2017’s best books: big-name writers returned to spotlight, and Liu Xiaobo’s untimely death casts a shadow
This year saw long-awaited new works of fiction from veterans Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, and Kazuo Ishiguro picked up the Nobel Prize in Literature; two Asian writers penned our best novels of 2017
It can be argued that 2017 was a good, if not great, year for literature. No single author or work dominated international bestseller lists or review pages in the way that J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown or Stieg Larsson, or Twilight, Gone Girl or 50 Shades of Grey, had done previously.
And what was arguably China’s biggest book-related story in the 12 months said less about what was being read than where one might read: the opening in October of the Tianjin Binhai Library. Designed by Dutch architectural firm MVRDV to resemble the human eye, its 37,000 square feet contain 1.2 million books.
“The angles and curves are meant to stimulate different uses of the space, such as reading, walking, meeting and discussing,” explained MVRDV co-founder Winy Maas. “Together they form the ‘eye’ of the building: to see and be seen.”
Making headlines in 2017 were long overdue returns to the spotlight by some literary veterans.
In the two decades since winning the Booker Prize with The God of Small Things (1997), Roy has generated more headlines by speaking out on politics, human rights and environmental issues in her Indian homeland than by writing books. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness proved that time has not withered her talent or ambition: gender, religion, violence, caste, Kashmir and nationhood are all examined.
Falling somewhere between ancient and modern, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo carried off 2017’s Man Booker Prize. Calling it a debut novel was both true and curiously misleading: an established and award-winning short-story writer, Saunders’ victory felt unexpectedly expected. The Man Booker International Prize was won by David Grossman for the anarchic comedy of his book A Horse Walks into a Bar , which saw off Amos Oz’s Judas and, on the longlist, Yan Lianke’s excellent The Explosion Chronicles.
In his many articles and 17 books, including Criticism of the Choice: Dialogues with Li Zehou (1987) and Aesthetics and Human Freedom (1988), he applied what became known as “the Liu Xiaobo Shock” to everything from Chinese nationalism to the positive effects of Western culture on Hong Kong.
Liu also helped found the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, a literary organisation with a focus on human rights, and served as its president from 2003 to 2007. Having spent two decades in and out of jail, largely because of his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison after he co-wrote Charter 08, a manifesto demanding 19 basic human rights ranging from freedom of expression to abolition of the hukou (household registration) system in China.
The sense that 2017 wasn’t about breaking new ground was reflected by China’s bestseller lists, which were dominated once more by Japanese crime master Keigo Higashino and home-grown science-fiction god Liu Cixin. Higashino’s Miracles of the Namiya General Store (2012) topped Amazon’s chart, with his older Journey Under the Midnight Sun (1999) and The Devotion of Suspect X (2005) not far behind. A box set of Liu’s award-winning trilogy continued his enormous commercial success.
“This case surpassed my imagination,” Zhou said. “I thought putting this case at the start [of the show] would let my audience know: ‘This author does not tell lies.’”
One of the more heart-warming success stories belongs to Claire McFall. Hardly known in her homeland of Scotland, McFall struck gold in China with Ferryman (2013), a Young Adult novel featuring a deceased young woman being guided through a purgatorial wasteland by a handsome angel. A constant feature in China’s bestseller lists for three years, the million-selling Ferryman has now been joined by a sequel, Trespassers , which proves McFall is no one-hit wonder.
Two non-fiction books with an eye on the past are flying high as 2017 ends. Human Taste, a collection of Wang Zengqi’s writing on food, is currently the bestselling book in China, followed closely by Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997).
Reviewing previous wars between the world’s leading superpower (here: America) and an up-and-coming rival (China), Allison hedged his bets, which will not calm nerves in Washington, Beijing or anywhere else for that matter.
In Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle , a writer embarks on a quest to find the titular vehicle once owned by his father. His meandering journey through Taiwan and Taiwanese history produces a panoply of intertwining stories that incorporate the world’s oldest elephant and the battlefields of the second world war.
Instead of a plot, Han’s narrator uses the experience of travelling to strange lands to recall the death of her baby sister many years before, as well as her mother’s raw grief. The prose is spare but lyrical, and ultimately deeply moving. A fantastic book worthy of any year in living memory.