It isn’t quite We Need to Talk About Donald, but Lionel Shriver’s satirical dystopia, The Mandibles (Harper Collins £16.99), paints a chilling and timely portrait of the death of the American dream. Its befuddled yet charismatic president isn’t Trump, and the wall built on the Mexican border is to stop hungry Americans crossing to their richer southern neighbour, but this is nonetheless a caustic and prescient leap into the not-so-distant future.
I can’t remember a year in which so many first-rate novels have been published after Man Booker cut-off time in October. There’s Ali Smith’s Autumn (Penguin £16.99), for one, which carries out a real-time appraisal of the events of 2016, her exquisite prose seemingly writing itself as you read it. There’s also Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton £18.99), a poised and moving portrait of a friendship, nodding to Elena Ferrante and re-examining our notions of happiness and home. Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking £12.99) is a fabulously inventive vision of a world in which women seize control. Redolent of Margaret Atwood, it does what all good speculative fiction should – using its dazzling what-ifs to prompt questions about the way we live now. I also found Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle (Virago £16.99) extraordinarily affecting. Finally, there’s my book of the year by some distance, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Little Brown £14.99), a tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south. It’s a profound and important novel, but more than anything it’s an absurdly good read, gripping you in its tightly wound plot, astonishing you with its leaps of imagination. If Whitehead doesn’t win every prize going next year, I’ll appear on Saturday Review in my underpants.
The Man Booker judges chose another novel about race, and a dystopian one, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Oneworld £12.99) as their winner. It’s a book of coruscating satire and the darkest humour whose bilious narrative voice leaves you at once enthralled and exhausted. Also on the shortlist was David Szalay’s All That Man Is (Vintage £14.99), a collection of funny, moving, sometimes desperately sad stories that take us across Europe and deep into the soul of modern man. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s entertaining His Bloody Project (Saraband £8.99) tells of a brutal triple murder in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869, while Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta £12.99) is a wide-ranging family saga about history, music and art. From the longlist, Wyl Menmuir’s Daphne du Maurier-inflected The Many (Salt £8.99) is a slim and spooky read, while JM Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker £17.99) is pleasingly baffling, suggesting hidden depths and multiple layers without ever quite revealing them.
The Costa awards picked up a number of novels whose omission from the Man Booker had left me spluttering. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Profile £14.99) is simply gorgeous, a vivid and atmospheric tale of Victorian mores and monsters, while Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon (Viking £12.99) and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata (Vintage £16.99) were both moving and finely crafted novels about youth and friendship. Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill (Faber £8.99) was a thing of wonder, a novel that not only plunged you into the lives of its characters but also the literary history of its age.
I was delighted to see Mike McCormack’s visionary Solar Bones (Tramp £12) win the Goldsmiths prize – it’s a lyrical, mind-altering hymn of a novel, changing our ideas of what’s possible within the form. Elsewhere, I found Adam Biles’s rollicking Feeding Time (Galley Beggar Press £8.99) a dark and riotous take on our ageing world. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time (Cape £14.99) reminded me of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, interrogating the conventions of historical fiction and painting a compelling portrait of its compromised hero, Dmitri Shostakovich. I adored Anjali Joseph’s The Living (Fourth Estate £12.99), which leapt across continents to tell its moving and carefully constructed tale, while the interlinked stories of Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo (And Other Stories £8.99) came together to give us a vision of the book’s damaged, distant narrator that was profoundly affecting. Finally, I want to mention Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Vintage £12.99), which asked us to consider the lives of low-level terrorists and their victims, lives which rarely find themselves mentioned on the pages of newspapers, let alone in novels.
It was a fine year for books in translation, with Han Kang following up the Man Booker International-winning The Vegetarian with Human Acts (Granta £12.99), an extraordinary novel about politics and torture, about the way we memorialise past wrongs. Deborah Smith’s translation is typically lucid and readable. I was also pleased to see Gerard Reve’s funny, shiftless and poignant debut novel, The Evenings (Pushkin £12.99), available in English a mere 71 years after appearing in the original Dutch. It’s like BS Johnson and Kafka wandering the crepuscular streets of 1940s Amsterdam together – in a good way. Finally, we come to Ladivine (Quercus £14.99) by Marie NDiaye, a dreamlike intergenerational story of the French immigrant experience. If this year was all about Brexit and Trump, your 2017-vintage nightmares are likely to feature Marine Le Pen. Ladivine is a haunting, melancholy and immaculately translated novel, a thing of beauty for ugly times.
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