The Best Books of 2016: Novels

Books Lists Best Of 2016
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9. Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

An extraordinary story categorized as an “autobiographical novel,” Seeing Red chronicles the fallout as a young Chilean writer named Lina goes blind while studying in New York. Redefining the word “visceral,” Lina Meruane’s harrowing prose plumbs both the sensory world and memory in an intoxicating mixture. One can only hope that her publisher, Deep Vellum, and her translator, Megan McDowell, are at work on the rest of Meruane’s oeuvre. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

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8. The Girls by Emma Cline

Can a book about manipulation and ritualistic murder be one of 2016’s most electrifyingly coming-of-age stories? Yes, it can. Emma Cline’s debut novel radiates with an ominous vibe as 14-year-old Evie struggles to find her way in northern California during the summer of ’69. The teen is lured to a ranch populated by a rogue’s gallery of eccentrics, many of them girls powerless to resist the charms of a bearded sham of a shaman. Cline gradually traps you in Evie’s head, revealing how easy it is to lose your grasp on reality when under the influence of extraordinarily intense relationships. —Jeff Milo

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7. Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue’s first novel to be translated into English took the literary world by storm this year, delivering a centuries-spanning romp through the Mexican conquest, the Italian renaissance, and the Spanish inquisition. Don’t be fooled, though—this is not your grandmother’s historical novel. Be prepared to learn more about the history of tennis and Caravaggio’s revolutionary painting technique than you thought possible. Sudden Death also boasts a couple of love stories along with some amusing back-and-forth correspondence between a writer, who sounds an awful lot like Enrigue, and his editor. (In a unique twist on the English language version of the book, his translator makes an appearance as well.) This novel reminds the reader that books can be funny, daring, and intelligent all at once. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

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6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Structured like a memoir, Michael Chabon’s Moonglow finds its essence at the intersection between tiny moments of family history and the biggest global events of the 20th century. As a dying World War II intelligence officer turned salesman tells his life story to his grandson, decades of revelations tumble forth. Chabon weaves threads of his characters’ lives with threads of world history—the Holocaust, World War II, the Space Race—delivering an enlightening book about humanity’s search for meaning. Deeply meditative and brilliantly relatable, Moonglow is Chabon at his best. —Eric Swedlund

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5. Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

Set in moribund New York mill towns, Richard Russo’s early novels introduced readers to the remarkable cast of characters who inhabit these locales. Perhaps most beloved among them is Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the enduring anti-hero of Nobody’s Fool. If fans thought they’d seen the last of him, this spring brought an unexpected delight when Sully and the denizens of Russo’s fictional North Bath, New York returned in Everybody’s Fool. This six-years-in-the-making, 25-years-in-the-waiting sequel delivers a captivating look into Sully’s second act from a very different writer than the man who penned Nobody’s Fool a quarter-century ago. This story teems with belly laughs and heartbreak, wild action and empathy, gifting new insight into old friends. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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4. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

A quiet tale revolving around an afternoon in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday highlights a maid’s secret relationship with the heir to an English noble house. Yet Graham Swift’s slim book transcends the trappings of the “affair story,” developing the maid as a three-dimensional protagonist and illuminating moments throughout her entire life. The result is an emotionally stunning novel that promises to haunt you long after you’ve read the final page. —Frannie Jackson

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3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, every character granted his or her own chapter is a descendent of two 18th-century, Ghanaian half-sisters. Effia is from Fanteland and marries a British slave dealer, while Esi, a member of the Asante nation, is sold into slavery. The book—as addictive as a binge-worthy TV show—follows their two bloodlines all the way to the present day. And while each descendant experiences life (and blackness, love, family) in distinct ways, these characters have at least one thing in common: the inability to ignore a certain call they hear, sometimes in their minds, sometimes in their very bones, from those who came before them. Carrying on in the tradition of her foremothers—like Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Assia Djebar and Bessie Head—Gyasi has created a marvelous work of fiction that both embraces and re-writes history. Perhaps best of all, Homegoing demands that more stories follow it; it’s an enticing invitation to other artists to look into their own pasts, and do the same. —Shannon M. Houston

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2. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

It’s difficult to summarize a sweeping text like Swing Time, but it stands out for being that rare work to successfully take on the romantic (yet troubling) notion of having a friend who knows you better than you know yourself. The novel’s protagonist is the black, London-born daughter of an activist mother and a loving father. Her best friend, although hailing from the same neighborhood and sharing a similar passion for dance, might as well be from a separate universe. Yet the narrative counters the glaring differences between their lives by presenting a moving portrait of girlhood—that distinctive time in a woman’s life when race, class, sexuality, and gender are fascinating but not yet (for some of us, anyway) burdensome.

Zadie Smith lets us in on many of Swing Time’s jokes with her conversational prose, but there are times when you get the distinctive feeling that you’re an outsider looking in—and that every story might not be for your understanding, empathy, or entertainment. You’re not always a welcome voyeur; you may witness a woman dancing, but that doesn’t mean she’s yours. That Swing Time dares to say as much, while offering up an intimacy so rarely found in storytelling of any sort, is reason enough to celebrate this bold and singular story. —Shannon M. Houston

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1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There’s an expectation in American history that sacred subjects require certain orthodoxy in how they’re portrayed. But Colson Whitehead ignores that precedent in his National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad. He starts in the Deep South. He makes no mention of black-white cooperation that ends well for black people. And he presents an Underground Railroad that’s really underground and really a railroad.

In recounting the surreal (and sometimes hideously humorous) odyssey of a runaway slave into the gaping maw of white supremacy, Whitehead searches not for the Underground Railroad of Harriet Tubman, but for the “true face of America” only visible through a subway train’s grimy windows. And who better than the author of the uncompromising John Henry Days and The Intuitionist to hold up a fractured funhouse mirror and show us that true face, which has begun to look as ugly outside the novel as in? It’s a fascinating phenomenon when a book with little reverence for historical orthodoxy shines an unflattering light on the present—and that’s precisely what makes The Underground Railroad the best novel of 2016. —Steve Nathans-Kelly


For more “Best of 2016” reading recommendations, check out our best nonfiction books and best Young Adult books lists.

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