Best books of 2016
A round-up of the best novels I read in 2016 :
Han Kang The Vegetarian
The story of a wife who after a shocking dream decides to become a vegetarian, a choice which powerfully comes to affect her loutish husband, sister and brother-in-law. This novel takes the form - common in South Korea - of three linked novellas, each told by a different voice. Kang’s novel is very strong, sometimes brutal, gripping and sad. This remarkable novel deservedly won the Man Booker International prize in 2016. Kang’s The White Book – a more complex and poetic novel – is currently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2018. (See separate article about Han Kang and The Vegetarian). She is translated into English by Deborah Smith.
Jenny Erpenbeck The Visitation
The End of Days
The Old Child
The Book of Words
The Visitation is a gripping historical novel about a house on a lake visited by all too much history. In The End of Days a woman is reborn, dies and lives again – each section of her life a commentary on the others. This complex and fascinating novel came out before the similarly themed but rather simpler book by Kate Atkinson entitled Life after Life. The End of Days won the Independent foreign Fiction Prize.
The Old Child/ The Book of Words are disturbing, fascinating allegorical novellas, Kafkaesque in their menace and their use of the unexpressed and inexpressible. A child with no memory is found in a street holding a bucket: knowing nothing, she hides inside a childhood that provides safety because she neither learns nor progresses. When she suddenly ages, her identity is discovered. In The Book of Words an unnamed child lives in a house in a hot country with her parents and observes her life; as people and things are removed, this place – never named – becomes infused with horror. A Nazi totalitarian past seeps up between the cracks.
Everything Erpenbeck writes rewards careful reading and re-reading. She was born in East Berlin in the former East Germany, and her experience of a fractured Germany informs her work. She is the daughter of leading figures in the literary establishment who were also members of the communist party – not at all the clichéd family in the GDR sagas now popular in Germany. Her work is deeply intelligent, informed by her close understanding of the workings of history and suffused with irony.
Lucia Berlin A manual for cleaning women
Wonderful short stories by an ex alcoholic American writer who wrote about working class America, lived hard and died in 2004 at the age of 68. Huge talent and emotional range. Her work, often autobiographical in feel, explores the lives of the low paid and undervalued in hospitals and prisons, streets and trains. Yet her writing is suffused with great joy in life and marvellously acute observations of the everyday.
Graham Macrae Burnet His Bloody Project
Man Booker Prize short-listed for 2016, this novel of triple homicide by a 17 year old boy in the bleak Highlands is fascinating, bleak and illuminating. The book is based on the true story of a murder that gripped the reading public in 1869 and uses original testimony court documents and medical reports to powerful effect. Vivid, accessible and very memorable, it outsold the other shortlisted books.
Nell Zink The Wallcreeper
This droll and dry super-bright American ex-anarchist has had a huge success with this, her first novel. She was championed and helped into print by Jonathan Franzen, also an ornithologist and conservationist – they met through their joint interest in birding. This debut novel - in my view her best – combines great knowledge of birds with the unravelling of a difficult relationship. A couple are out birding when the husband sees the wallcreeper (a mountain bird), swerves to save it and brings about her miscarriage. Often wacky, always witty, Zink is compulsively readable though her work is uneven. (See separate article about Nell Zink).
Agota Kristof The Notebook
Extremely concise, this novella introduces an important writer who should have been far better known during her life. Kristof, who died in 2011, was smuggled out her native Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet invasion. In Switzerland, dispossessed from her life and language and working in a factory, this extremely literate woman learnt French with what she describes as painful slowness. She began to write in this new language evolving a style of great simplicity and force. She recounts her story in The Illiterate, a short and powerful book that should be read by everyone who cares about migration. The Notebook (and its sequels, The Proof and The Third Lie) tell the story of twin brothers sent to live with their grandmother in a war zone; their simple decision to record the unvarnished events of their daily life displays the horror of war while delving into the human soul. Remarkable.