Literary collisions of past and future

Contemporary British Fiction. First edition
May 28, 2004

The cover image for this collection of essays juxtaposes a background shot of the London Eye with an image of the Victoria Embankment's floridly baroque street architecture. An apposite metaphor for the condition of contemporary British fiction - at once starkly modern and yet insecurely retrospective. The essays explore this contrast through insightful, perceptive and nuanced analysis. This is not a textbook as such, though its scope and breadth suggests that it will be mined for academic course material for years to come. Certainly it is a significant advance in a field under-endowed with fresh material.

The editors bring together a collection of perspectives that amounts to a survey of the most important fiction of the past three decades. Their subjects range from such predictable stalwarts as Angela Carter, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie to the less canonical and edgier A. L. Kennedy, Iain Sinclair and Jim Crace. There are omissions, the most serious being Ian McEwan, but overall the volume is well balanced in conception and eclectic in selection.

Broad thematic blocks identify recent fiction's preoccupation with history, cultural hybridity, the unstable subject and the city space. While each of the 15 essays stands alone as an inquiry into the literary achievement of a single writer, it also contributes to an analysis of the contemporary as the indefinable outcome of the collision between past and future. Indeed this is perhaps the best achievement of the collection: the capturing of the present in all its imprecision and indecipherability.

The editors have provided a snapshot of contemporary British fiction on the millennial cusp. Like all assessments of the contemporary, it will inevitably date. Still, the collection is a landmark in the critical analysis of current literary culture.

Daniel Lea is lecturer in English, Oxford Brookes University.

Contemporary British Fiction. First edition

Editor - Richard J. Lane, Rod Mengham and Philip Tew
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 6
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2866 4 and 2867 2

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