The year in books was considerably more encouraging, not least for the insights they offer into the deluge of disasters. Anyone seeking enlightenment about the human cost of Syria’s civil war, for example, should read The Battle for Home by Marwa al-Sabouni. An architect who lives in Homs, she employs memoir, architectural analysis and wonderfully evocative drawings to tell her story and that of her home city. It is astonishing.
It’s also been a stellar year for writers from across Asia. Madeleine Thien, who was associated for several years with City University of Hong Kong, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize with Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The title might have been a double-negative tongue-twister, but the narrative effortlessly covers six decades of Chinese history, culminating in the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown. You can read the book as a heartbreaking drama of lives at the mercy of larger political forces but also as a profoundly moving meditation on the liberating power of music.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a worthy winner of 2016’s International Man Booker. By turns surreal, erotic and shocking, this utter one-off is propelled by the otherwise ordinary decision of a young Korean woman to give up meat. What happens next is a verbal firestorm that engulfs big themes such as gender, art, sex and politics.
Other notable International Man Booker nominees included Yan Lianke’s high-minded epic, The Four Books, and Man Tiger, by Eka Kurniawan, who won the FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award for Fiction with his startling account of the Indonesian dictatorship.
Japanese crime writers were on top form. Keigo Higashino, who regularly tops bestseller charts in China, published A Midsummer’s Equation, his usual combination of Rubik’s cube puzzle and human obsessiveness. Six Four proposes Hideo Yokoyama as Japan’s answer to James Ellroy. His first novel to be translated into English, its complex, time-travelling plot is an addictive exposé of corruption extending all the way to the emperor.
Chinese science fiction continues to spread across the globe, thanks largely to Liu Cixin and Ken Liu. Death’s End, the final part of Liu Cixin’s masterly modern classic The Three-Body Problem, completed a trilogy that succeeds both as an exercise in imaginative universe-building and an allegory of modern China.
His translator, Ken Liu, found time to publish a novel of his own, The Wall of Storms, and a story collection (The Paper Menagerie), as well as editing Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese science-fiction shorts that suggests Ken Liu’s talent is but the tip of an iceberg. Highlights include Chen Qiufan’s horror dystopias and Hao Jingfang’s Hugo award-winner, Folding Beijing.
Two non-fiction books chewed over the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Mei Fong’s One Child offers a wide-ranging, often deeply personal account that examines 2008’s Sichuan earthquake and considers the impact the law might have upon gender relations, the generation gap and Chinese society as a whole. Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns may sound narrower in scope: six vivid portraits of millennials coping with the pressure to succeed in their personal and professional lives. But the conclusions Ash draws about China’s past and future are substantial indeed.
The second part of Ian W. Toll’s The Conquering Tide continues his exhaustive account of the military conflict between Japan and the Allied forces in the Pacific following Pearl Harbour. One person who might do well to give it a glance is the United States’ president-elect, who was himself the subject of another impressive book: The Making of Donald Trump, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston. The investigative reporter has followed Trump’s career for almost four decades, and reports on everything from his dealings with the mafia to his grandfather’s bordellos, Trump’s income-tax contributions to his long-term relationship with the truth.
An equally sobering but more heart-warming story of contemporary America is provided by Richard Russo’s mordantly funny Everybody’s Fool. The sequel to his 1993 masterpiece Nobody’s Fool, it follows the erratic adventures of Donald “Sully” Sullivan in small-town America. Another contender for 2016’s great American novel is Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton. This is essentially a two-hander set in a single hospital room, but Strout’s nuanced prose enables her mother-daughter tale to break free from its narrative confines.
Then again, we learned this year that America’s most important living writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a writer at all. Bob Dylan won 2016’s Nobel Prize for Literature, an event that pitted pop lyrics against poetry for weeks on end. Personally speaking, I would like to know when J.K. Rowling is going to release that Harry Potter hip hop record.
Speaking of which … Almost as controversial as Dylan’s Nobel Prize was Rowling’s brand-new Harry Potter novel, which contrives to be: a) not by J.K. Rowling; b) not brand-new; and c) not a novel. The Cursed Child is actually the script of her recent smash-hit play, with a story inspired by Rowling but written by Jack Thorne. At least it stars Harry Potter, which didn’t seem to assuage Potterheads who moaned that the story looks eerily like the text message conversations on their smartphones.
For “Elena Ferrante”, acclaimed and pseudonymous Italian author of My Brilliant Friend, 2016 was the year she was outed, by The New York Review of Books no less, as Anita Raja, a Roman translator (allegedly). Tweets flew, as the literary world discussed the morality of destroying Ferrante’s oft-discussed anonymity. Luckily, the rest of us could simply do what Ferrante has always wanted: read Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey and The Story of the Lost Child (the latter was also shortlisted for the International Man Booker).
Otherwise it was business as usual. Lee Child sold a lot of books. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train kept on a-rollin’ from 2015, thanks to the underwhelming movie adaptation. Ian McEwan rewrote Hamlet the Dane as Hamlet the Embryo in Nutshell . Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time provided acute, intimate depictions of family life then blew it when they attempted to weave these strands into the larger tapestry of international relations.
All these were overshadowed by Paul Beatty’s gratifying, if surprising, Man Booker victory with The Sellout. Wildly, even confrontationally satirical, The Sellout’s plot about a modern-day black slave owner feels both timely and timeless.
Two other books that won almost universal approval (in addition to My Name Is Lucy Barton) were The Return, by novelist and academic Hisham Matar, and Born To Run, by rock star Bruce Springsteen. Matar returns to Libya to try and discover what happened to his father, kidnapped by Gaddafi’s forces almost 40 years earlier. Springsteen returns to his roots in New Jersey to explain his family, his battles with depression and his long rise to global superstardom. Both men emerge, in their own ways, as brave, sensitive and eloquent souls.
I will limit my own personal recommendations this year to three. Alice Oswald is a poet, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading Falling Awake, a tender, beautiful hymn to the natural and classical worlds. Ian McGuire’s The North Water was the most vibrant, violent and captivating novel I read this year – Moby-Dick harpooned by Trainspotting comes close, sort of. Finally, Tom Phillips is an acclaimed English artist who has spent decades altering a Victorian novel to pick out strange verbal constructions. The result, A Humument, is his life’s work. The final, fully revised version was published this month, 50 years after the first.
It may have been a truly awful year, but it’s not too late to grab a book and make it a little better.