Not long ago, publishing’s wise old heads bet we would be so preoccupied with defibrillating the American dream at the polls in 2008 we wouldn’t have time to dream in fiction. And they were right. Thanks to the election, and the financial crisis which came to a head this autumn, 2008 saw some of the worst book sales since 9/11.
But still it was a great year for fiction, especially new voices: A long-awaited translation of a great Chilean masterpiece; a melancholic New York novel told by a Dutchman which revolves around cricket; and the latest installment of a mystery series set in Venice. These are just three of the 10 high points in fiction in 2008, any one of which would make a liberating gift this holiday. As it turns out, we don’t have to elect a new president to get a chance to dream: We just need to have the right book.
|The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago Books, $15)
n In a rain-splattered Parisian diner, customers come and go, and Pierre, a 54-year-old veteran bartender wonders if life hasn’t passed him by. This little book is the literary equivalent of Barry Levinson’s film Diner: an elegant meditation on the murky undertow of routine and the odd bedfellows it creates for us.
|His Illegal Self, by Peter Carey (Knopf, $24.95)
Leave it to Peter Carey, Australia’s two-time Booker Prize winning novelist, to capture the hangover of the ’60s revolution through the eyes of a child. Che, the 9-year-old human hot potato at the heart of this tale, runs for The Bush with his guardian and runs into an unglamorous truth about the decade of free love: someone had to raise the children.
|The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $25.95)
Louise Erdrich’s magical new novel revolves around the unsolved murder of a white family and subsequent lynching of a young American Indian boy in retribution. Drawing on her enormous storytelling gifts, she traces the reverberations of these crimes through three generations, as whites and Ojibwe mingle, intermarry, and try to make sense of their collective memory.
|A Better Angel: Stories, by Chris Adrian (FSG, $23)
The heroes and heroines of these tales have a horrific weight about their necks. They are alive and well, and someone they love is not. Adrian, a divinity student and a doctor, has incredible instincts for finding the deepest chords within his characters. He plucks them madly in one haunting tale after another in this must-read collection.
|2666, by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (FSG, $30)
Divided into five sections, which he originally imagined would be published as separate novels, this massive novel by the late Chilean great is a hugely ambitious crime story with more diversions than late Miles Davis. At the heart of it all: the murder and mutilation of female factory workers in an imaginary border town.
|Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, $25)
Ranging in setting from Seattle to suburban Boston, Rome to the clattering streets of Calcutta, Lahiri’s cast of mostly Bengali characters struggle to grow accustomed to their new homes, their new families created by loss sustained in faraway places.
|Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions, $15.95)
The feverish poet who narrates Moya’s devastating novel has one task: to edit the oral histories of torture victims in an unnamed Latin American country. Only he can’t do it. The more he looks at the report, the less sense victims’ testimonies make. All around him, the disregard of his friends feels like insanity.
|A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carré (Scribner, $28)
The man in this book’s title is an illegal Chechen immigrant to Germany. His checkered past attracts the attention of several espionage agencies and keeps this thriller on a knife’s edge of a question: Can a man really be judged by what governments say he is?
|The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon (Grove, $24)
Book by book, expatriate American writer Donna Leon has spun a secret history of Venice. Her 17th Commissario Guido Bruneti book, not surprisingly, is bookended by funerals. In between, she delves into crimes against the Romany, political correctness, and the comforts of family in times of loss in a story so perfectly balanced it feels like it glides on a dark, still-silent waterway.
|Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon, $23.95)
This wholly unexpected novel turns the city once known as New Amsterdam inside out with the tale of a Dutch banker clinging to his crumbling marriage and family in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a fabulous, deeply enjoyable New York story about the fantasies that prop up daily reality—in other words, a deeply New York novel about that deeply American penchant: new beginnings.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.