COME December, no matter how crippling my workload, I’ll drop everything to compile a ‘best of the year’ overview. It’s a deeply personal exercise that allows me to chart the preceding 12 months and the accompanying evolution of reading habits, both mine and those of others. This year has been particularly fulfilling as the highs and incredible lows of 2016 has sent many, including myself, rushing headlong to seek refuge in and greater understanding through literature.
The year started with a harmlessly nostalgic novel set in a fictitious suburb in 1970s middle England, told from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, a mental-health practitioner, sprang to the top of the bestseller list with a charming yet familiar take on the eccentricities of small communities, and the collective cruelties they mete out to those living on the fringe. The year past was bursting with light-hearted comedic novels, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie and The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney being the most notable among them.
After being richly rewarded by Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Road — a retelling of world history from the Eastern perspective — I’ve made a concerted effort to include more non-fiction in my reading this year. Being a devout fiction reader, the memoir is the easiest way to make the transition, and upon When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi becoming an instant worldwide success after publication, I felt ready to tackle the genre anew. Swathes of people were collapsing into uncontrollable tears reading the account of the 36-year-old Stanford neurosurgeon — and soon to be dad — examine his short life, and what it means to be alive. Kalanithi’s proximity to death through his career, and later as a cancer patient, imbues the book with a gentle, life-affirming calm. But his turgid prose, a vestige of his lifelong passion to become a writer, robbed the book of the honesty I would later find in the little-known warts and all cancer memoir, In Gratitude, by the gifted writer Jenny Diski.
Tracing the highlights amongst the English-language publishing industry’s output over the year past
These personal legacies, whether it be Kalanithi’s son, Diski’s gritty prose, or David Bowie’s Black Star album, were purposefully conceived in response to the creator’s mortality. Shaken by the untimely demise of Qandeel Baloch, I feel compelled to recommend The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma (Ratika Kapur) to maintain the legacy of an unapologetic, wayward woman who helped me feel less like a victim. The novel’s Mrs. Sharma is a wife, mother, and doctor’s receptionist, keen to enjoy the opportunities the prosperous and rapidly modernising new India have to offer, one of which comes in the form of a lover. Witty, sly and entirely convincing, this pitch-black comedy stands alone in a year thin on good regional literature.
This year’s literature in translation saw the publication of Alaa al-Aswany’s 2013 novel The Automobile Club of Egypt. Where his sexy and prescient breakthrough novel, The Yacobian Building, set the scene for the Arab Spring, his latest nation-on-the-brink offering is unlikely to set pulses racing, let alone ferment dissent. In contrast, Madonna in a Fur Coat, by the late Turkish/Bulgarian writer Sabahattin Ali, is enjoying renewed success in translation after its initial publication in Istanbul back in 1943. This cross-cultural love story, set amidst Berlin’s cultural renaissance of the 1920s, has mesmerised readers with its gender defying characterisations, and is fast becoming a worldwide word-of-mouth sensation.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been the outright winner here, with the translator and author bagging the coveted International Man Booker Prize. This intensely violent Korean novel traces how an unremarkable woman’s conversion to vegetarianism triggers a relentless backlash from her family and society, causing her to slowly unravel. The story is told in three parts, exploring the Korean bafflement and aversion to a personal choice that doesn’t align with societal expectations.
The Sellout left me in awe of its irreverent wisdom. My paperback was replete with underscoring till I finally gave up on marking the quotable lines. It is the race novel, narrated with languid wit by a benign black man in a neighbourhood in south Los Angeles. Expect all accepted norms to be turned on their heads, and for the reader to laugh at the foolishness of racism and how a black American can get by and sometimes prosper because of it.
Continuing my dalliance with non-fiction, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is a rejuvenating nature memoir in the vein of Helen Macdonald’s bestselling H is for Hawk. Defeated by London, Liptrot returns to her childhood home of Orkney to battle her alcohol addiction, when a job tracking wildlife opens her up to the regenerative properties of nature. Lab Girl would be the upbeat alternative to the nature memoir, written by the self-possessed scientist Hope Jahren, whose fascination with trees, soil, and seeds takes her and her lab partner on a journey across America, through to the North Pole and eventually Hawaii.
The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell was without a doubt one of the standout non-fiction books of the year. A lifelong philosophy buff, Bakewell had established her name with a biography of the very accessible Michel de Montaigne, earning herself a significant fan base. I expected The Existentialist Café to be a challenge as the philosophy was considerably more complex, and as Bakewell herself admits, the intellectuals involved had a propensity to talk through their hats. The story anchors itself to the bond between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their intellectual and political journey through the 20th century. Each found themselves inspired, confounded or comforted by their mentors, peers and at times each other, as Nazism, Marxism, capitalism, feminism and anti-imperialism enter the intellectual realm. Bakewell carefully takes us on a tour of phenomenology and existentialism through the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Iris Murdoch and more, informing it with their biographies as a context for their philosophies. I can confidently assert that we owe Bakewell a debt for demystifying and making philosophical concepts accessible. I will no longer tolerate blathering academics assaulting me with their gibberish.
Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland is among my top three books of the year. I read it in a frenzy after finishing this year’s Man Booker winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, both of which occupy the other two spots on my top three.
The Sellout left me in awe of its irreverent wisdom. My paperback was replete with underscoring till I finally gave up on marking the quotable lines. It is the race novel, narrated with languid wit by a benign black man in a neighbourhood in south Los Angeles. Expect all accepted norms to be turned on their heads, and for the reader to laugh at the foolishness of racism and how a black American can get by and sometimes prosper because of it. Beatty’s surreal humour delicately exposes the depth to which a community is dehumanised in America, as the novel’s neighbourhood is repeatedly menaced by a phantom stench, and wakes up one day to find that it has literally been wiped off the map. That slavery and segregation are offered as viable options in these circumstances hardly seems like a shocking outcome by the end of the novel.
The winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, is roundly hailed as the best book of 2016. It takes the metaphor of the Underground Railroad, which historically comprised of a network of secret passages and safe houses through which slaves were smuggled to freedom, and makes it literal for the purposes of this novel. It’s a masterful conceit as Whitehead employs it to explore the many irrational and hateful policies targeting slaves as they travel between stations. This meticulously researched book charts the theological doctrines that robbed slaves and indigenous populations of their humanity: the introduction of bogus principles like Manifest Destiny to deny rights and justify slave ownership, and the systematic sterilisation and mass genocides policies intended to “cull” the slave population. Rather than concentrating on the individual cruelties by plantation owners, of which there are many, we see a racist machine reasserting itself through policies when faced with real change.
Negroland is unlike any book on identity I have ever read. Margo Jefferson grew up as part of a small black elite dubbed Negroland in the 1950s. The family enjoyed just enough class privilege to avoid being elevated beyond their race, working twice as hard as their white counterparts to prosper. The Jeffersons and their ilk navigate within the limits set by the white race, aware that their advantage exists at their pleasure — the resulting black resentment serving as a pressure valve that prevents any real challenge against the prevailing circumstances. Until, that is, the Black Power movement, when the entire black population galvanises as a real and present danger for the white establishment. Jefferson examines the sense of shame and despondency she feels throughout stages of her life as she tries to find her place in a white and later black population that considers her authenticity compromised by her life of privilege. This is a skilfully executed memoir, skitting between various styles of expression like an inventive jazz standard.
With that wrapped up, the industry and the readers that sustain it are naturally turning their face towards the future. Fortunately, it seems that 2017 may prove a robust year. Next year is due to see the publication of novels by Paul Auster, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie amongst others, which must be awaited with patience.
The writer is an avid reader and proprietor of the independent bookstore The Last Word.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 25th, 2016