The year isn’t quite over but I thought it time to look over what I’ve read this year. Below are my ten favourites, mainly books that were published this year or last, with one that is a bit older.
A memoir by Pulitzer Prize winning book and theatre critic Margo Jefferson, this book casts a spotlight on the black American middle class, specifically focussing on her own childhood. In 2016, with Black Lives Matter, the rise of acceptable fascism, Brexit, etc., it doesn’t seem that much has changed since the 1950s and 60s, the idea that wealthy black families were only tolerated in white neighbourhoods because they were so few still valid.
9. The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie
I read this as part of my Bailey’s prize shortlist back in May and fell in love with quirky protagonist Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and her crazy mother. I like a book that changes my opinion of the characters and shows development. I started out disliking Veblen’s fiancé, Paul, but by the end of the book was rooting for him. I had thought that he was just the stereotypical dull ‘boyfriend who gets dumped for something better’ character but he turned into so much more. This was a far more interesting book than I had expected it to be.
8. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
This was my joint favourite to win the Man Booker this year (the winner is also on my list). This is a multi-generational novel, taking us from Canada to China, from near present day back to the Cultural Revolution and the effects on one group of friends as they struggle to adjust. Thien’s research is impeccable as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge and I found my heart breaking on more than one occasion.
7. The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla
I may have contributed to the crowdfund for this book but it earns its place legitimately on this list. This is an important book, a collection of essays written by non-white writers on their experiences of growing up in Britain. Funny, sad, thought-provoking, I found this the perfect antidote to Brexit Britain and the growing realisation that as a nation we haven’t come as far as I’d hoped. Everyone should read this.
6. The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
I was as surprised as everyone else that this book did not feature on more shortlists this year, and it deserves the accolade of Waterstone’s Book of the Year. I love historical fiction, particularly nineteenth century, and this book sets the standard for that genre of fiction. At its heart is a love story but protagonist Cora is not only defined by this. She is drawn to the myth of the serpent through a fascination with science and an aspiration to live up to the memory of her heroine, palaeontologist Mary Anning. A fabulous novel.
5. Ruby – Cynthia Bond
I love this book but it is an incredibly difficult read at times due to the subject matter. Set in Liberty Township, East Texas, it is the story of Ephram Jennings and his childhood love Ruby. Now in middle age, he lives alone and she has gone mad, ostracised by the rest of the town and talked of as being a witch. There are several magical beings in this novel, though arguably most of them are figments of Ruby’s fractured mind. It is a powerful book, unafraid to look at the aftermath of severe sexual abuse and human trafficking, and it deserves the many accolades it has received.
4. My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
For a relatively compact novel, this packs a big punch. I loved every sentence in this book, a masterclass in storytelling. Lucy, being a writer herself, is a comfortable narrator. She focuses her story on a period of time that was spent in hospital in the mid-1980s, a time when she is reunited with her estranged mother. As well as telling of their time together, we get various vignettes of Lucy’s childhood, of her upbringing in a desperately poor family who seem uncomfortable with her change in circumstances. There is such a deep sense of loneliness that comes through from Lucy’s memories and Strout captures her essence effortlessly.
3. The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Winner of this year’s Man Booker prize, this is the perfect example of satire that works. I know people who have taken offence to the way the protagonist, Me, behaves, thinking him a bad example to set, but after all he is never claimed to be an Everyman of the black community. There is so much in here that is not only funny but thought-provoking. To mention again one of my favourite sections, when Me decides to find a twin city for his hometown of Dickens, California, he is rejected by such highly sought locations as Chernobyl and Kinshasa, and instead chooses to pair up the Lost City of White Male Privilege. There is a fine line walked throughout most of this book but Beatty pulls it off and that is why he’s winning so many awards.
2. The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Winner of the Baileys and Desmond Elliott prizes this year, this is an incredible debut from Lisa McInerney. Dark and funny, every single character is brilliant, from Maureen who accidentally kills a man at the start of the novel and has to get her son, a local gangster, to clean up, to teenager Ryan who is struggling to cope with the joys of first love, alongside avoiding beatings from his abusive father. A brilliant novel.
1. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James
OK – so I know that this was published in 2009 but I only got around to reading it this year and this is my list so here it is. I honestly don’t understand how it wasn’t up for more awards. The story of Lilith, a slave girl on a Jamaican plantation, this book is not afraid to shock. There is violence, rape, murder, but nothing is used gratuitously. James uses conversational patois throughout and this style works amazingly well: I found myself immediately absorbed in the story and missing Lilith when I had to put the book down. This is such a great novel that I felt bad for Colson Whitehead that I didn’t enjoy The Underground Railway as much as I hoped. I think it was because I was drawing constant comparison between the two and James does not shy away from the harsh realities of slave life (to be fair, neither does Whitehead but his writing felt more controlled to me, where James writes so freely that I believe every word of it). I loved it.