In keeping with yesterday’s post of my favorite records of 2017, what follows is a list of the dozen favorite novels that I read this year. (And yes, two of the twelve here are short story collections, not novels. But titling the post “Twelve Favorite Novels I Read in 2017” flowed better than “Twelve Favorite Novels and Short Story Collections I Read in 2017.”) Whereas my music list is always confined to favorite things released that year, my novels list never is. This is a product of 1) how much longer it takes me to absorb a novel than a record; 2) relatedly, how backlogged my fiction reading list is; and 3) how many hours a day music accompanies the mundanities of my life (walking, working out, driving, etc.), whereas I have to consciously carve out time for pleasure reading.
Anyway, I’ll keep my descriptions brief and spoiler-free. Will also say before I start that my top two here are two of the best novels I’ve ever read in my entire life. Same things apply here as with yesterday’s music list: would love to hear recommendations that I can add to my insurmountable “to read” list.
- Jesmyn Ward — Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)
A native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast who grounds most of her writing within that region’s impoverished black communities, Ward is, simply put, one of the absolute best American writers of her or any other generation. Whether in novels (Salvage the Bones), memoir (The Men We Reaped), or as an anthologist (The Fire This Time), Ward is unparalleled in capturing the brutal consequences of racial and class inequality in America while also holding in her hands the love and beauty that animate the communities she writes about. Sing, Unburied, Sing continues in that vein. Ward dabbles in magical realism here, with the ghost of a Jim Crow-era prison inmate serving as one of the novel’s main characters, alongside two mixed-race children, their black mother, white father, and their grandparents. A penetrating examination of race, class, hate, struggle, and love, this was both the most beautiful and most important novel I read this year. Hands down. Note: Ward won a MacArthur Genius Grant this year, as she damn well should have.
- Viet Thanh Nguyen — The Sympathizer (2015)
Viet Thanh Nguyen has been on a roll. In the past two years, he’s published an award-winning short story collection (this year’s The Refugees), an award-winning book exploring memory and the Vietnam War (last year’s Nothing Ever Dies), and a Pulitzer-winning novel (2015’s The Sympathizer). The last of these was my second-favorite novel of the year. Told from the perspective of a Communist double-agent working in South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon who ultimately flees to the United States, The Sympathizer is as good a wartime novel as I’ve read this side of Catch-22. Beautifully written, it is deeply empathetic, sometimes funny, and relentless in showing not only what the Vietnam War did to that country, but also how badly Americans have misrepresented Vietnam — both its war and its people. Like Ward, Nguyen won a MacArthur this year.
- Angela Flournoy — The Turner House (2015)
Angela Flournoy’s debut novel centers the Detroit-based Turner family, the home that patriarch Francis and matriarch Viola made for their brood of thirteen children during the post-World War II Great Migration, and the lives of those children as they reach middle age. Mostly set in the present day but with flashbacks to Francis and Viola’s first days in Detroit, the novel is in many ways about the promises and vagaries of the American Dream, both then and now. Also inflected with a bit of magical realism, Flournoy’s novel is a beautiful story of family, home, struggle, and the ways that they all intersect.
- Junot Diaz — Drown (1996)
I actually have Junot Diaz to thank for introducing me to Angela Flournoy. Diaz came to the Indianapolis Public Library this past winter for a public forum on writing, Trumpism, and the state of the world. One of the questions from the audience concerned authors that he was particularly excited about, and Flournoy was one of those he mentioned. In any event, I’ve long loved Diaz’s writing. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is canonical in my mind, and his short story collection This Is How You Lose Her is also a favorite. Somehow, I’d never read his first story collection, 1996’s Drown, until this year. (When I bought it at the aforementioned IPL event.) His characters are mostly Dominican or Dominican-American, and while this gives unique dimensions to the rhythms of his stories, many of the themes he explores are universal. And stylistically, there simply is no one else like Diaz.
- Claire Messud — The Last Life (1999)
The Last Life isn’t Claire Messud’s most recent novel (this year’s The Burning Girl, which I also read — thought it was fine, but it didn’t sniff this list) nor her most celebrated (2006’s The Emperor’s Children.) But it is pretty extraordinary. I stumbled upon it at my favorite bookstore (shoutout to Unabridged in Chicago!), sitting atop the owner’s list of his thirty favorite books, from thirty years in business. I trust his judgement, so I bought it. The book sprawls across three generations and three continents, centering around French teenager Sagesse LaBasse, her American mother and French-born father, and her grandparents — pieds noirs who fled Algeria during that country’s liberation struggle. A complex story about loss, identity, family, and memory, this is a really great story that is all the better for Messud’s beautiful writing.
- Roxane Gay — Difficult Women (2017)
Roxane Gay, most famously the author of Bad Feminist, put out two books this year, both of which are excellent. Hunger, her memoir about weight and body image, is a must-read. Since this is a fiction list, however, I highlight Difficult Women, a collection of short stories about and through the eyes of women who either/both a) would be categorized as “difficult” within the patriarchal ordering of our society, and b) suffer the difficult burdens of life in a patriarchy. This is a searing collection that brings together Gay’s razor-sharp feminist analysis with her extraordinary gifts for character and prose.
- Keri Hulme — The Bone People (1983)
Winner of the 1985 Man Booker Prize, The Bone People is the only novel that New Zealand writer Keri Hulme has ever published. Another book that deals some in magical realism, this is a strange book but one that I just couldn’t put down. There are really only three characters here that structure the story: a hermetic woman named Kerewin who lives in a tower; a seven-year-old kid named Simon who shows up at her door; and Simon’s guardian Joe. What ensues is a book that’s definitely about love but not about romance. Instead, it’s about characters trying (sometimes successfully, oftentimes not) to figure out how to care for themselves, and to care for each other without pushing each other away. This book is almost impossible to describe, but I highly recommend checking it out.
- Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing (2016)
Ghanian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel made waves in some of the circles I tread in as a scholar of African American Studies, and rightly so. Spanning more than two centuries, Homegoing begins with two half-sisters in Ghana (one who is captured and enslaved, one who marries an Englishman embedded within the slave economy) and the sometimes divergent, sometimes entangled tracks that the lives of their descendants take down through the generations. This is a brilliant book about the legacies of slavery and the memory of same.
- Stephen King — It (1986)
This entry might seem to come out of left field, but so it goes. I won’t belabor the plot line of It, since most people know it. I’ll just explain that, when the buzz started churning over the new film adaptation that came out this year, I realized that I didn’t really remember It at all and chose to revisit it. It is, of course, awesome (even with King’s truly bizarre choice of sexual plot twist near the end), although I should warn you that if you read or re-read the book, the movie will probably fall a little flatter than if you don’t. BONUS REC: This was the only book on this list that I listened to in audiobook form, rather than sitting down to read. I highly recommend Steven Weber’s reading, if you’re into audiobooks. It’s fantastic.
- Neil Gaiman — American Gods (2001)
I feel like I was supposed to have read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods before this year, but I hadn’t. So when I stumbled upon it on a display table this summer while at the mighty Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., I grabbed a beer, read the first pages, and decided to buy it. I loved it. It’s funny, mysterious, dark, and a total page-turner that burrows deep into questions about the things Americans value and the things they don’t. Highly recommend.
- Ben Winters — Underground Airlines (2016)
Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines imagines a modern America in which black chattel slavery still exists in sections of the U.S. South (four states known as the “Hard Four”) as a result of compromises made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that include a still-active functional Fugitive Slave Law. Working against this 21st-century slave power is an abolitionist network known as “the airline” (in an obvious modern reference to the Underground Railroad). Protagonist Victor is an escapee from slavery who has since taken up work with the U.S. Marshall Service, hunting slaves in exchange for his own legal freedom. The book finds him pursuing an escapee named Jackdaw, and in so doing, discovering all sorts of secrets he wasn’t supposed to. Fascinating reimagining of America that also offers biting commentary on the real America.
- Richard Flanagan — The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
I hesitate to call The Narrow Road to the Deep North a favorite, only because it’s just a punishingly sad and depressing book. That said, it is gorgeous and immensely powerful. Written by Australian writer Richard Flanagan and awarded the Man Booker Prize, Narrow Road‘s core is the story of Aussie soldiers who are imprisoned in a Japanese labor camp during World War II, and charged with building a railroad in Burma in service of the Japanese empire. The central character is a military doctor named Dorrigo Evans, through whom Flanagan explores what the war cost. An exploration of love, identity (individual and national), and violence, this is a great book, though not for anyone looking for an uplifting tale.