If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that predictions are for fools and pollsters. From Brexit to Trump, the past 12 months made a mockery of prophets everywhere. Which only makes the most uncertain question of our age feel even more uncertain. Will 2017 be the year that George R.R. Martin finally gets his finger out (preferably all 10 typing digits) to complete The Winds of Winter, the sixth instalment in the Game of Thrones series?
Martin has been talking up the new book since 2012, even posting an excerpt on his still gloriously rudimentary website last May. But to date, The Winds of Winter has been a rumour worthy of Tyrion Lannister. Still, you have to feel for George. Hardcore fans have apparently berated him at his rare public appearances for not being at home proofreading. You can’t win ’em all, it seems. Even games of thrones.
Almost as exciting as this (possible) publication is news that Arundhati Roy is releasing a new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It has, amazingly, been nearly 20 years since her last, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker in 1997. The publicity blurbs are lyrical, grandiose but a little vague: “A book about souls, past and present, human and animal, that have been broken by the world we live in and mended by love.” It sounds a little like Danielle Steel but that is where the similarities will end. We hope.
Top of my to-read lists are two memoirs by talented Chinese novelists. In February, Yiyun Li, whose books The Vagrants (2009) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) earned her a prestigious MacArthur grant, publishes Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. An exploration of Li’s favourite writers, from William Trevor to Søren Kierkegaard, it doubles as a meditation on the life of the immigrant (born in Beijing, Li lives in America), working as a novelist and coping with mental illness. Li began the book during a period of suicidal depression, and explores with intelligence and quiet fortitude her mother’s similar struggles.
Guo Xiaolu’s Once Upon a Time in the East is perhaps best explained by its subtitle: “A Story of Growing Up”. Like Li, Guo grew up in China, only in her case, “I was born an orphan”, as the first words of her book declare, somewhat misleadingly. Guo’s parents did not die, but gave her up for adoption to a couple living in near poverty. When their penury became too great, Guo was handed to her grandparents, who lived beside the East China Sea. The book follows her extraordinary life from this remote fishing village to film school in Beijing to England and her most recent incarnation, as a mother.
Like these two writers, Meena Kandasamy is a poet, activist, novelist and exile of sorts: born in India, she divides her time between Chennai and London. In common with Guo, her work mixes fact and fiction, politics and literary experiments: her debut, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), offered an elliptical, unsettling account of the slaughter by government forces of village rebels in Tamil Nadu in 1968. Kandasamy’s follow-up, When I Hit You (2017), draws deeply on her own life. A young, aspiring writer falls in love with her university teacher, only to discover he is a violent rapist. The story is by turns a thinly veiled autobiography, a powerful exploration of marriage in modern India, and an unflinching portrait of love gone awry.
Yan Lianke also returns in 2017, at least in English translation, courtesy of Carlos Rojas. Having been shortlisted for the International Man Booker with The Four Books (2010), Yan lets off The Explosion Chronicles, which narrates the rise of a small village (called Explosion) from Maoist acorn to capitalist oak tree. The novel’s satirical purpose is hard to miss: Explosion’s three main families deal in sex, violence and corruption. In other words, business as usual for Yan.
If there is one new(ish) name to look out for this year, then 32-year-old young-adult novelist Marie Lu is my tip. Born in Wuxi, she now lives in Los Angeles: her family left China in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests. Lu has written two highly regarded series: the Legend books and The Young Elites. Legend was snapped up by the same producers that made Twilight a global phenomenon, and the movie adaptation is in the works. With Donald Trump about to take office, this dark portrait of America as a police state, ruled by an election-rigging president who cares only for the rich, suddenly feels strangely prescient. Lu is currently working on a new book series called Warcross, due out in the autumn.
Chinese science fiction was one of the big success stories of 2016, and looks set for another good year. Liu Cixin releases The Wandering Earth, a collection of short stories, translated as usual by Ken Liu, who is also responsible for the English version of The Waste Tide(2013), Chen Qiufan’s debut novel, which has made a considerable splash in his homeland. “It’s a post-cyberpunk, tech thriller,” Liu told me last year. He has also worked on Baoshu’s much-loved Three Body X (2011), a fan-fiction continuation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy.
Other works to look forward to this year include The Refugees, a short-story collection by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. I am also a huge fan of Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly odd fictions, thanks in no small part to The Nakano Thrift Shop (2016). Her Record of a Night Too Brief comprises three stories, including the characteristically unusual tale of a woman cohabiting with a snake.
The Gun, by Fuminori Nakamura, arriving in paperback this month, suggests that the ascent of Japanese noir shows no sign of slowing. This tale of a young man’s obsession with a gun he finds beside a dead body stands up well beside Keigo Higashino’s masterly twisters. Fascination of a gentler order floats within Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2014.
In terms of non-fiction, this month sees Pang Lai-kwan, a professor of cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, publish the absorbing The Art of Cloning, a concise but ingenious examination of the Cultural Revolution through the idea of copying. Steve Crawshaw’s Street Spirit is not only named after a Radiohead song, this study of public protest from around the globe is introduced by Ai Weiwei. Out of China, by Robert Bickers, offers a longer, but no less inventive account of Beijing’s fight for political and economic autonomy throughout the 20th century. Here is the story of China’s relationship with the rest of the world in 500 vibrant pages.
Otherwise, Nadeem Aslam’s new novel, The Golden Legend, promises much. And what will Veronica Roth dream up to follow her impressive and vastly successful Divergent series?: Carve the Mark is out this month. Ditto Paula Hawkins, who follows up global phenomenon The Girl on the Train (2015) with Into the Water.
And just in case you can’t find room for all these new books around all the old books, save space for Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding, which sold millions of copies in Japan and inspired a legion of imitators.