even when she writes from the perspective of slightly deranged protagonists, Bender’s prose is sugar and spice with broken glass mixed in. “Debbieland” experiments with a first-person plural voice that explains why a character named Debbie has to be beaten up: “Debbie wore the skirt because she’d seen enough people wear it to know it was okay. She wore the scary skirt safely. For that, we despise Debbie.” “Fruit and Words” imagines a convenience store that sells word shapes made out of their referents. “Motherfucker” tells the story of a motherfucker who teaches a movie-star mother how to fuck. Bender’s twisted sense of humor is only amplified by the simplistic prose in which she injects it.
Megan Milks PopMatters review Amazon

Lunar Park
by Bret Easton Ellis


Lunar Park is one of the more ingenious feats of literary prestidigitation I’ve seen in quite some time. The first chunk of the book — roughly the first third — places the reader in familiar territory, deep in the heart of Ellis’ peculiarly amoral and at times hysterically disassociative universe. Despite Ellis’ unquestioned brilliance as a prose stylist, the reader wearies, mentally girding themselves for another dose of Gothic modernity in the vein of American Psycho and Glamorama. But then, something strange happens: Lunar Park, far from merely a tired recapitulation of Ellis’ fascination with societal pathology, evolves into something much more intimate and affecting. While the readers’ eyes are glued to the leering specter of Patrick Bateman and all the sociopathic baggage of a career spent plumbing the worst excesses of human depravity, Ellis quietly transforms his narrative into a quest for redemption and an affirmation of the most basic human values — love, family and filial affection. By exercising his essential human right to honest regret, Ellis exploits the only taboo left unmolested in his shock-defined career. He emerges from Lunar Park reinvigorated and redefined.
Tim O’Neil PopMatters review Amazon

On Beauty
by Zadie Smith


While almost every book explores, to some extent, human commonality and belonging, few focus on who we are not and how we are different as explicitly or as honestly as Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Set in a white, upper-class northeastern college town, On Beauty explores the relationships of Howard Belsey, a liberal, white, middle-aged mediocre professor, his black, obese hospital administrator wife Kiki, and their three children, each struggling to negotiate their blackness while navigating the ways they can differentiate themselves — physically, politically, religiously, intellectually, and economically — from their parents and one another. Complicating matters for the Belsey clan are Howard’s tryst with a university colleague and the arrival of Howard’s more successful, conservative arch nemesis, Monte Kipps, and his picture-perfect family. Her novel rife with allusions to and contemporary adaptations of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, 30-year-old Smith skillfully charts the dissolution of a 30-year marriage with the acumen of a much older sage while exploring the Belsey children’s comings of age with an authentic youthfulness. As the book draws to a close, this rare combination of wisdom and youth enables Smith to the possibility that our fates are tied as much to our differences as our similarities. Ushering in countless questions about who we are and aren’t with her brilliant wit and spellbinding prose, Smith has ensured that On Beauty is one for the ages — all ages, colors, and creeds.
Laura Nathan PopMatters review Amazon

by Mary Gaitskill


Mary Gaitskill pokes holes in the glitzy façade of the fashion world with this melancholy tale of beauty, aging, and friendship. Her notoriously dark and sexually adventurous writing has matured in this lyrical reflection on the physical, by way of the ‘80s fashion scene and its stream of coke binges, endless parties, and beautiful young things. The middle-aged Alison, now crippled with an injured arm and hepatitis C, recalls her teen years spent living fast as one of the up-and-coming models in Paris. She returns to New York, still young and radiant, yet she never truly breaks through, and holds down a succession of jobs in the meantime while attempting to find work modeling. Central to the narrative is Alison’s conflicted relationship with Veronica, who is HIV positive, awkward, yet comfortable in her skin, and whose lack of beauty and hipness triggers both pity and disdain from Alison. There’s promise of redemption in her friendship with Veronica, whom she has in some ways become closer to through her own faded beauty and suffering.
Anne Yoder PopMatters review Amazon

by Scarlett Thomas

>(Harvest Books)

PopCo is perhaps the most original novel I’ve read this year, equal parts cryptanalysis, detective caper, and marketing strategy. Scarlett Thomas, in her third novel, gives us a protagonist whose job it is to generate brand ideas for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world. After Alice Butler, an observant outsider type, is selected by PopCo to develop a product to market to teen girls, she is distracted by encoded messages that suggest someone is following her. The novel, written from Alice’s point of view, is like the movie Pi crossed with No Logo and written with a girl-detective slant that’s smarter than everyone’s favorite, Nancy Drew.
Megan Milks Amazon

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li

>(Random House)

The undercurrent running through A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is Communist China, and its intelligent, assured author, Yiyun Li, deftly shows the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which it pervades the lives of her Chinese and Chinese American characters. But it’s not just the immense subject matter she takes on that’s admirable, but also the astoundingly original ways in which she goes about doing so. In the title story, written in a quiet and understated prose, an elderly man visiting his grown-up daughter in the U.S. rediscovers how to talk openly—with a Persian woman who barely understands him. In the beautifully lyrical and gutsy “Persimmons,” anonymous, communal voices talk in layers, slowly shaving away to tell the story of the senseless death of a fellow villager’s son at the hands of the county judge. Glaringly honest and deeply perceptive, Li has delivered a revelatory debut collection.
Ratha Tep Amazon

We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories
by Owen King


A hell of a debut, Owen King’s book is a blending of the real and the surreal within our present world. He deconstructs with little effort but tremendous impact our varied alliances within our families, friend groups, and our government. This is a biting and original work, with only a few hints of King’s genealogy mainly to do with his earnestness and stark imagery. Straight out of the gate, though, this King has proven himself a writer worth watching for his own clear talent.
Nikki Tranter Amazon

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