Most of the year’s strongest novels had historical heavy subject matter, befitting a year that felt to American readers like the darkest in memory. My “best of” list is reflective of that trend, including novels that touch on the Holocaust and slavery, colonialism and violence. Many of these books made me weep or close the pages to take a calming breath. And yet I kept going, because literature has the power to see us through, to help us stare right into the darkness and see it clearly, but also to find improbable hope.
For the sake of transparency I’ll say that there is a decided bias in this list and it’s a temporal one — weighted towards the latter months of the year, thanks to the baby I had in early 2016. Therefore, I’ll conclude the list with a sampling of several major books that I missed this year but remain on my must-read list.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s novel is one of a family tree sundered by slavery. Two half-sisters, unknown to each other until it’s too late, are divided by the trade in human bondage; one marries a slaver and the other is sold away in the putrid basement below her chambers. From there, each chapter follows one of their descendants through the decades to come, offering us grim looks at deep south slavery, the fugitive slave act, the treatment of convicts after reconstruction — and across the sea, at tribal wars in Africa, madness and repression and the painful dynamics of family. Each chapter reads like a short story and a novel chapter at once, and what is incredible about the book isn’t just the detail and characterization, but the way it has unstoppable forward momentum; you keep reading to find out the fates of the previous generation in the story of the next one.
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Patchett’s most personal novel is worth inclusion on this list for the opening scene alone, a gin-soaked California party that seals the fates of two families, as well as an interlude later on that’s an extended sojourn in among the literati in the Hamptons. Yet the whole thing is worthwhile, a tale of fractured and re-formed families, tragedy and the love that forms around its fissures.
Moonglow, Michael Chabon
A story in the form of a memoir, written by Chabon’s alter egos as an account of his grandfather’s life, richoteting between World War II, the postwar years and his dotage. Moonglow is about family secrets and the legacy of war and genocide, one of many 2016 works, like Homegoing, that explores inherited trauma. A fully-rounded example of Chabon’s trademark mix of polished prose, humor and pathos.
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
Donoghue sends her protagonist, the brisk nurse Libby to Ireland in the years after the famine to stand watch over Anna, a would-be saint who insists she’s being nourished by heavenly food and living onwards despite starving. A mystery that’s also the story of maternal love and the perversions of misogynist religion, this book refused to get out of my head for weeks.
Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn
Dennis-Benn was our first Sweetest Debut entrant; her book jolted me back to alertness and life as I returned to work from leave. A searing, heartfelt look at a damaged family of three women in Jamaica, Benn’s Here Comes the Sun takes on the sex trade, skin-lightening and internalized racism, sexual and physical abuse, and homophobia, all under the shadow of the exploitation of tourism and colonialism. And yet this novel never feels polemical; it’s personal and alive with the energy of its characters. What turns it from a good read into a tour fe dorce is the ending, whose imagery has stayed with me; it’s a kind of triumphant tragedy you don’t see coming at all.
The Golden Age, Joan London
This Australian novel explores a love affair between two young teenagers in Australia, the titular convalescent home for kids with polio. One of them is a Jewish refugee from Europe, so in addition to disease, its subject in another way is the alienation of war and being a refugee, a subject that seems pertinent in particular in our current moment. I cried ten times or so while reading this, but its absolute beauty was what allowed those sad moments to pierce my soul.
The Red Car, Marcy Dermansky
A spare, odd, yet affecting story of a woman’s self-actualization when her old boss from another time in her life dies and leaves her the red car she died in. A road trip ensues, featuring old friends, interludes featuring the voice of said boss, and a sense that the car is haunted. Rather than grand moments of realization, it’s through the hiding and the jerking back and forth between passive inaction and seemingly unmotivated action that we see the protagonist grow.
Modern Lovers, Emma Straub
Straub’s gentle, funny and touching story of two intertwined families in gentrifying Brooklyn. It’s about food, friendship, old secrets and the way that women relate to their artistic and creative ambitions, and it’s the only book this year that I found entirely pleasant and not disturbing — but not a cop-out either.
Hungry Heart, Jennifer Weiner
The author’s first memoir is thick and feels padded here and there, but the sections in which Weiner describes various humiliations and triumphs from her adolescence up through her adulthood (the sections on her father will break your heart in particular) showcase the ferocious wit and emotional exploration that make her so beloved as a novelist; I find her nonfiction voice particularly charming.
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
You don’t need me to tell you that Smith is a modern master; this book shines in particular during the section that explores her protagonist’s childhood in London and friendship with another mixed-race girl, Tracey, with whom she shares a dance class. A longer section in an African village, when the main character ends up trying to found a girls’ school for her superstar employer, Aimee, is not quite as successful — but there’s so much to unpack in Smith’s look at dancing, race, mothers and daughters and female friendship that it’s well worth inclusion on the list.
The Girls, Emma Cline
As an exploration of the Manson family Cline’s much-hyped book fails to make the leap from obsession and rebellion into carnage, but in its treatment of the ache of teenage female desire mingled with self-loathing, and how that combination metastasizes into an almost unstoppable and lethal force, makes it a worthy read, and conversation-starter.
Mischling, Affinity Konar
A novel about twins experimented on by the notorious sadist and mass murderer Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz is a lofty undertaking; everyone I told I was reading this asked me, “Why?” But as a Jewish twin myself I felt a morbid curiosity that couldn’t be stopped. The book reminds me, oddly, of The Hunger Games, in its juxtaposition of children and ultraviolence. But it’s more lyrical and plays with reality, demonstrating the way trauma twists the mind. When the horrors of Auschwitz become too much to bear, the war ends, and we’re left with the different — but no less disturbing — horrors of the aftermath.
The Mothers, Brit Bennett
Much has been made of Bennett’s debut, and it’s a powerful read, especially in its depiction of young Nadia Turner, a motherless teenage girl torn between ambition, self-destructive impulses, and her longing for human connection. She is an unforgettable heroine and Bennett’s voice is an important new one. “My main character feels this responsibility to her community yet wants to escape it at the same time. And I was interested in this complexity, as well as the experience of being a young black woman in a community that expects a lot of her, in a world that expects very little,” she told Jezebel.
The Wangs vs. The World, Jade Chang
My favorite thing about this big, funny, sad novel about a Chinese American family whose fortune has gone belly-up in the aftermath of 2008 is the way Chang writes a family in crisis that’s still loving on every single page. There’s no rift, no frostiness; the conflict comes without a sundering. The banter between the Wang family’s three siblings, in particular, and their relationship with their indefatigable father, are the novel’s warm and unusual selling points.
I’ll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell
These essays snuck up on me and won me over after my initial hesitation. From drugs and eating issues and nights of pranks and partying, the book builds and evolves into something more, poignant story about leaving youth behind and finding the things that will make you content as an adult — including perspective on your memories and mistakes. Caldwell’s style is frank and honest to the point of being disarming, but never confessional. The truth is, these essays made me want to write essays myself, and that’s the best tribute I can think of.
Coda: Books I still want to read
The Association of Small Bombs, Problems, The Lesser Bohemians, The Nest, Girls on Fire, Shelter in Place, The Natural Way of Things, Modern Girls, The Return, The Underground Railroad, The Nest.