16 NOVEMBER 2002, Page 47

Philip Hensher

The fiction I enjoyed most this year was Claire Messud's masterly The Hunters (Picador, £12.99), an astonishing display of technical virtuosity and revealed feeling, and A. L. Kennedy's supremely expert Indelible Acts (Cape, £12.99). Not everyone seems to find Miss Kennedy as funny as I do, but all, surely, must concede her apparently inexhaustible inventiveness. Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) was a terrific advance even on her excellent White Teeth, a brilliant comedy with a tantalising throb of mystic philosophy underneath. I have a soft spot for any novel as completely shameless as Donna Tartes The Little Friend (Bloomsbury, £16.99), and it tore through every single Southern Gothic convention with irresistible gusto.

The best biography of the year was Claire Tomalin's life of Pepys (Penguin/ Viking, £20), which transformed him from a cosy bore in a wig into a human being and a great writer. Laurence Kelly's wonderfully thorough life of Griboyedov, Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran (1. B. Tauris, £14.95) was a first-class work of scholarship and a terrific, sensational read. Orlando Figes's cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance (Penguin, £25) was excellent. I don't know why it hasn't been done in quite this way before, at least as far as I know, and you couldn't ask for a more level-headed account. A N. Wilson's The Victorians (Hutchinson, £25) was the book he was born to write; it was evidently the product of decades of love for and familiarity with the period, and not just a year or two of boning-up.

The two most memorable events of the year for me were the conclusions of two very substantial projects. One was A. S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman (Chatto, £16.99), which finished what must be her major achievement as a novelist, a quartet of daring, boldly innovative studies of postwar English life. The second was the final volume in Oxford's magnificent edition of Dickens's letters (£80), a monument to the sort of selfless scholarship now almost vanished from our universities.

The most overrated book of the year was Michel Faber's interminable The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate, £17.99). God knows why anyone liked it; its inventiveness, resources and substance came nowhere near sustaining so gigantic a book, and it didn't seem to me to have any kind of feeling for how Victorians lived, thought or spoke. Apparently it took 20 years to write. Reading something so shapeless and minutely inconsequential, I could well believe it.