Of the 23 books I’ve reviewed in 2009, two novels stand out unambiguously. The best non-fiction titles are less clear, but it’s possible to make a tentative selection.
The top novel for me was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Vintage), and it was also the best book I read in 2009. It’s a feat of synthesis and evocation, and its guiding principles are aesthetic and stylistic rather than historical or social. Nostalgia, comedy and melancholy mix, and although the ostensible subject is cricket as played in New York City, the book also encapsulates confidence tricksters, an androgynous waif, a public procession, Holland, India and the London Eye. But it’s a love of New York that dominates the book, leading some critics to dub it the best thing that’s happened to US fiction in a decade.
Second came Ian Buruma’s The China Lover (Penguin, US). It follows the career, in fictional form, of the endlessly re-inventing Yoshiko Yamaguchi (aka Otaka Yoshiko, Shirley Yamaguchi, Ri Koran and Li Xianglan), film star and receiver of Japanese cinema’s first ever on-screen kiss. Using three different narrators, seasoned Japanophile Buruma depicts both the performer and the country with a perceptive affection, seeing both as capable of remarkable feats of self-renewal, and surveying half a century of Japanese cinema in the process. It’s a skillful balancing act, essentially researched history but highly competent as fiction as well. And Buruma’s knowledge of Japan is so extensive that he brings off the transformation with aplomb.
Political books about Asia made a strong showing. Mike Chinoy’s Meltdown (St Martin’s Press) is an account of relations between the US and North Korea, something Chinoy witnessed in person as a Korean-speaker and longtime correspondent in the region. It’s heavily critical of the handling of the situation by former US president George W. Bush’s administration, but also contains a large amount of information on North Korea over the last 20 years, together with many insights backed up by an in-depth understanding.
Lastly, Xianhui Yang’s (楊顯惠) Woman From Shanghai (上海女人—中國勞改場倖存者的故事) (Pantheon) is a heart-wrenching but highly readable account of one of China’s re-education camps for “Rightists” during the late 1950s. Told through the mouths of former inmates lucky enough to have survived (most didn’t), it’s shaped as 13 short stories, each as vivid as it is horrific. It’s the debut in English of revelations that first rocked China several years ago.
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