Where is it written that one must have 10 items in any list of favorites? Here are my picks for the nine best novels of 2016. What a great year for readers.
by Michael Chabon
In this fictionalized memoir, author Michael Chabon sets out to solve the mystery of his grandmother’s life, and creates a masterpiece with unforgettably vivid characters, as solid and substantial as anyone you know. These are people who I longed to see again the moment I finished the book’s final line. There is the grandfather, wandering Europe during World War II, hunting for Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun; the beautiful, troubled grandmother with the blue tattooed numbers on her wrist; the rascal rabbi-turned-pool-shark uncle. Chabon is imaginatively precise. Of his grandmother leaving the mental hospital, he writes: “She emerged from that first time at Greystone in a fragile and quiet state, holding herself like an egg balanced on a spoon.” A girl’s lips are “painted red as Bicycle hearts and diamonds.” A late-model Mercury Cougar is “the color of a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.” A German woman apologizes for her brother: “… having been born a baby and finding he enjoyed it, he never bothered to stop.“ And then: “My grandmother’s embrace was something implacable and impersonal. It was like an undertow or the impact of a concrete sidewalk.”
by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s smart, daring, and funny “Nutshell” includes a contender for the best opening line ever published: “So, here I am, upside down in a woman.” The speaker is an erudite baby, tucked snuggly in the womb of his mother, Trudy. He’s already feeling nostalgic for the days when, “I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults…” But now, nearing the end of his stay, he has a problem more significant than his tight quarters. His mother and her lover are plotting to murder his father, a poet at the helm of a struggling publishing house. What’s a pre-born infant to do?
3. The Little Red Chairs
by Edna O’Brien
A bearded foreigner arrives in an Irish town one winter evening in The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien’s 17th novel. Cloonoila is a small enough village that a new arrival is the subject of barroom gossip, even prompting one person to issue a warning about Rasputin during a rowdy discussion. The visitor, Dr. Vladimir Dragan, sets up a New Age healing practice. Slowly, townswomen trickle in, starting with Sister Bonaventure. But it is the town beauty, Fidelma, the draper’s wife, who truly falls under his spell, determining Dr. Vlad will be the man to give her what her own husband could not — a baby. O’Brien, 85 when this book was published, shows no more reluctance to buck conventions today than she did when she wrote her first novel, Country Girls, in 1960, when its frank treatment of sex prompted banning and burning in her native Ireland. The conventions she bucks here are writerly, employing rapidly shifting points of view, and giving away a major plot point by revealing Dragan’s dark backstory early in the novel. In fact, Dragan is a hunted war criminal, not unlike the “Butcher of Bosnia,” Radovan Karadžic. Because the reader knows with whom Fidelma is noodling, the drama stays focused on her plight, the brutal and disturbing attack she suffers at the hands of Dragan’s former associates after his arrest, and her flight to London when her town and her husband turn on her. In the book’s second half, Fidelma lives among the victims of the world’s Dragans, the refugees who struggle to create a life in marginal jobs, as Fidelma must now, too. “In the mornings, after they clocked out, they ran, recklessly, they ran as if they were fleeing catastrophes. The fear that governed their whole lives was now compressed into this urgency to catch a bus or a train to allow a husband or a mother or a cousin to go to work.”
4. My Name is Lucy Barton
By Elizabeth Strout
This book has been absent from many of the “best of” lists for 2016, and I can only conclude it’s because reviewers can’t remember all the way back to January 12, when it was released. I almost forgot it myself. But you shouldn’t. Lucy Barton lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters, and the shocking poverty she grew up with seems far behind her. Until she was eleven, her family lived in a garage with only a “trickle of cold water” from a makeshift sink. In winter, it was always cold, sometimes too cold to sleep. The family was isolated and the three children shunned by their peers. When Lucy’s mother visits her in the hospital, it becomes plain that the past has never lifted its hand from Lucy. She is childlike in her pleasure at this long-delayed reunion: “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” The book’s graceful, simple sentences in Strout’s fifth novel are an embrace, and the relationship of mother and daughter, and Lucy’s true self, unfolds like an opening bud.
by Mischa Berlinski
Mischa Berlinski creates unforgettable characters in this tale of Haitian politics and corruption. At the center is Terry White, a former Florida sheriff’s deputy who became part of the United Nation’s police force in Haiti — which he pronounces Hades — after losing a sheriff’s race back home. As the narrator says, “People either liked Terry very much or could not stand him; and when people said they couldn’t take him, I understood. He was a know-it-all.” His stock phrase is “you gotta understand” or some variation used to dismiss all other arguments. “He told me how many people he had tased, and he offered to tase me to show me how it feels. …He called his wife his Lady. He was vain: I told him I got caught in a current down at the beach and came back breathless; he told me that his boat capsized in the Florida Keys, leaving him surrounded by sharks.” For all his bluster, White tries to do the right thing, including helping a local politician defeat a corrupt senator. But the weight of Haitian life is substantial for even the best intentions to carry.
6. The Nix
by Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill’s debut novel is a hurricane that sweeps you up and dances you wildly, careening from suburban backyards in Iowa to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention to 2011 Occupy Wall Street and even to Norway. Several subplots spin around the main character, Professor Samuel Anderson, whose mother disappeared when he was a 11. He was already a frightened boy, given to weeping. As an adult, he is lost, squandering his small share of success as a writer by hiding in his college office playing an online game for hours, his only friends his fellow World Of Elfscape players, whom he’s never met. Now, a lawyer wants Sam to help his long-gone mother. She faces prison for pitching rocks at a gun-toting governor planning to run for president.
7. The Loney
by Andrew Michael Hurley
This book, another debut novel, is the opposite of The Nix. Where The Nix is reckless and wild, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is quiet and controlled. Where Nix is multicolored neon, The Loney is as gray as the sea in winter and subtle as its shadings. The Loney of the title is a “wild and useless length of English coastline,” where dangerous tides “come in quicker than a horse could run” so that only a visitor would play on its shores. The story’s narrator is a boy who is never named. He and his family visit the area as part of a small group of Catholic pilgrims hoping for a miracle that will restore to the narrator’s brother, Hanny, the ability to speak. But the priest who took them on this journey each year has died in unusual circumstances, and his replacement just doesn’t seem to be what God needs to supply the miracle. Hurley creates a beautiful portrait of the brothers’ relationship as he unwinds this disturbing tale.
(Unlike the other books in this list, The Loney was not published in 2016. If first appeared in 2014 as a limited edition, with only 200 copies. It was released by a publisher in 2015. I put this list together thinking all the books were from 2016. I found out at the last minute this doesn’t really qualify, but I don’t much care. It’s my list, and I’ll do what I want. Besides, it’s just stuck in my mind so persistently, I couldn’t leave it out.)
8. Death and the Seaside
by Alison Moore
(Most of this review is lifted from one I wrote for the Chicago Tribune.)
Bonnie Falls is a woman adrift in Alison Moore’s sly third novel, “Death and the Seaside.” She abandoned a degree in literary criticism and never found her way after. About to turn 30, she can’t distinguish friends from acquaintances, and can’t even muster resentment in the face of her father’s persistent and cruel teasing. Nothing she starts is ever finished; she puts off doing her laundry so long, she has to take a suitcase full of wet clothing on vacation. It seems inevitable that the short story she is writing will meet the same moldering fate. She abandons it for days and weeks at a time, until her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest. Sylvia’s character is shrewdly constructed, with layers of personal history accreting gradually, revealing someone that the hapless Bonnie is unprepared to understand. The lonely young woman never stops to wonder why the elegant Sylvia has taken such an interest in her. She’s about to find out.
9. Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a fun, face-paced jaunt for anyone who likes their thrillers with a seasoning of woo-woo physics. (And who wouldn’t?) Crouch’s earlier mystery/thriller/science fiction trilogy, Wayward Pines, was turned into a Fox series. In his newest book, his main character, Jason Desson, is a happy family man who teaches physics at a small college. Then he’s kidnapped, and spirited into a parallel universe, where he has the chance to live the road not taken as a wizard of quantum superposition. It was the road he left many years earlier when his girlfriend got pregnant. But Jason no longer prizes that science fame; he wants to get back to his family. That’s not so easy in this house of quantum mirrors, where he must leap from universe to universe, encountering ever-expanding numbers of Jasons, hoping to, eventually, land back in the universe where he belongs.
In lieu of a 10th book, here are some other titles I enjoyed.
Three young adult books:
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley: A high school girl decides she can rescue a former classmate with agoraphobia, even though he hasn’t left his house since junior high. Funny and tender.
Riverkeep by Martin Stewart: A son tries to save his father from a monstrous possession by taking him to confront a sea monster. It’s wonderfully creepy and often funny, although the plot is a bit too linear.
Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy: A Russian boy genius comes to America to help NASA keep an asteroid from colliding with Earth and destroying California and his new girlfriend. Delightful and witty.
Two children’s books:
Pax by Sara Pennypacker: A story of a boy and his pet fox as war creeps ever closer.
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gabriel Savit: When German soldiers take Anna’s father, an encounter with a mysterious man who can whistle like a swallow is her salvation.
And two more grown up books:
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien: The Cultural Revolution and Tianamen Square steamroll through the lives of musicians at Shanghai Conservatory. Thien weaves magic in this tragedy full of large, memorable characters.
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: A scientist has an affair and ends up on trial for murder.