Top Ten Books from 2016
An illicit kiss at a christening wrecks two marriages in Los Angeles but blends the six children from different families. As we follow them over the next half century, their stories come into focus the way our own family legends cohere — from scraps of information and fractured memories. Patchett is daringly elliptical here, and her storytelling has never seemed more effortlessly graceful. We’re not so much told this history as allowed to eavesdrop from another room as a door swings open and closes. Even the most traumatic events — such as the death of one of the children — can be only partially known, thwarted as these characters are by invention, by gossip, by the deep emotional need to avoid the truth. This is minimalism that magically speaks volumes, further demonstration of the range Patchett demonstrated in “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder.”
“Evicted” immerses readers in the lives of families and individuals trapped in — or thriving off — the private-rental market for the poor, a brutal world in which landlords have all the power and tenants feel all the pain. In spare and beautiful prose, Desmond chronicles the economic and psychological devastation of substandard housing in America and the cascading misfortunes that come with losing one’s home. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women,” he writes. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” In this extraordinary feat of reporting and ethnography, Desmond has made it impossible ever again to consider poverty in the United States without tackling the central role of housing.
Genetics has two histories: the history of what we have found out, and the history of the uses and abuses of those discoveries. In “The Gene,” Mukherjee explores the nature of this double narrative. He never loses sight of the tension between those who wish to understand genetics and those who wish to apply such emerging knowledge, but neither does he fall into the obvious trap of seeing the first category as good and the second as bad. Mukherjee contends that while genetic theories have provided crucial medical insights, they also have fueled the depraved thinking that reached its nadir in eugenics.
Jiles has always been a terrific storyteller, and her latest tale moves at a characteristically brisk pace across post-Civil War Texas. The hero, septuagenarian Captain Kidd, earns a modest livelihood by reading aloud from newspapers and journals in public halls. But his latest job is to return 10-year-old Johanna to her aunt and uncle in San Antonio. Johanna has not seen them since a band of Kiowas killed her parents and took her captive four years earlier, and this fiercely magnificent child now has no memory of her white life; she doesn’t speak English, and she keeps trying to run away. Every encounter Kidd and Johanna have on the trail between Wichita Falls and San Antonio seethes with the possibility of violence. In this tender novel, Jiles renders the pain of loss and the power of words for an old man and a young girl who really don’t belong anywhere anymore.
Hisham Matar was 19 in 1990 when his father, a prominent Libyan dissident, was seized in Cairo by Egyptian secret police and delivered to Libyan authorities. Jaballa Matar was held for about six years in a notorious Tripoli prison, and then no more was heard of him. Much of the younger Matar’s adult life has been ruled by unknowns, and they form the foundation for his breathtaking memoir, “The Return.” The book is constructed as two interwoven narratives. One is the story of a closing: the kidnapping, incarceration and disappearance of Matar’s father. The parallel story is of an opening, as the son spends two decades peeling away layers of obscure, unreliable details from ex-prisoners and craven Libyan officials to try to uncover what happened to his father. Matar, a Barnard College professor of English and New Yorker contributor, has produced two acclaimed novels about fathers who go missing under Middle Eastern dictatorships. “The Return” is an elegy by a son who, through his eloquence, defies the men who wanted to erase his father and gifts him with a kind of immortality.
In earlier days, generals understood war as two armies facing each other across a defined battlefield. A startling change occurred when an unlikely war hero, David Stirling, came up with an experiment that called for sneaking soldiers into the adversary’s camp, sabotaging equipment, then sneaking off again into the night. At first the tactic seemed unsporting, if not scandalous, but the commando operation became the prototype for special forces around the world. In “Rogue Heroes,” Macintyre provides a riveting history of a revolutionary fighting force. Using unprecedented access to British Special Air Service regimental archives, Macintyre has gleaned fascinating material. Among the characters is an SAS officer invested with “an enormous moustache, an upper-class accent so fruity that the men barely understood his commands, and a habit of saying ‘what, what’ after every sentence, earning himself the nickname ‘Captain What What.’ ” As Captain What What might have put it, this is a ripping good read.
In “Secondhand Time,” Alexievich turns on a tape recorder and listens to average Russians describing their lives amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Alexievich, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, has produced one of the most vivid and incandescent accounts yet attempted of this society caught in the throes of change. It is the story of what one character aptly describes as “our lost generation — a communist upbringing and capitalist life.” No one should pick up this book expecting to find a well-explained chronological history of what happened in the Kremlin. Rather, the material is a trove of emotions and memories, raw and powerful. Alexievich makes it feel intimate, as if you are sitting in the kitchen with the characters, sharing in their happiness and agony, enveloped in their nostalgia and riven with their anxiety. As one party member observed, “The times have led me into confusion.”
Smith opens her fifth novel to the toe-tapping tunes of Fred Astaire’s 1936 musical comedy “Swing Time.” But a darker bass line thrums beneath that happy melody. This is a complex story at once intimate and global that moves along two alternating timelines. One takes us back to the narrator’s childhood in Northwest London in 1982 when she meets Tracey, a biracial girl desperate to be a star. As the years pass, success eludes them both, and their old feelings of affection grow knotted up with jealousy and even disdain. Spliced between these memories appears a more recent story about the narrator’s work as a personal assistant an international celebrity intent on founding a school in West Africa. The novel uses its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction. As in the work of any great choreographer, movements that seem initially extraneous eventually prove essential.
French’s novel brings back the two young detectives from the Dublin Murder Squad, Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, who solved the prep-school slaying in her 2014 offering, “The Secret Place.” Conway narrates “The Trespasser,” and with her anger, intelligence and toughness emerges as French’s finest character yet. This time around, Conway and Moran are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman found dead in her Dublin home. Her boyfriend is the initial suspect, and it looks like a routine domestic killing. But because the case against the boyfriend is circumstantial, Conway and Moran shift their attention to another suspect, only to have more senior detectives pressure them to arrest the boyfriend. The partners begin to fear that their colleagues have some agenda other than the truth. French digs deeply into police culture, the tricks of the trade, the ugly side and the heroics, too.
Since his first novel, “The Intuitionist” (1999), Whitehead has nimbly explored America’s racial consciousness — and more — with an exhilarating blend of comedy, history, horror and speculative fiction. In this new book, though, those elements are blended as never before. “The Underground Railroad” imagines that the system of safe houses and clandestine routes used to smuggle enslaved people fleeing north, was, in fact, an actual railroad built underground. The story follows young Cora, who escapes from a Georgia plantation and runs from “the miserable thumping heart” of one town after another, moving through a culture determined to domesticate African Americans or infantilize them or sterilize them or demonize them or ultimately exterminate them. This thrilling novel, winner of the National Book Award for fiction, reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era.
Lists courtesy of the Washington Post