2016 was a year of unexpected loss and stark realities. In the morass of the recent election, words morphed to serve the expedient needs of its speakers. It became unclear how to separate fact from fiction in this “post-truth” age.
Last year, nonfiction stepped forward to speak for those without a voice. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Margo Jefferson’s Negroland — as well as the poetic realism of 2014’s Claudia Rankine’s Citizen — demanded that Americans reconsider race in a new light. Their lessons are ones we return to again and again.
Yet fiction proved to be the overwhelming genre demanding change in 2016. It was a successful year for African-American fiction writers with Colson Whitehead winning the National Book Award for The Underground Railroad and Paul Beatty winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sellout. Other African-American writers such as Jacqueline Woodson and Brit Bennett enjoyed success with their respective novels Another Brooklyn and The Mothers. Debut writers Emma Cline and Stephanie Danler published stylish and brash novels (The Girls and Sweetbitter) and Yaa Gyasi and Nicole Dennis-Benn revealed unbearable historical facts through fiction (Homegoing and Here Comes the Sun).
It was a profound year for the written word and yet many incredible books remain unsung. Here are ten books from 2016 that deserve your time and attention.
The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasm
This stark, wrenching novel thrusts the reader into Sri Lanka’s two-and-a-half-decades-long civil war. Dinesh is alone in a temporary camp when an older man approaches him with the offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage. In this hellish state, marriage is the last chance for safety. In this eloquent and philosophical novel, time slows down as fundamental questions of life and mortality rise to the surface.
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs
This is the book on fertility that we have been waiting for. Too long, people have quietly suffered as they try and fail to have children. Belle Boggs draws from her own experience, struggling to conceive and navigating the minefield of fertility treatments, in order to crack open the emotional and financial strain that people face when they attempt to bear a child. It’s not just the arduous hoops that one goes through, but the fact that this is a challenge that has no straightforward endpoint. Boggs’s book provides empathy and perspective on an ever-growing issue.
Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong
Challenging the limits of unconditional love, Hold Still holds at its center the world of mothers and daughters, some by blood and others by choice. Lynn Steger Strong’s taut writing is bound by a horrible accident. Based in New York City and the Florida Gulf Coast, these raw, beautiful characters reach out as best they can, but Strong shows that there may come a time where we fail those we love. Over a memorable and tender dinner party, Strong perfectly captures the ways that we misread each other, striking out for new beginnings. A painfully beautiful debut.
I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This by Nadja Spiegelman
Mothers and daughters are the subject of Nadja Spiegelman’s remarkable memoir. While her father’s family history is well-known thanks to the “Maus” graphic novels, her mother’s family lineage is equally fascinating and emblematic of the history of their time. Spanning generations, Spiegelman chronicles the lives of the women in her family from France to the United States and back again. Despite withholding love and acting with overt caution, the passions of her mother and grandmother cannot contain the decades of resentment and friction. Each sees the past from a different point of view and its Spiegelman’s intervention that both links their bonds and sets free the burdens of the past.
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky
This slim but explosive novel burns bright. Its unflinching characters act at a fast-paced clip, confronting demons and angels from the past. A sudden death of a long-lost friend sends Leah from New York to San Francisco for a funeral and to pick up her friend’s beloved red sports car. This trip offers her the opportunity to leave behind her dead end job, hateful Queens apartment, and boring but also abusive husband. For two weeks she can answer open questions from her past while making time to uncover what it is she really wants to do with her wild and precious life. “The Red Car” is a sexy, serious novel reminiscent of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar — except that, here, all the words belong to Leah alone.
Future Sex by Emily Witt
A frequent contributor to the London Review of Books and the New York Times Style Magazine, Emily Witt is poised to become, dare I say, our generation’s Joan Didion. As a journalist, she is unafraid of confronting herself as a subject. In her first book, Future Sex, she explores the open paths of modern love and romance. Eschewing a standard trajectory, contemporary romance offers countless paths. Internet pornography, online dating, polyamory, and a range of sexual subcultures: there’s little about contemporary romance that demands an endpoint. Witt considers whether or not monogamy is the culmination of courtship, love, and pleasure or if society has denied itself.
Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
Following the cult success of her book Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith’s Marrow Island is ambitious and provocative. This eloquent and soft-spoken novel explodes as it confronts eco-terrorism, natural disasters, and radical Catholicism. Twenty years after a catastrophic earthquake killed her father, Lucie Bowen returns to the island of her childhood off the coast of Seattle. A struggling journalist, she’s there for the story—a renegade commune is in the process of restoring the environmental havoc brought upon by a radioactive disaster—but, truth be told, she’s there to reconnect with her former best friend, her first love. This spellbinding novel takes unexpected turns as it races to its final scene. This book mines the wells of forgiveness and passion.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens
Two women depend on one another in Pamela Erens’s Eleven Hours. The title refers to one character’s period of labor. Lore comes to the hospital without a partner, but with strict demands. At all costs, she wants to avoid intervention—no monitors, no IV, no epidural. Her nurse Franckline is secretly pregnant with a history that leads her to be incredibly cautious for the suffering and complication that Lore may bring upon herself through her birth plan. During this difficult labor, both women circle the ghosts that haunt them, confronting the realities they must take on not only as mothers, but as humans. This visceral and empathetic novel upends conventional notions of motherhood while reminding us of its universal mystery.
The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek
Like her contemporary, Emily Witt, Kristin Dombek is a vibrant, young essayist and journalist. She is also a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books as well as n+1. In her reckoning with narcissism, Dombek unravels what it is about the psychological condition that has made it a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Rather than revel in hyperbolic prose, Dombek calmly evaluates the ways in which this elusive diagnosis has become a lightning rod.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
While The Girls became a runaway bestseller, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire occupies a similar niche. This smart and shocking novel also explores the dark underside of female friendship. After a popular basketball player is found dead, a Pennsylvania town is rocked by the fear of Satanic worship. Set in the 1990s, Girls on Fire is a book about obsession. The spiral of charismatic, intoxicating female friendship thrusts Hannah Dexter beyond her league. Lured by the rebellious, Doc Martins’ wearing Lacey Chamberlain, Dex is caught up in a world she can’t shake but is well beyond her control. This tale of moral panic and unreliable attachment makes for a bright and vivid novel.