Back for its third installment is my list of favorite novels I read this year. A few notes:
- Last year I did a combined list of novels and nonfiction, but decided to just focus on fiction for this year’s list. I read so much nonfiction for work (and pleasure) and focusing on the things I read purely for pleasure was what I wanted to do here.
- Last year I went to a top-ten format, in that I limited myself to my ten absolute favorites and didn’t bloat the list but also recommended ten without ranking them. Same holds true here.
- As always, this is favorites I read this year. It was not a requirement that they came out this year (though all of them happen this time to be recently published).
- What follows are brief summaries of my experiences with and impressions of these books. The brevity is to save us all time and to avoid any spoilers. Every single one of these is worth reading, though.
2019 was a heavy year, I think for all of us. I read a lot of heavy fiction, whether coincidentally or as a result. No novel was heavier than Makkai’s, but perhaps none was as beautiful or good, either. The book flows back and forth between Chicago in the throes of the 1980s AIDS crisis and Paris of the present day. Yale Tishman is the driving force behind most of the book. An art gallery director, Tishman is also a member of a beloved community of young gay men in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood who is watching those around him die of AIDS, month after month, year after year. Among those in his circle is Fiona, the sister of his (deceased) friend Nico, whose relationship with Yale is one of fierce and necessary mutual support. The present day portions of the novel follow Fiona to Paris, where she grapples with (among other things) the lingering impacts of AIDS’ devastation on her life.
The third novel from Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive is a remarkable book in both its content and form. Blending standard fiction and mixed media, Luiselli’s story focuses around a family of four (a man, woman, 10-year-old boy and five-year-old girl) who are setting out on a road trip from New York to the American southwest. The animating backdrop and one of the family members’ central obsessions is the deportation crisis and the violence of the American immigration system—in particular what it does to children. A story of travel, cruelty, family, sound, and loss, this was not only one of the best novels I read this year, but also one of the most present and important.
Marlon James may be my favorite working fiction writer not named Jesmyn Ward. The Jamaican-American James’ 2014 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings would be near the top of a favorites-of-the-decade list were I to make one (I’m not), and the anticipation surrounding his new one started building for me for more than a year before its release this year. It didn’t disappoint (although it is not a fast or easy read.) Set in a fantasy Africa, Black Leopard, Red Wolf revolves around and is narrated by Tracker, who under interrogation is telling the story of his life and his quest to track a missing child. The book is routinely brutal, both blood-soaked and sexually violent. It is also brilliant and beautiful, dizzying in its complexity of voice and language and remarkable for its interrogations of identity, power, gender, sexuality, and more. Reviewing it for NPR, Amal El-Mohtar wrote the following: “Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke. It was a harrowing, horrible experience I’m not keen to repeat. But I can’t deny that having finished it, I went back to the beginning to find things I now better understood, felt better able to withstand — as if in hollowing me out the book had made space for itself, had given me something in exchange for everything it put me through. I don’t know what that is yet. But I have nothing else like it.” I think I liked the book more than El-Mohtar, but the sensory experience he describes is on point.
The first book from Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho) took the literary world by storm last year, but I didn’t get to it until the end of 2018 so didn’t finish it until this year. Set in Orange’s hometown of Oakland, There There is, at its core, a novel about the experiences of being and belonging as Native people in the city. Shifting from Alcatraz amidst the Red Power takeover of 1969-1971 to the Oakland Coliseum, the book lacks one central character, but rather works as an interrelated set of character and narrative threads whose unifying theme is ultimately about authenticity and the feeling of twoness—of being both urban and Native in a society that considers the two as opposites. I am not sure when I last read such a powerful fictionalized rumination and interrogation of identity.
Colson Whitehead has been on a tear, having won the Pulitzer for 2016’s The Underground Railroad and returning this year for another stunning novel with The Nickel Boys. Inspired by the true story of recently discovered graves of young boys at an old Florida reform school, The Nickel Boys is set at the fictional Nickel Academy in the Florida panhandle. The protagonist here is Elwood Curtis, and as Frank Rich noted in his excellent review of the novel, while Elwood is officially a student at what is official called a school, he is, like the character of Cora in The Underground Railroad, young, Black, and trapped without viable escape routes. Given the setting and subject matter, readers could and should expect to read through violence and brutality. But this is a novel that is at once a page-turner and also feels profoundly important and urgent, foregrounding necessary confrontations with the truths and consequences of American racism and America’s obsession with racialized criminal punishment.
The second short story collection by Scott (following 2016’s Insurrections) returns to his imagined town of Cross River, Maryland—a Black town that was supposedly the scene of “the only successful slave uprising in the country” and home to Freedman’s University, among other things. The setting is the story, to some extent. The stories collected here weave widely across time and narrative voice, but never across space. We meet robots grappling with servitude and rebels ringing doorbells and dashing, artistic bohemians practicing Cross River’s traditional Riverbeat musical styling and a Freedman’s professor creating a course on the study of loneliness. Through it all, Cross River informs what’s happening. Scott is so incredibly imaginative and skilled as a writer, and these stories are just incredibly well done.
I had missed the hype around My Sister, the Serial Killer and only happened upon it thanks to an “employees’ choice” display at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco earlier this year. Not for the first time, I owe City Lights. Set in Lagos, this debut novel by the Nigerian author Braithwaite is a wryly funny novel about sisterhood and other relationships, in which the beautiful younger sister Ayoola can’t stop killing her boyfriends, and the pragmatic older sister Korede can’t stop (literally and figuratively) cleaning up her sister’s messes. The central dynamic is really about the relationship between the two, but along the way come explorations of broader familial dynamics and of those both sisters forge with other people. This was easily the most fun novel I read all year, but it’s not dismissible as just a ‘fun’ novel.
Like My Sister, the Serial Killer, I only stumbled upon The Nix because bookstore employees told me to—this time at Iowa City’s Prairie Lights. I am so glad they did, and wish I could recall which employee recommended it. A sprawling novel that shifts between the late 1960s and the early 2000s, The Nix centers Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a failing writer and English professor who, thanks to a literary agent, is suddenly offered the opportunity to find success if he writes a book about his mother, who abandoned him and his father when he was young but who later achieved infamy after being captured on videotape throwing rocks at a prominent and predictably awful Republican politician. It’s hard to say too much about this book without giving things away, but suffice to say that it is absolutely worth the 600+ page commitment. It’s both deeply funny and deeply sad, and has a lot to say about family, commitments, politics, and American society.
Less won the Pulitzer, a rare feat for an unabashedly comedic novel. It doesn’t take long reading it to figure out why. This hilarious (it’s seriously very, exceptionally funny) novel centers around Arthur Less, an American novelist who embarks upon a whirlwind, worldwide, and completely uninspired and embarrassingly book tour solely as a means of escaping an invitation to his longtime (former) boyfriend’s wedding. This is a book about love, both unrequited and not, but is also about self-doubt and affirmation, travel, writing, and embracing the experiences that life throws at you. It is truly a delight, and Greer is among the most talented sentence-crafters I read this year. This was the most fun I had reading a book this year outside My Sister, the Serial Killer (and it’s close).
Ed Pavlić has written a lot of books, most of them literary criticism or poetry. 2019 found him publishing his first novel. Titled Another Kind of Madness, the novel is set mostly on Chicago’s South Side (finishing in Kenya) and centers principally around Ndiya Grayson and Shame Luther. We first meet Ndiya, a successful professional woman who is returning to her hometown of Chicago after many years intentionally steering clear of it. There she meets Shame, a construction worker and jazz pianist, and what unfolds is in many ways about the relationship between the two. It is a love story, but it’s not one that’s straightforward or easy to digest. Pavlić the music lover, the knower of the Black American call-and-response tradition, makes Black music and its driving impulses into animating threads here—not necessarily literally (though there is that) but also stylistically vis-à-vis how they inform the text. This is not a simple read, but it’s a beautiful and utterly unique one.