The National’s book reviewers round up their favourite reads from this year
Year in review: Our favourite books of 2017
We asked our reviewers to pick three of their best reads (although some may have gone over the limit), for a list that includes tales about migration, complicated relationships, history and polity.
Picking only the three best books is quite an ask, especially when there’s still a pile of 2017 titles that I’m ambitiously hoping to make some headway with before the end of the year. But, since I have to choose, these were among those that stood out.
My first choice, David Plante’s Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, is a bit of a cheat, since it was originally published in 1983, but this NYRB Classics edition, with an introduction by Scott Spencer, presents Plante’s encounters with Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer to a new generation. An 85-year-old Rhys is the standout by far; it’s worth buying the book for those 60 pages alone.
Then there are two novels: Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, and Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. In the first, a woman travels to a Greek island in search of her missing husband. Its eerie weirdness hints at something akin to a Yorgos Lanthimos film, while the clarity of the prose reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s recent fiction. Lester’s novel is also about a woman’s adventures in an unfamiliar land. An American nurse accepts a job in Tokyo as a nanny to a 2-year-old girl. As well as being a moving portrait of the relationship between carer and child, it’s an exquisite love letter to Japan.
Looking back at the books I have read and reviewed over the past 12 months, I am struck by the energy and inventiveness with which their authors have tackled their subjects. In this respect, and in many others, several titles stand out.
Gwendoline Riley’s First Love is a bracingly sardonic and unsentimental novel about two traumatised individuals who find themselves in a condition of comparative marital contentment. The contentment soon becomes inflected by the upheavals of their past and their conflicting desires from the present. It is cold, mordant, darkly insightful, yet full of muted tenderness and redemptive perceptions.
This preoccupation with historic wounds forms the basis of Patricia Lockwood’s magnificent memoir Priestdaddy, in which she recalls how a moment of medical and financial calamity impelled her to seek refuge at her parents’ home in Kansas. The result is a disgracefully amusing and exuberant exercise in attempting to understand her relationship with her preposterously eccentric father, and features some of the most vivid, arresting and memorable contemporary writing you are likely to encounter. I am still laughing now at Lockwood’s description of Lutherans.
Similarly memorable is Nell Stevens’s highly original and idiosyncratic memoir, Bleaker House. Desperate to write a novel, Stevens travels to a hideously remote island (population: two) in the Falklands in order to find the correct conditions to do so. With only a potato, Ferrero Rocher and penguins for company, she aims to write 2,500 words every day. Bleaker House is her account of that objective, and incorporates brilliant observations on the natural world, the turmoil of creativity, and the nature of solitude and the self. Stevens is brave, reassuring, inspiring and funny. Her peculiar book is one of the most absorbing and beautifully written memoirs I have read this year.
Although by no means the finest novel of the year, my favourite, by far, was John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies. Once again, the revered spy-turned-author served up a potent blend of thrills, intrigue, psychological insight, and cloak-and-dagger back-stabbing. But we also got a welcome dash of nostalgia thanks to le Carré’s inspired decision to review previous missions and past exploits from other angles and revisit his “unsleeping spies of yesterday” – in particular that unlikely “Cold Warrior” George Smiley. Here was proof, if it were needed, that this old master is still capable of new tricks.
Completely different, but no less enthralling, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. The Northern Irish writer’s fifth novel to date follows a retired couple on a short holiday to Amsterdam. There they bicker and blunder, laugh and cry, reminisce and grumble. Eventually, one of them declares that “there’s not that much marriage in us”, at which crisis point the novel’s title acquires a whole new meaning. This is a tragicomic gem with rare emotional power.
On the non-fiction front, Christopher de Hamel cast a spell with his wondrous labour of love, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. Over the course of 600 informative and beautifully illustrated pages, de Hamel takes us on a tour of 12 illuminated manuscripts. They range from the sixth to the 16th centuries and include the Gospels of St Augustine and The Canterbury Tales. According to de Hamel, all manuscripts “have stories to divulge”. I listened, rapt, as he narrated histories, shared secrets and awoke a dormant, distant past.
One outstanding book from the beginning of 2017 (in American publication-date terms) was Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family, her richly atmospheric historical novel about the Borgias, the notorious Italian Renaissance family. This particular dynasty has been the subject of innumerable histories and novels, and Dunant does a thought-provokingly immersive job of portraying them.
In the middle of the year, I encountered Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood by Anthony Kaldellis, a great popular historian of Byzantium. Here he tells the story of the ancient city’s rapid expansion in the second half of the 10th century to become the most powerful state in the larger Mediterranean region – only to collapse a century later and teeter on the brink of losing everything, beaten by the Normans at one end and the Seljuks at the other, and frittering from within. Kaldellis brings the whole sprawling Byzantine era to life; each of his books is a treat.
Toward the end of the year, I was tremendously impressed by a hefty new book by James Lewis called The Burr Conspiracy. Aaron Burr is infamous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Lewis delves in unprecedented detail into Burr’s lesser-known and nefarious-seeming adventures after he left the vice presidency in disgrace – misadventures that led to his trial for treason in 1807. This story, the long second career of the “fallen” founding father, was one of the most fascinating histories I read in 2017.
In a year that rewarded an unassumingly deserving Nobel laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, and a good, if overrated Man Booker, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, two novels rose above all others. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West found bold ways to narrate 21st-century migration as both a human experience and global phenomenon. Beginning in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and ending in America, the path in-between was by turns magical, surreal, moving and sobering: “For when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” The year ended with the spare lyricism of Han Kang’s short but wondrous The White Book, which also crossed continents and extracted strange beauty from the briefest of lives and most oblique of (white) objects: swaddling bands, snow, ice, rice and the moon.
Given the extent to which contemporary lives are shaped by the politics of anger, Graham Allison’s Destined for War offered a timely and absorbing, if not entirely convincing, thesis about present and future relations between China and America. A more piercing account of 21st-century China was offered by Howard French in Everything Under the Heavens, which locates its current ambitions within a long history of predominance within Asia.
My young daughter ensures that I read more children’s picture books than anything else. Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Worm and the Bird is visually gorgeous, modestly poetic, darkly funny and utterly striking, thanks to a portrait of nature that mixes ancient and modern. It was bracing to see an artist utilise the material page to make the reader feel confined and then free.
In a year where much of the best literary fiction made references to the fractured state of the world, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire used Greek myth to make sense of immigration, radicalism, the Islamic State, masculinity and being Muslim in the West. The same author’s retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone was urgent, contemporary, heartbreaking and yet often blackly comic – a brilliantly readable take on our 21st-century lives that was deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
And yet for all the slightly depressing contexts and subtexts underpinning the best books this year, there was also room for a novel that celebrated kindness. Which might sound terribly twee, but Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine introduced us to a completely believable, awkward 30-something, whose journey to a kind of happiness through tiny victories (a haircut or a lunchtime chat with a work colleague), is incredibly uplifting. Not that it doesn’t have its really dark moments – and that’s the great achievement of this debut, it pierces loneliness and unkind gossip brilliantly – but Honeyman showed us how generosity of spirit can also be compelling.
It’s not strictly non-fiction, but Hamid Sulaiman’s graphic novel Freedom Hospital, published in English this year, told a truth about the mess that is Syria in a unique and unforgettable way. This is a graphic novel in the true sense of the word, ostensibly telling the story of a young woman who sets up an underground, clandestine hospital to help those who oppose the regime, but capturing brilliantly the chaos, confusion and brutality of life in Syria.
I loved Laura Barnett’s skilfully rendered and wholly tenable novel Greatest Hits, which tells the story of fictional singer songwriter, Cass Wheeler. Wise, humane and partly a de-bunking of the perks of fame, it finds a sixty-something Wheeler (“I imagined her as the English Joni Mitchell”, Barnett told me) looking back on her life as she chooses songs for the greatest hits album of the book’s title. Friend of Barnett and real-life singer songwriter Kathryn Williams wrote an accompanying soundtrack album.
I also greatly enjoyed H.B. Lyle’s similarly adroit The Irregular: A Different Class Of Spy. Lyle’s debut as a thriller writer imagines Wiggins - the Sherlock Holmes-trained urchin who was a minor character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective books - as a grown-up secret agent whose street suss proves invaluable to Captain Vernon Kell. The Edwardian-London setting is vividly drawn, and Lyle’s background in feature film development ensures a pacy, animated plot. Unsurprisingly, the book is already in development as a TV series.
In the memoir department, Leslie Cavendish’s The Cutting Edge: The Story of the Beatles Hairdresser Who Defined an Era was one of those seemingly-fringe (sorry) books which actually shone much new light of The Fab Four. A coiffeur to the stars around hip ‘60s London, Cavendish had waited fifty years to tell of his many pertinent encounters with John, Paul, George and Ringo. What was left on the cutting room floor proved hugely entertaining and at times poignant.