Each year, when best-of lists start popping up all over promptly on Dec. 1, it feels too soon. Really? We’re saying goodbye to the year already? It’s barely 11/12ths over!
For 2016, many have been wishing it gone for some time already. It will have taken with it Prince, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and the dream of a first female president of the United States (for the foreseeable future).
But let’s look back on the good ― nay, the transcendent. This year may not have been the all-time greatest, but there was some all-time great literature published since we wrapped up 2015. Subtle, shimmering short fiction; sprawling family sagas; searing portraits of social trauma: 2016 had it all.
Though we read many wonderful works of fiction this year, these 18 novels and collections were particularly outstanding:
HogarthIn a three-part novel told from the perspective of a woman’s status-conscious husband, libidinous brother-in-law and desperate sister, the central character, Yeong-hye, suddenly chooses to give up all meat and animal products. This seemingly simple action blows up her entire social and family life around her -- but Yeong-hye quietly continues to refuse meat. Han Kang’s first novel to be translated into English, The Vegetarian seethes with quietly violent imagery and grapples with immense questions about human survival, patriarchal societies, the consequences of abuse, and, of course, eating meat. A work of magical realist horror, domestic psychological fiction, and a layered exploration of ethics, it’s one of the year’s true fiction must-reads. – Claire Fallon
Read our review of The Vegetarian.
AmistadThere’s no question that Jacqueline Woodson -- whose National Book Award-winning young adult novel Brown Girl Dreaming is written in verse -- is a stylish writer. The negative space in her first adult book, Another Brooklyn, communicates as much as the words on the page. The story of a girl whose family relocates to Brooklyn after a disorienting loss is peppered with anthropological views on death, sex, music and gentrification. Its heroine, August, once defined by her relationships with the young girls in her neighborhood, now works as a social scientist. Her reflection on her own coming of age is a big story in a small, melodic package. – Maddie Crum
Read our review of Another Brooklyn.
Soft Skull PressA bequest from an eccentric aunt sends a family of middle-aged siblings and cousins into turmoil, in this darkly comic, genre-tweaking novel. With pinches of fantasy and subversion, Thomas builds a rich and rollicking world of dysfunctional marriages, even more dysfunctional former flings, holistic yoga retreats, vanished parents and botanical exploring. It’s somehow too witty, too human and too fantastical all at once to forget. – CF
Read our review of The Seed Collectors.
Tin House BooksA curiosity shop of reflections and vignettes, Williams’ collection of very short stories centers on the different forms God takes on when released unto the hands of mortal wonderers and worshipers. God can be the anticipated dinner party guest who never shows; God can be a fairy tale shared at bedtime. Read together, Joy Williams’ stories are a humanist manifesto, a celebration of our most mysterious values, desires and prejudices. – MC
Read our review of Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
ScribnerWith the same brainy humor he brought to all-consuming techno-clouds and hyper-capitalist TV execs, Don DeLillo turns his critical eye to the latest technological advancement threatening to alter the fabric humanity: cryonics. Jeff is unsettled by his absent father’s financial involvement in a facility meant to freeze the dying until medical advancements have caught up. The Convergence -- built smack in isolated Kyrgyzstan -- is part research facility, part spiritual center. Its message is perpetuated by men who spew jargon that wouldn’t be out of place in Silicon Valley. So, When Jeff’s father reveals that he’s not just trying to save the life of Artis, his young, new wife -- he’s hoping to freeze himself, too -- Jeff struggles to make sense of it. – MC
Read our review of Zero K.
VikingKaran Mahajan’s sophomore novel artfully and empathetically sketches out how small incidences of terror come to be, and how the effects tear through the lives of the victims and communities. Set mostly in Delhi, India, where a small bomb explosion forever alters the lives of the primary characters, The Association of Small Bombs pulls readers into the lives of bombmakers, jihadists, peaceful activists, victims and victims’ families. Mahajan’s jittery, sometimes disorienting narrative is propulsive reading, but also seems to mimic the effects of trauma left on his characters as they stumble through an uncertain world. His excellent novel leaves readers with a fuller, more human sense of a subject often caricatured or ignored by American media. – CF
Read our review of The Association of Small Bombs.
Grove AtlanticIn a world of books with "girl" in the title, Anna Noyes writes, instead, about the fraught lives of young women. In her debut collection of connected stories, she never romanticizes the danger and sexual tension that colors the lives of her heroines. Instead, she studies these experiences as facts of life, harsh as a New England winter. Many of the stories are set in Maine; several center on a mysterious town quarry, where young swimmers explore, in spite of its unknowable dangers; all of them are emotionally resonant, with touching, memorable characters. – MC
Read our review of Goodnight, Beautiful Women.
DoubledayIf you won’t listen to the National Book Foundation, which recently awarded The Underground Railroad its 2016 Fiction Award, listen to us: Read this book. Colson Whitehead weaves together a sordid history of white American violence toward black Americans, during and after slavery, into one steam-punked, sci-fied escape adventure about a woman named Cora. The writing: electrifying. The scenes: often horrifying. The book: unmissable. – CF
Read our review of The Underground Railroad.
William MorrowIt would not be difficult to write a parody of millennial toil. So many of our generation’s tragedies -- connected as they are to the virtual world -- seem disconnected from real, affecting consequences. It’d be easy to be nihilistic about all that, to write a scorching, heartless satire. But in Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte critiques the young, West coast set while still managing to love his characters, even the fame-obsessed, even the porn-addicted, even the self-righteous startup leaders. Each is handled with wit and tenderness. – MC
Read our review of Private Citizens.
HarperA family of middle-aged siblings gets together for one last summer at the old family house to discuss selling it. Old dynamics arise. Children experiment. Old hat -- but in Hadley’s sure hands, the result is a rich, earthy, unsettling and memorable read, full of luminous turns of phrase and striking images. Her observations of the natural setting of the narrative are particularly gorgeous, making the summer house, the woods, or a stream seem both tangible and laden with meaning. -- CF
Read our review of The Past.
LiverightSpare, strange and Murakamiesque -- in fact, Marcy Dermansky references the author in her latest novel -- The Red Car follows a young, married woman on a trip from the East Coast to the West, where she used to work in the HR department as the protégé of Judy, a woman who moonlighted as an artist. Just out of college, Leah turned her nose up at the pleasure Judy took in material delights -- specifically, a red sports car. So when Judy dies, and bequeaths her the car, Leah must revisit the life she left behind, and reevaluate the life she’s chosen. A thoughtful meditation on class, art, and the many lives we inhabit on the road to growing up. – MC
Read our review of The Red Car.
Coffee House PressThe self-loathing, self-destructive, and eminently hateable protagonist has been a staple of literary fiction for decades, but they’re usually white men -- or at least white. Jade Sharma told Publisher's Weekly of her heroine, Maya, “Indian girls can be crazy bitches, too.” Problems tells Maya’s story of heroin abuse, personal flailing and recovery in raw, razor-sharp prose, painting an unromanticized yet witty and profound portrait of addiction. – CF
Read our review of Problems.
Little Brown and CompanyAdam Haslett writes lyrically and affectingly about mental health, and about Generalized Anxiety Disorder specifically. Two characters in his familial drama -- John and Michael, father and son -- wrestle with the same beast, in coruscating, upsetting chapters wherein their separate neuroses unravel. Both men rely heavily on their loved ones for survival, and both their presence and their absence influences those around them. John’s wife, Celia, does what she can to uphold tradition; his daughter, Celia, loses herself in monogamy; his second son, Alec, chases his dream to become a journalist, exploring his sexuality along the way. The resulting story is a layered look at music, history, and how love and illness can transcend generations. – MC
Read our review of Imagine Me Gone.
RiverheadPond is the sort of book that demands to be read slowly, deliberately. A debut book of fiction which reads like an unconventional novel but has been described as a book of linked short stories, it gives voice to the quotidian musings of a young woman who lives alone in a cottage near a small Irish village. A failed academic, a bit at sea, she swims in a rich inner life that even overwhelms the friendships and romances she cultivates. She reads a dystopian novel and draws drastic conclusions about her own broken stove; she becomes obsessed with throwing a dinner party because she hopes a certain acquaintance she finds intriguing will come and sit precisely on her ottoman; she analyzes the mechanics through which rain drops fall on and through thick foliage, and later fall from the leaves after the rain has ended. Claire-Louise Bennett has the gift of felicitous word choice, crafting phrases you want to luxuriate in rather than hurry through. The book is brief, and light on narrative, but readers will want to stretch out their time with Pond and its pensive, neurotically funny, gentle and yet rather mordant narrator as long as possible. – CF
KnopfRebecca Schiff brings the humor and insight of a stand-up routine to her short stories, most of them centered on the sexual exploits of young women. Also like a comedian, she uses her medium as an opportunity to bust open social norms. Her characters question the most appropriate ways to grieve, and how one should behave at the wedding of a friend who’s marrying a man they don’t respect. These aren’t didactic lessons, but emotionally honest observations about the rift between how we’re expected to act, and how we more often feel compelled to behave. – MC
Read our review of The Bed Moved.
KnopfAs Donald Trump was hurtling, unpredictably, toward the presidency, Nathan Hill’s doorstopper of a debut was hitting bookshelves and showing a fictionalized America that looked far too familiar for comfort. Weaving together online gaming obsessions and millennial app addictions with an overarching saga surrounding a man, his long-lost mother, and the demagogic presidential candidate she threw gravel at, The Nix cleverly riffs on the most vapid impulses of our political, news media and entertainment industries. Throughout it all, Hill finds warmth and humanity in his cast of characters. – CF
Read our review of The Nix.
Random HouseEmma Cline’s debut is thrilling -- it’s carefully plotted, a quick and engrossing read -- but it does more work than most thrillers do. Readers who pick up the book will know whodunit, as the crimes committed in the story are loosely based on the historic murders carried out by Charles Manson. The tension, then, results from whether Cline’s fictional heroine, Evie Boyd, will get sucked into the alluring world of drugs, sex, rebellion and love shared between women. Isolated from her family and former friends, Evie slides easily into the Russell’s -- i.e., Manson’s -- community. Most of us would in her situation, The Girls seems to imply. But how far will she go before losing herself completely? Guided by Cline’s playful prose, we stay with Evie as she tests the limits of her morality. – MC
Read our review of The Girls.
Penguin PressFew can compete with Zadie Smith when she’s in form, and Swing Time is just that. Set in her childhood home and literary stomping grounds, North West London, the novel follows two black girls mutually drawn together by their identical light-brown skin, biracial background and passion for dancing -- then separated by their unequal talents and family situations. Smith’s dry humor, deft characterization and thematic richness are on full display in this bittersweet story of black girlhood and growing up. – CF
Read our review of Swing Time.