2016 In Review: Best of Bridesmaids

on Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Dateline: December 28.

Progress: 94 books. 51 published in 2016. 43 published in other years.

I'm writing from deep inside my reading hidey-hole, having just done the spectacularly stupid thing of starting a 400 page novel. I no longer hold on to hope. This could well be my last missive. I've seen The Blair Witch Project. Still, I must press on. There are books to laud, for Godsakes.

I've been playing with my top ten for almost a month now. The top four or five were clear but after that there were quite a few novels that contended for list space. Had I written this yesterday it might have been different. The day before and it'd have been different again. But there comes a time I have to commit these things to the screen (well, that felt weird to write), so big cheers to the following books that just missed out.

Good People by Nir Baram
Although Baram has published three novels in his native Israel and been translated widely in Europe and South America, Good People is the first book to make it into English. A morally complex tour-de-force, it dares to suggest that those caught up in the early stages of the Nazi and Stalinist machinery, the lesser cogs, might actually have believed that they were being good citizens without necessarily subscribing to the underlying ideology. Our views, after all, are shaped by the societies in which we live. And we all look for how we might utilise our skills to get ahead. In some ways, I was reminded of The Conformist by Alberto Moravia or The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. But Baram is much more subtle - his characters are not monsters. And for that they are even more frightening because in them we just might see ourselves.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
I'm a sucker for a slim hardcover volume. Throw an intriguing cover and a title referencing classical literature (here it's Emily Dickinson) into the mix and I'm pretty much anyone's. If you love to hold a beautiful book, run out now and get your hands on Max Porter's debut. If you're at all skeptical about what lies between the covers, let me assure you: this is a stunning piece of fiction. You will come to treasure it both as object and as a reading experience. Be warned: it is strange and experimental. It tackles the concepts of grief and consolation in an entirely original way - flitting between a husband in mourning, his two young children and a straight-up weird black crow that swoops in and out of the narrative to give its surreal observations. But persevere and you will be rewarded with a unique meditation on what it means to lose someone you love and how you might find your way back to life without them.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
There is no living author that I admire more than J.M. Coetzee. That said, I have had a rather equivocal relationship with his post-South Africa novels. Each of them have moments but nothing stands alongside Waiting For The Barbarians, The Life and Times of Michael K., or Disgrace. When Coetzee put out his last novel, The Childhood of Jesus, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed suitably intriguing - an immigrant/refugee narrative shot through a prism of Kafkaesque refraction. That Australia, Coetzee's home since 2006, was failing dismally in the humanitarian treatment of its refugees made me think that Coetzee had once again found a cause to fire up his writing. As it turns out, Childhood was okay. In fact, it had one of the best few first chapters of any of his novels. Then it kind of wandered off into nowheresville. When I heard that his next novel was going to be a sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Expectation management dictated that I not get my hopes up. But heck, it's Coetzee. What chance did I have? I begged my publisher for an advance copy and the day it arrived in the mail I locked myself away and began to read. Well... what can I say? The Schooldays of Jesus was about as close to a return to form as I ever could have hoped. Gone was the twee obiter that let down Childhood. In its place was a sinister, powerful vivisection of the outer limits of obsession and loyalty. It was an unexpected turn from Coetzee but a very welcome one. The ending was left open. I look forward to a third instalment.

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
How to convey the extraordinary power of this short novel without giving too much away? The clue, I suppose, is in the title. Set mostly in a Tamil refugee camp that is repeatedly attacked by government forces, The Story of A Brief Marriage wastes no time in depicting the horrors of war. Mutilated children, the starving, the hopeless and, of course, the defiant. Amongst it all, people go about trying to salvage something from the carnage. They must, after all, live their lives. And so it is we meet Dinesh and Ganga, two young people brought together by a father's desperate opportunism. They are married without fanfare and stumble uneasily into the roles of husband and wife. Theirs are the struggles of any young couple but magnified and disfigured by extreme circumstance. At times it is excruciating to witness but there are also moments of great tenderness, even humour. The Story of a Brief Marriage is a devastating novel but, as we watch the destruction in Aleppo unfold on our televisions, an altogether necessary one. It is, when all is said and done, the story of our times.

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam
I've always been a fan of Steven Amsterdam's work but this might just be his most daring and successful novel to date. Courageous, morally challenging, wise and thoroughly entertaining, The Easy Way Out is the novel Don DeLillo could only wish to have written instead of that tripe Zero K. Like Delillo's novel, it is set in an alternative near-future, both instantly familiar and subtly unsettling. Also like Zero K, much of The Easy Way Out takes place in an assisted dying facility. However, where Amsterdam's book really outshines Delillo's is in the depth of its understanding, its empathy, its ability to meaningfully engage with the blurry ethical lines of helping someone die. What, ask Amsterdam, are the limits of advocacy? That he does so within the context of a book that is fun, action-packed and kind of sexy is quite the achievement. Amsterdam always impresses. Here he astonishes.


Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. Having never really rated Swift, I was throughly charmed by this lovely little book about a young maid and her brief dalliance with the boss's son. It wouldn't be British if he wasn't about to be married but the sting in the novel's tail lies very much in the girl's development into a writer of some renown and her obsessive return to the moment that changed her life. Brilliant meta-fiction in disguise.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. How many Booker loyalists were repulsed by this bleak gem? It's dark and gritty and doesn't pull any punches. Eileen is a singularly pitiful character and her unwitting complicity in an act of shocking violence and betrayal plays out like a train crash. But Moshfegh is a superb writer who knows just when to pull the right string. You'll hate the world a little more after you've finished, but that's okay. It's worth it.

The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst. Consistently wacky and macabre, Verhulst is becoming a bit of a regular on my end of year lists. This time round sees him tackling the question of ageing, in particular the existential dread that comes with the realising you might no longer be relevant. Désiré, a retired librarian, decides to fake dementia to get himself into a care facility. It can't end well. It doesn't. Great book.


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