2016 will go down in history as a year that changed America’s political landscape forever. And it gave us books that grapple with that changing landscape, fiercely and provocatively; books that delve deeply into the American identity and change the way we see it.
But it also gave us books that allow us to momentarily escape from the disappointments of our world, to transcend the limitations of reality and experience life through other eyes.
It may have been a trying year for nearly everything else, but 2016 was a good year for books. And of those that I read, here are my 13 favorites, in alphabetical order.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Another Brooklyn — National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years — is a fever dream of a book. The plot is so insubstantial as to be barely noticeable, and the language vivid and hallucinatory.
This is not to say the book itself is insubstantial — only that it’s composed of elisions, of nonlinear, half-remembered vignettes. “This is memory,” the narrator, August, tells us again and again. August is remembering her childhood in pre-gentrification Brooklyn in the 1970s, which she spent finding her group of friends and coping with her mother’s death. What makes the book so compelling is the way August talks around everything that happened to her; that’s what gives Woodson’s heady, evocative prose room to do its work, to creep up and grab you and not let go.
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
In A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem gives us an international man of mystery in the style of a James Bond or a Don Draper, and then slowly breaks him apart.
Bruno is a high-stakes professional backgammon player with telepathy, but those details are incidental. What Bruno is really devoted to is his “sole life accomplishment: his personality.” He’s built himself a suave and debonair persona on the strength of his beautiful face and impassive charisma, and it is the only thing in life he truly cares about.
That’s why he’s so devastated when he develops a tumor behind his face and, in a stunning and visceral 20-page set piece, has to have his face cut open and the tumor surgically removed. In one fell swoop, Bruno loses his money to a costly procedure that strips him of his looks, and, with them, the personality he so carefully cultivated. And at the same time, his telepathy becomes cripplingly impossible to ignore.
Lethem’s stylish, straightforward prose powers A Gambler’s Anatomy capably from its glamorous beginnings in high-stakes gambling rooms through its clinical surgery scene to its anarchic climax in the mundane streets of gentrifying Berkeley. But the book’s true focus is on a man who devotes himself to the cult of his own personality, and on what happens to him when that personality falls apart.
The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente
The Fairyland series, a middle-grade quintet by Catherynne M. Valente, reads like a fairy tale told by a mad Victorian who’s drunk on absinthe and heaps of intoxicating, luxurious words.
The series centers on September, a young girl from Omaha, Nebraska, who’s ravished to Fairyland by the Green Wind under the Persephone clause. The books chronicle the adventures she has there, saving the world and herself and her friends and her parents. As protagonists tend to be in the great otherworld books (the Oz books, the Narnia books, Peter Pan), September is torn between the beloved family she left behind in Omaha and the riotous, colorful, dangerous life she builds in Fairyland — a life described in extravagant, breathtaking words.
In Fairyland, there are towns of cloth — stores “built with violent crinoline and crimson organdy,” and “fancy taffeta offices” that “glimmered under the gaze of black-lace oracles.” There are towns of gingerbread, where “the cobbles of the square were muffin-tops, and all the fountains gushed fresh, sweet milk.” It’s a magic world that’s built out of an infatuation with polysyllabic words and lavish descriptions. And it’s no wonder, then, that September’s best friend there is the Wyverary A-Through-L, who is the child of a wyvern and a library: the magic of the Fairyland series’ world, the magic that gives it dragons and wyverns and talking winds, depends fundamentally on words and books.
In The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, the series’ fifth and final installment, September is locked in a deadly race to find the heart of Fairyland. It’s a chance for her to make a farewell tour of the bits of Fairyland we’ve seen before, as well as explore some new ones — and it’s a chance for Valente to polish up some beloved fairy-tale metaphors, because of course the heart of Fairyland can’t be anything like a literal heart. It’s a lovely, tender finish to one of our most beautiful and word-drunk series of children’s books.
The Girls by Emma Cline
The Girls, Emma Cline’s gorgeous debut novel, is based on the now-familiar story of the Manson Girls, the young women who were so drawn to Charles Manson’s cult that they were willing to commit murder for him. But while Cline’s Manson figure, Russell, is as creepily charismatic as the real-life Manson, Cline’s narrator Evie isn’t drawn to the cult by Russell. She’s drawn to it by her fascination with the other girls in the cult.
Evie is especially taken with Suzanne, a few years older than Evie and miles worldlier. Suzanne is beautiful and seems confident, and her presence works on Evie like a drug. Over the course of the book, Evie steals for her, sleeps with Russell’s adult friends to feel closer to her, and is even, she realizes by the end, willing to kill for her.
The Girls delves deeply into the potent and all-consuming intimacy of a teen girl friendship, into how it shimmers with shades of resentment and eroticism, and how unnervingly it can come to resemble a cult.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
All I want for Christmas is to travel back in time and make the real-life figure Margaret Cavendish my best friend. As depicted in Danielle Dutton’s lovely and delicate historical novel Margaret the First, Margaret was a brilliant, ambitious, and oft-reviled fixture of the 17th-century English court. Part tabloid fixture, part philosopher, Margaret was just as likely to cause a scandal by wearing a breast-baring gown to the theater (with rouged nipples) as by writing a romance that anticipates science fiction or a treatise that anticipates contemporary naturalism.
In Dutton’s novel, Margaret functions as an avatar for thwarted and confined feminine ambition. She is adamant in her desire for fame, writing in her journal, “I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First." But she’s simultaneously apologetic for her ambition, uncomfortably aware that nicely brought-up ladies are not supposed to seek attention overtly. Her discomfort makes her clumsy, and when she demands the attention she craves and that she feels her work deserves, she does it gracelessly, jarringly.
But Dutton makes it clear that Margaret’s restless, agile mind works wonders. Seen through Margaret’s eyes, the surface of a brook becomes a whole fertile world, teeming with bubble people, living and dying and raising their bubble children in the time it takes for a bubble to pop. It’s an arresting and original image from an arresting and original mind.
Nicotine by Nell Zink
Nicotine is the latest and perhaps most conventional (not that that’s saying much) novel from that brilliant weirdo Nell Zink. The book — which focuses on a group of radical “smokers’ rights” activists squatting in an abandoned house, the privileged youngest daughter of the family who owns the house, and her attempts to turn the squatters out — is a satire of contemporary bourgeois social activism, a family tragicomedy, and a bildungsroman all at once.
Zink’s story is bawdy and loopy and unpredictable, her prose zingy and energetic, and her characters almost as insufferable as they are lovable. Even when their cause is absurd and their methods are shallow, Zink treats them with a contagious affection: People are such idiots, she seems to say. Aren’t they sort of wonderful?
Night of the Animals by Bill Broun
In Night of the Animals, the world is ending. It’s 2052. Britain has left the European Union and outlawed Parliament. Suicide cults are on the rise. Animals are dying. And Cuthbert, a 90-year-old homeless man who thinks he can talk to animals, is trying to free all the inhabitants of London Zoo.
Part of the pleasure of this book comes from its tricky, ever-changing structure. It begins as a piece of psychological realism with a dystopian framework, but as the animals begin to escape, and the world gets steadily wilder, the book’s tonal register correspondingly heightens. Suddenly there are death rays and aliens. Prince Harry kills Prince William. A lady turns into a tree. As long as the animals are free, the world is anarchic and wild and pulpy — and then, as they are returned to captivity, the world domesticates itself again.
Night of the Animals is elegiac and lyrical, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a hell of a lot of fun going wild at the same time.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
In Alexander Chee’s lavish, baroque Queen of the Night, everything happens in the heightened register of the opera. Tragic soprano Lilliet Berne is constantly betraying her lovers or being betrayed by them. Over and over again, she reinvents her identity and her elaborate, lovingly described wardrobe, becoming by turns diva, courtesan, servant, and spy. What remains constant is Lilliet’s fight to determine her own identity, her struggle to escape the dictates of her lovers and employers and even of her own vocal range.
Lilliet’s existential struggle keeps the novel grounded, freeing Chee to push the novel’s register to ever more extravagant heights. Nothing that ensues is particularly plausible, but then, that’s part of the charm of the opera. And everything has the rich and compelling gleam of a dark fairy tale.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Swing Time is not Zadie Smith’s most beautiful book — for my money, that title belongs to On Beauty — but it might be her most clear-eyed and perceptive. In part, that’s because it’s also the first book she’s written in the first person, giving Smith a chance to play with the solipsistic, limited perspective of first-person narration. It’s a chance she makes the most of.
Swing Time revolves around a nameless, self-effacing, shadowy young woman, who narrates the book. It also follows the vivid and brilliant women who surround this narrator and shape her life: her intellectual Jamaican-born mother, her less privileged childhood best friend, the charismatic and famous white pop star who becomes her boss. As the stories of these women spiral out around the static, vague central character, Smith turns her attention to the way race, class, and gender interact: in pop music, in schools, in politics, in vanity philanthropy. Often they’re operating in the shadows, out of the way of the narrator’s sightline, but their effects are unmistakable.
And in the meantime, Smith’s lovely, rhythmic sentences pile on top of one another, in elegant, balletic heaps. The result is sometimes frustrating but always thoughtful, intelligent, and fascinating.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
It takes a while to figure out what, exactly, the men of The Throwback Special are planning to do at their annual meeting. It has something to do with football, that’s clear, and specifically it has something to do with the 1985 game that shattered Joe Theismann’s leg, and some kind of ritual reenactment. It should all feel so harmless, but there are sinister undertones running beneath it. You get flashbacks to reading “The Lottery”: Is this a ritual sacrifice?
Using the rituals of football as his organizing principle, Chris Bachelder develops a slightly grim, deeply empathetic portrait of middle-aged, middle-class American masculinity en masse: the rivalries, the camaraderie, the disappointments, the failures, and the transcendent coming together. While the men who make up the book’s cast never come into focus as individuals, the group as a whole becomes a deeply compelling character on its own.
The Trespasser by Tana French
Tana French’s loosely connected Dublin Murder Squad mysteries are constructed around murders, but the dead body is rarely the focus. Instead, it’s a useful device to help French think about power. In her most recent book, The Trespasser, she looks at the stories we tell about how women acquire and use power, and what kind of power is available to them.
Antoinette Conway, the wonderfully prickly and hardboiled cop who narrates The Trespasser, has the power of the state behind her, but that power makes her unlikable to many of her male colleagues. Aislinn Murray, the dead woman whose murder Antoinette is investigating, is a lot more appealing to men — but as Antoinette goes digging through Aislinn’s life, she finds that Aislinn’s appeal was a deliberately constructed power play, one that failed her.
Anointette’s voice is crisp and no-nonsense, but French still finds plenty of room for stirring, evocative imagery without sacrificing the astringency of Antoinette’s narration or the tautness of her pacing. The result is a compulsively readable thriller that works on many levels.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s kinetic, visceral story of a runaway slave is the consensus pick for the book of the year. Oprah anointed it for her book club; it won the National Book Award for fiction. And it’s not hard to see why: It’s that rare book that thinks hard and explicitly about difficult and important topics — in this case, the immense and crippling inhumanity of America’s legacy of slavery and its racist aftermath. All that and it’s a propulsive page turner.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave woman who runs away from a plantation on Georgia and makes her way through America’s slave states on the Underground Railroad, all the while pursued by a relentless, Javert-like slave catcher. The constant tension — will Cora be able to evade the slave catcher this time? — keeps the book’s pace moving, but it’s also a clever sleight of hand. While you’re distracted by the thriller tropes, Whitehead is moving his chess pieces into place so that he can take you on an allegorical journey through the horrors of racism.
As Cora travels, she doesn’t just encounter the white supremacy of slavery. She also encounters anachronistic echoes of post–Civil War, 20th-century racism: the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1970s in South Carolina; the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South in North Carolina. Whitehead examines how the ideology that underpinned slavery leads naturally toward America’s other racist atrocities, and how it continues to shape our national character today. And all the while, his marvelous, elastic voice is shaping the book’s prose into evocative and hallucinatory passages.
The Underground Railroad is a brilliant and beautifully crafted book. It is also, in the year in which white supremacists shaped an election and are on track to shape the incoming administration, essential reading.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Liz Moore’s lovely, lyrical novel is built around artificial intelligence, so of course it’s also built around questions of identity and humanity: That is what AI stories are for, to help us think about what it means to be a person in the universe. But few stories manage their investigations as sweetly and elegantly as The Unseen World.
The Unseen World revolves around a young girl named Ada, who is growing up in Boston in the ’80s with David, her computer scientist father. David and Ada have built a perfect enclosed utopia for each other — one of rigorous mathematical philosophy and gourmet home-cooked dinners — while David works on building a computer program called ELIXIR that he hopes might develop genuine intelligence.
But when David develops dementia, Ada is forced out of their perfect nest and into the unwelcoming outside world. And then she realizes that she’s not sure who David really is — and she’ll need ELIXIR’s help to figure it all out. In the process, she’ll have to figure out who she is herself.
The gothic mystery of David’s true identity merges pleasingly with Ada’s coming-of-age story and the sci-fi musings about what makes us human, but what really elevates this book is its prose. Moore’s delicate, lyrical voice is unshowy but specific, a sheer pleasure to read, and it immerses us fully in Ada’s precise, carefully defined worldview.