The best Asian books of 2014

Hanif Kureishi will discuss his controversial novel The Last Word at The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literary Festival

Hanif Kureishi discussed his controversial novel The Last Word at The 2014 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literary Festival

The best Asian books of 2014

07 January 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

2014 saw a plethora of good fiction titles emerging from Asia, which offset a shortage of  choice in the non-fiction Asian market. Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld reflects on the most talked about of these books.

Fans of Asian fiction were spoilt for choice in 2014, with the year bringing a mixture of new novels from established authors and impressive entries from lesser-known ones.

Grabbing a slot on the hugely competitive Man Booker Prize 2014 shortlist was Neel Mukherjee’s fantastic second novel The Lives of Others. In this book Mukherjee’s command of storytelling was displayed in all its glory as he looked at the heart-breaking tale of a family in 1960s Calcutta.

The wait was over for fans of contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which sold over one million copies during its first week in Japan alone in 2013, was translated into English in 2014. Whilst it did not produce quite the same satisfaction as early classics such as Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it was nevertheless signature Murakami – mind-bending plots suffused with cultural references.

Indian-administered Kashmir-born Mirza Waheed of The Collaborator fame delighted readers with his second book, The Book of Gold Leaves. What started as a somewhat clichéd love story set in the war-torn region soon turned into an intelligent, gripping read, building in anticipation with each page.

Meanwhile, new talent Susan Barker took readers’ imagination on a tour through some of China’s most dramatic historical periods with The Incarnations, which tells the story of a 21st century Beijing taxi driver who is haunted by a mysterious someone professing to be his soulmate. Read an interview with Barker here to discover more about both the author and the book.

Moving West, the darling of Turkey’s literary scene, Elif Shafak, produced a magical story with The Architect’s Apprentice. In her tale, which starts in the 16th century, Shafak reconstructs the glorious Ottoman Empire and uses its architecture as a metaphor on how lives are built and, in some cases, destroyed.

Transnationalism was our Arts & Learning theme in 2014. Asia House was privileged to feature literary superstar Hanif Kureishi on the opening night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, who spoke about his latest book The Last Word – a hilarious and innuendo-infused account of an Indian-born writer’s relationship with a British biographer in rural Somerset.

Chinese-British novelist Xiaolu Guo’s boldly titled I Am China also witnessed the coming together of different cultures. Leaving the theme of love behind, which was the centre of her acclaimed A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, Guo’s latest book was a more sombre read, which looked at one of China’s biggest battlegrounds, free speech, and how it manifests in a globalised context.

Another one of China’s most prominent writers also emerged from the shadows in 2014. Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants, continued her gritty style with Kinder Than Solitude, a tale of attempted murder, power and corruption set between America today and China in the 1990s.

Over on the non-fiction side, most literary eyes were focused on the anniversary of the start of World War I and Asian material took a bit of a back seat. That did not mean 2014 was totally starved of good non-fiction though. Author and journalist Elizabeth Pisani certainly provided an indispensable guide to Indonesia in Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, highlighting the country’s myriad contradictions through fact and anecdote.

Publisher Zed Books had a riot in 2014, producing a series of widely talked about Asian reads. First there was Leta Hong Fincher’s academic but chatty Leftover Women, which challenged the popular notion that women have fared well under the market reforms of modern China. Then there was Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis, a controversial look at the recent political upheaval in Thailand.

Finally, American writer Evan Osnos, who reported for the New Yorker for years from Beijing, released his hotly anticipated first book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. Using crisp prose, Osnos pulled together a variety of themes from conversations had and observations made during his eight-year stint in China, to paint of picture of a country – China – on the brink of greatness – and upheaval.

To see the Asia House Pinterest board of these books click here.

Our next literature event at Asia House is on 27 January when Bidisha will discuss her new book  Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, with Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council. For more information click here. 

On 3 February a panel of distinguished authors who have all contributed to a newly published Penguin China series of short histories on the economic and social costs that the First World War brought to China, will come to Asia House to share their insights on China’s forgotten contribution to the Great War. Click here for more information.