2016 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 30, 2016
Keep your amuse-bouches, it's straight on to the good stuff. Here are the best books I've read this year. Get them in your eyes.

10. The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
With his steadfast refusal to be shoved into any literary pigeonhole, it's easy to forget that Colson Whitehead is one of the best damn writers in the English language. Seriously, the guy can write rings around almost all of his contemporaries, and he can do it while riffing on zombies or elevators. Or zombies in elevators. Following his much lauded Zone One, Whitehead returns to the world of Civil War America to deftly dissect one of its most interesting phenomenons, the secret rail network that ferried slaves out of the South on to freedom. It was, of course, a noble endeavour but one fraught with extreme danger. In Whitehead's hands, it also takes on an element of ambiguity - there were a lot of seedy opportunists involved in the project and he does not shy away for exposing them for what they were. Nor does he omit the nasty, complicit bastards on the Dixie side. In fact, to that end, the book brings to mind Cormac McCarthy complete with a nasty bounty hunter that might well have just stepped out of Blood Meridian. The Underground Railroad is a lesson on how historical fiction should be done: it is packed with information but never feels bogged down by the weight of Whitehead's knowledge. And for that, it is a thoroughly enthralling read even if it doesn't have zombies. Or elevators.

9. The Fighter - Arnold Zable
In a world of mostly unadulterated shit, Henry Nissen is - to borrow from Jon Lovitz's character in Happiness - a refreshing glass of champagne. A former boxing champion, Nissen has dedicated his life to helping others. I've had the good fortune of knowing him a while, and like everybody that's ever met him, I can say without equivocation that he is one of the kindest, hardest working, most beautiful humans I've ever known. For most of his life, Nissen has gone about his work without recognition or fanfare. Enter Arnold Zable, the poet laureate of human compassion. That there should be synergy between these two men comes as no surprise. They come from similar backgrounds - the children of greatly tormented Holocaust survivors - and grew up near one another in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. They both have hearts the size of minor planets. And they are both tirelessly committed to bettering the world for those less fortunate than themselves. But I don't think I could have predicted quite how gorgeous the product of the synergy would be. The Fighter is a remarkable book - a biography of sorts, spun in the fashion of a novel. And while Henry and his boxer brother Leon are no doubt its narrative centre, its true heart lies with their mother, Sonia. For me, The Fighter is really her story. Zable renders her scars with remarkable sensitivity but there is no hiding the extent of her trauma, nor the damage she inflicts on those who love her. It is in turns heartbreaking and terrifying. I had to stop a few times just to catch my breath. Thankfully, Zable knows about balance, and returns to either the boxing ring, the docks or the streets just as the reader is about to go down for the count. Having read almost all of his wonderful work, it strikes me that Zable has finally found his perfect subject. The Fighter is a magnificent achievement in narrative non-fiction.

8. The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes
For some time now (notably since the death of his wife), Julian Barnes has been regularly gifting us with small gems that might seem slight in comparison to the weightiness of his early work but stand alongside such brilliant books as England, England, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in terms of depth, power and profundity. Oddly, it took one of these short books - The Sense of an Ending - to finally bag him his long overdue Booker. Now, with his tender memoir, Levels of Life, acting as a conceptual bridge, Barnes returns to his fertile contemplative field of art or, more precisely, the meaning of art in The Noise of Life. This time round he smartly posits his meditation in a place that art could not flourish freely: Stalin's Russia. The Noise of Time is a fictional telling of Dmitri Shostakovich's fall from grace, redemption and ultimate destruction in the Soviet maelstrom. Shostakovich provides the perfect vehicle for Barnes to distill many of the ideas he has toyed with over the years - the interplay of art and power, individual identity, the place of the artist in society and the fragility of human dignity. In Shostakovich's tragic decline, we can see all these things play out and, perhaps, learn a thing or two about how we might fortify ourself in the face of threats to our basic humanity. It all might sound rather dour but, trust me, in Barnes's hands it is quite the uplifting experience.

7. The Tobacconist - Robert Seethaler
Last year, I picked a small book from the shelf simply for the beauty of its design. That silly impulse buy turned out to be one of my favourite novels of the year, Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life. This year, I was scanning the shelves of a bookstore in Dubai when I happened upon a new Seethaler. Holy shit. I actually had palpitations. The Tobacconist is a similarly gorgeous book and, like its predecessor, takes as its subject a barely significant 'nobody' - an everyman - around whom history unfolds. What makes The Tobacconist somehwhat less successful, however, is its use of a very famous person as a narrative device. Franz, the tobacconist of the title, is sent to Vienna by his mother in the hope of a better life, and becomes the assistant to Otto Trsnyek, a local corner shop owner. The shop happens to specialise in fine cigars. One of their most loyal customers - and I'm sure you can see this one coming - is none other than Sigmund Freud. As the dark clouds of Nazism cloak the city, things get bad for Trsnyek and Freud, both of whom, of course, are Jewish. Meanwhile, Franz is caught up in the typical confusion of young love and turns to Freud for assistance. It sounds kind of twee and I think it often skirts right on the edge of sentimentality but Seethaler is, thankfully, better than that. In fact, he shares many qualities with the European greats, something that both of his books will no doubt bring to mind as you read them. The Tobacconist is not the revelation that A Whole Life was, but as a chronicler of historical rupture as it pertains to the ordinary man, Seethaler once again proves himself to be the contemporary master.

6. His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnett
Well nobody saw this one coming. When Team Booker announced its 2016 Long List, a few eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of what appeared to be a not-very-literary thriller. To be honest, most people had simply never heard of the book and didn't know what to make of it. The publisher, for sure, hadn't thought they had a hit on their hands. Within minutes of the announcement, they were out of stock. I was secretly chuffed. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for historical crime fiction and, reading the promotional guff, I got a warm, fuzzy feeling that His Bloody Project might be something akin to Iain Pears's masterpiece of the genre, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Turns out I was right. What an absolute delight this is! Set in rural Scotland and told from a bunch of perspectives - newspaper clippings, doctors' reports, court transcripts, witness interviews and a lengthy written confession - it is the story of sharecropper Roddy MacRae, a seventeen-year-old boy tried for the brutal murder of Lachlan Broad, the domineering bastard who has made his family's life hell. That he killed Broad, as well as his two children, is not in question. But was it the inevitable snap back against the cruel injustice of class subjugation? In that regard, I was truly rooting for the kid - the dastardly schemes Broad concocts to fuck him and his father over were often painful to read. But there was another possible motive. Maybe it was a crime of passion fuelled by sexual jealousy and the humiliation of rejection? After all, MacRae loved Broad's daughter but she had publicly rebuffed his advances at the local fair. Burnett leaves it sufficiently ambiguous so that you'll have to draw your own conclusion. I'm still not sure. Bloody brilliant.

5. The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
And the award for outright weirdest book of the year goes to Charles Lambert's The Children's Home. Ten months after having finished it I'm still none the wiser as to what the fuck it actually was. But confound me as it did, it remains one of the best books I read this year. Okay, slight caveat before you have a go at it: I love a book that unsettles and discombobulates me. And I have a thing for creepy children, hermits and the suggestion of war in seemingly dystopian counter-futures. I don't, however, think I've ever read a book that got the mix quite as right as this. The appearance of the strange kids at the secluded house of some weird Phantom of the Opera-like guy totally sucked me in. Even if his name was Morgan. Why were they there? Who was he? And what was all this about other children appearing and disappearing around the house? And those wax dolls in the attic... WHAAAAT? The arrival of government agents to question Morgan about the children (Morgan, of course, doesn't come down to talk to them, leaving it instead to another creepy character - his doctor) only makes it more unsettling. Is he some kind of monster? Has he killed the other children? Is the house haunted by their ghosts? It all takes a turn when one of the children is taken away and Morgan finally leaves the house to confront his sister who, we learn, might be the fascist leader of the war-torn land. To get a better sense, check out my review. Or just throw yourself into its house of mirrors. Amazing.

4. The North Water by Ian McGuire
Rumour has it that 2017 will finally bring us the release of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Passenger. Then again, the same rumour floated about for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Still, we live in hope. In the meantime, I spend my days looking for McCarthy methadone - novels that might not quite be what I really want but are enough for the fix I need. This year, that book was without a doubt Ian McGuire's brutal novel of despair and survival on the high seas, The North Water. You need only read the first twenty pages to get a sense of what you're in for. Henry Drax - the best bad guy I've read in ages - beats one man to death then bashes and rapes a young boy, all the while revelling in his villainy. When he signs on to the crew of a whaling ship, you know it ain't going to fare well. Enter Patrick Sumner - troubled former army surgeon with a few bloodstains on his lily-white soul - seeking a means of escaping his past and making amends. He's also on the ship. Shit's about to get real. It's not hard to find connections between The North Water and Moby Dick. Both are ostensibly about whaling expeditions gone awry without really being about that at all. In that sense, The North Water is the book Melville might have written if he were a perverted sadist who hated the world (but loved Joseph Conrad). That's a compliment, by the way. The North Water is a cataclysmic showdown between good and evil, pitting one of the nastiest sons o' bitches you'll ever meet against a man seemingly not cut out for the job of stopping him. Add to it a quite brilliant underlying conspiracy - it is set, after all in the dying days of the whale oil trade where former magnates are looking for ways to get out - and a cast of truly memorable characters and you've got one hell of a good book. How it didn't end up on the Booker shortlist is beyond me. I'm just going to go ahead and say it: it should have won.

3. Shelter by Jung Yun
Last year I, along with many others, had my heart smashed into little pieces, fed to a pack of wolves, shat out and thrown into a vat of acid by Hanya Yanagihara's magnificent novel, A Little Life. Just when I thought it was safe to open a book again, along comes Jung Yun with her debut novel, Shelter, and forces me to drink that acid through a barbed wire straw. Set in the wake of the America's 2008 housing crisis, it initially lulls you into thinking it's a novel of familial obligation and the immigrant experience. Kyung Cho, a young biology professor with a wife and infant child, is meeting a real estate agent to talk through selling a house he can't afford. It is an admission of failure, one that Cho struggles to reconcile with his sense of dignity and his family's expectations. Mid-meeting, his mother, Mae, appears in the backyard, naked and bloodied. What the fuck? Something bad has happened at her home, a violent attack. She has escaped. Cho's father, Jin, is still there. When the dust settles, it is clear that Mae and Jin can no longer live in their home. Cho asks them to move in. What was already a tense familial situation - money woes have brought Cho and his wife to the brink - just got a whole lot worse. As the novel unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Cho and his parents weren't exactly the happy family either. Indeed, Jin was an abusive monster, a dictatorial autocrat in his own home and now, in the wake of the attack, unable to cope with the diminution of his authority. He has been humiliated. And it doesn't make for a smooth recovery or some kind of family healing. Reading Shelter is a harrowing experience. You might well be traumatised. But as a slice of modern American life it is right up there with Yanagihara as a contemporary classic.

2. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
So here's the deal. You open your book with pickles and you are pretty much assured of landing in my Top 10. Start waxing theoretical in ways I don't understand but that still make me laugh and we're talking Top 5. Make me think I get physics while thoroughly enmeshing me in the intergenerational shenanigans of a truly eccentric family (and chucking in a few great barbs about Orson Scott Card and L. Ron Hubbard to boot) and BAM, you almost land top spot. The Lost Time Accidents is a big book in every conceivable way. Bursting with ideas, social commentary, historical trivia and enough narrative verve to power a small country, it's the kind of novel that will completely consume you. As you navigate its time-travelling, genre-flipping, mind-bending, side-splitting pages, you'll find yourself thinking about it almost every waking moment. And once you're done, you'll think about it even more. In my original review I likened it to Michael Chabon's masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A few months of stewing on it and my enthusiasm hasn't dampened in the slightest. In terms of pure enjoyment, this was my favourite book of the year. Come back tomorrow to see what knocked it off the top spot.


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