Eileen Battersby’s favourite fiction and nonfiction of 2016
The year’s best novels, collections, memoirs and translations range around the world
“Laconic and wise" Roy Jacobsen, author of “The Unseen”. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
The apparently simple story of three generations of an early 20th-century fishing family living on a remote island at the mercy of the weather quickly acquires an epic quality. The Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen, laconic and wise, here shapes a monumental, engaging work of great beauty centred on the theme of not only how a way of life changes, but how life itself is ever subject to flux and transition.
The Evenings by Gerard Reve, translated by Sam Garrett
Bored young Frits is clever and aimless, given to monitoring the baldness of others. He is a drifter living in Amsterdam with his increasingly deaf father and fussily cheerful mother as all around them attempt to recover from the second World War and the inertia of peace. Initially published in 1947 and now finally translated from the Dutch, Reve’s masterfully sardonic narrative spans the torpid days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and is as funny as it is ultimately profound.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade, revised translation by Christopher Moncrieff of Christopher Bartholomew’s original
A schoolboy, so very in love with literature that he can’t bother with homework, decides to write a novel to change his teacher’s poor opinion of him. Our hero is intense, given to contemplating suicide as a way of avoiding an exam. His novel is written as a journal in between monitoring his acne. Eliade, a Romanian historian of religions, wrote this at 17. It was mislaid and remained unpublished in an attic, discovered by his nephew only after Eliade’s death in 1986. Fresh and funny, the narrator is particularly astute when profiling his classmates for posterity.
For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, translated by Philip O’Ceallaigh
O’Ceallaigh’s eloquent translation of Sebastian’s second beautiful novel, a harrowing book of truths about life in anti-Semitic Romania, brings this 1934 classic to an English-language audience. The narrator is a university student who must endure daily beatings because he is Jewish. Even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of European Jews, Romania had begun murdering 300,000 of its own people. It is a dreamer’s lamentation, yet not without humour. The tragic irony is that having survived the Holocaust, Sebastian was killed by truck in 1945 on his way to give a lecture.
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire
Meyer is the voice of the marginalised in Germany, and his characters usually come from the criminal classes. The author of All the Lights, a daring collection of stories, he heeds Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz as well as John Dos Passos in this stylistic tour de force about the sex trade in Germany from just before the demise of the old GDR to the present, as told through a chorus of voices and lucidly mangled musings. The result is a gripping narrative best described as organic.
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
A bold, very different work from the great witness of modern Israel, in a riveting performance in which an unhinged stand-up comic lacerates himself and his audience while laying bare the tragedy of his boyhood.
Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Allan Blunden
The first English-language version of Fallada’s penultimate novel, in which Dr Doll, a popular writer based largely on the German master’s tormented self, becomes the hated mayor of a small town before returning to Berlin to nurse his addictions. Described as the book that made it possible for Fallada to write Alone in Berlin, it evokes the apathy and despair of postwar Germany with chilling resonance and the author’s trademark humanity.
Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk
The underbelly of an Odessa swarming with gangsters and beggars comes to life in glorious stories by the incomparable Babel, native-born son of this most Jewish city. This wonderful collection is a companion volume to Red Cavalry (2014). Babel is required reading.
The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin, translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski
This first gathering of the major European thinker’s fiction is illustrated by the art of Bauhaus modernist Paul Klee. Interesting to team with one of the year’s major works of nonfiction, Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries’s enthralling group biography of the Frankfurt school.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, and more than possibly the Catch-22 of the 21st century, Nguyen’s book revives the legacy of the rage festering in the wake of Vietnam, the anger that never really died, in an explosive satire that not only demands a new look at that war but at the US of the present moment – and all voiced by an cynical, unrelenting divided Everyman, half-French, half-Vietnamese. Think Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and then think again – and again.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Already winner of the National Book Award and set to take the forthcoming Pulitzer, Whitehead applies his formidable lightness of touch to the horrors of slavery. Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation, surrounded by people dreaming of escape, takes action and ends up on the underground railroad, the famous metaphor made real. Her flight brings her through the various southern states, each with its individual cruelties. It is a picaresque comparable to that of Swift’s Gulliver. Whitehead’s lilting style counters the violence and the weight of the historical reality as he quickly confirms he is not merely echoing Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Just as the worst possible candidate hijacked the presidency, the wrong American won this year’s Man Booker Prize. Strout’s emphatic narrative about a daughter who is visited in hospital by her mother is powerfully melancholic and unsentimental, yet resonates magnificently on the tender side of raw. Interesting to compare it with Dutch author Esther Gerritsen’s Craving, translated by Michele Hutchison, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Craving, which offers a more blunt look at mother and daughter relationships, is harrowing and often funny. Yet Strout has achieved a rare and eloquent level of emotional intelligence that will be difficult to approach.
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, translated by Adriana Hunter
This intense, urgent French debut told in the third person is also from a daughter’s viewpoint. She recalls how her father’s return from the war undermined her tight bond with her mother, which is further destroyed by the vengeful disclosure of a secret.
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore
Outstanding fifth novel from a French original blessed with a muscular, free-wheeling use of language, in which a boy dies and his parents are faced with donating his organs. The recipient is a much older woman accustomed to living with illness; hope introduces many doubts.
Tourmaline by Randolph Stow
Born in 1935 and a member of the Australian literary triumvirate that included Patrick White and Christina Stead, Stow was an original, and this is a unsung 1963 classic with which to reckon. Into a struggling small town in the outback where nothing ever happens (aside from the deliveries of much needed alcohol) appears a water diviner who is, ironically, dying of thirst. The desperate locals reckon he could be the messiah.
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink
This first collection of tough, physical stories from an American in tune with his landscape contains some thoughtful, atmospheric narratives shaped by the feel of real life and intent observation. And though I had previously read most of them, revisiting the edgy, perceptive, provocative stories of Joy Williams make The Visiting Privilege a celebration. From the opening story, Taking Care, Williams confirms her ironic pathos and consummate timing, and rarely falters.
Now in November by Josephine Johnson
A despairing father moves his wife and three daughters from the city to the country and attempts to farm during the Depression. The hardship is unrelenting, but a worker comes to help and the young narrator becomes obsessively drawn to him. First published in 1934, five years before The Grapes of Wrath, its calm, near Biblical rural voice won the Missouri-born 24-year-old author a deserved Pulitzer Prize.
Escape Attempt by Miguel Ángel Hernández, translated by Rhett McNeil
Marcos Torres is a fine arts student, a total nerd, but willing. He is to assist to an obnoxious visiting artist, clearly the former lover of the deeply depraved part-time lecturer Helen. DeLillo and Ballard appear to have influenced this sharp, Spanish, thriller-like dissection of modern art as a desperate migrant is paid to become part of an installation.
Still the Same Man by Jon Bilbao, translated by Sophie Hughes
Bilbao show what stress can do in his dark, hilarious and disturbing account of the battles of a Spanish air conditioning company owner to remain sane, or even just slightly in control of his multiple problems as fate places him in a hurricane in Mexico and in the company of his hated former professor. One might also ask: Are chimps that dangerous? And exactly how far will stress push a human?
Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné, translated by Megan McDowell
The Spaniard author’s third novel features Joan-Marc on the verge of a second marriage breakdown, which he attempts to counter by treating his estranged wife to a devastating account of his first marital disaster with an American sportswoman who drank too much. Physically he’s not doing too well either. Very funny, fluent and as a nasty as real life.
The Bulgarian Truck by Dumitru Tsepeneag, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
The narrator battles writer’s block, his wife is losing patience with his approach to fiction, his girlfriend may not be real and, well, there is also the matter of the other characters. Sheer magic from the playfully magisterial Romanian author of Vain Art of the Fugue, worth several readings.
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe
World-weary Raif works as a translator but once he had his own story, a great love. The account of a tender, doomed romance written by Ali, a Turk who was dangerously political and died mysteriously in 1948, is set in 1920s Berlin. Delicate and poignant, it weaves quite a spell.
Byron and the Beauty by Muharem Bazdulj, translated by John F Cox
Impossible to ignore a Bosnian writer’s fictionalised response to Byron’s journey to Albania in 1809, in which the poet falls in love with a famous local beauty before he even sees her. It is a charming study of idealized love yet it is also concerned with East versus West, the conflict of cultures, and notions of friendship and betrayal.
Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, with Bogdan Rakic
Cultures and nationalities, East and West, merge and clash in a reading experience like no other. This exhilarating book of a lifetime was completed in 1945 and he won the 1961 Nobel Prize for Andric, is set in Travnik, his home town. It leaps off the page through the characters and their exchanges with each other, amid a wealth of incident.
Within the Walls by Giorgio Bassani, translated by Jamie McKendrick
Among the centenaries marked this year is the birth of one of Italy’s most enduring writers. Book one of the Ferrara cycle contains five evocative stories, including the delicately paced Lida Mantovani. Bassani was a tremendous witness, ever alert to the nuances of joy and longing.
Our Young Man by Edmund White
Guy is an ageless French male model adrift in New York, apparently able to negotiate the harshness of gay life, even as the Aids epidemic emerges. Dorian Gray-like, he forms attachments and somehow sustains them. He is calculating yet charming, ultimately vulnerable if resilient. Few writers share White’s narrative ease, graceful prose, disarming candour and humanity.
The Last Days of Mankind – A Tragedy in Five Acts by Karl Kraus, translated by Irish polymath Patrick Healy
It is wonderful to at last have the Viennese satirist’s entire modernist masterwork, with a cast approaching 500 and extending to more than 200 scenes, available, complete, and with a scholarly introduction. It is the longest play ever written, but but it can be read as a novel. Healy conveys the communal bewilderment and rage in a dazzling vernacular as a chorus of voices reacts to the outbreak of the Great War and the hell it created. Kraus exposes the hypocrisy of the press barons and the journalists feeding on the slaughter. It sizzles and flares.
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
Life on a ghost estate is not going too well – for anyone. Poet O’Callaghan’s stylish, dark yarn triumphs through the clarity of his prose and confident handling of ambivalence at its most menacing. The set piece is a supper party that features a gas mask.
Hearing Voices, Seeing Things by William Wall
Less is more, suggests these 20 stories, which succeed in being both laconic and verbose. They do in fact hiss, mutter and wink, confirming that this deceptively slim volume houses a very large book.
The Hungry Grass by Richard Power
An inspired reissuing of Power’s superb novel, which was first published in 1969, reveals a writer with much in common with the great William Trevor. It tells the story of an unhappy priest whose life had been stalked by regret. Easily one of the finest Irish novels ever written – no tricks, just genius.
Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Never having been a fan of Barnes, with the exception of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), my interest in Shostakovich drew me towards this clever, mood-drenched book. It makes effective use of Elizabeth Wilson’s definitive biography, yet also convinces as a study of the ambiguous tightrope the composer consistently walked.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
Also looking to music, Tremain’s sonata in three acts is possibly her finest work, with echoes of the John Williams classic Stoner as well as Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. But it is Swiss writer Alain Claude Sulzer’s A Perfect Waiter (2004, translated by John Brownjohn in 2008) that comes to mind when reading Tremain’s poignant narrative about an outsider destined only to observe love at a remove.
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Evil harpooner Henry Drax dominates McGuire’s terrific yarn about a shady Yorkshire whaling ship headed for the Arctic Circle. Also aboard is an Irish ex-army surgeon with a shady past. McGuire’s prose is thrillingly atmospheric and his characterisation is adroit. His grasp of 19th-century foul language is the only weakness is an English novel worth celebrating from the rooftops.
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon, translated by Nick Caistor
French-Romanian Lafon draws on the remarkable performances of the cool, self-possessed young gymnast Nadia Comaneci, heroine of the 1976 Olympics. In a sophisticated narrative that also includes fictionalised conversations, Lafon looks at the career as well as the superpower politics which dictated it, the manipulation of little girls whose childhoods were submerged under the pressure of international competition, and the public’s apparent resentment that even Comaneci had to grow up. If ever there was a novel about the tyranny of the female body, this is it.
Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke, translated by Liz Waters
Exactly how messed up and unfair is our world? This wry Belgian writer takes a sharp, very human look at how lives meander and collide through the experiences of Alphonse, a disillusioned black musician, who becomes a handyman and by nature, tries to help.
You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben, translated by David Doherty
A young boy is faced with the horror of his father’s death and the damage it does to him and his mother in this courageous, unsettling debut from the Netherlands.
Shakespeare’s Dead by Simon Palfrey and Emma Smith
Of the many books marking the 400th anniversary of the world’s most influential writer’s death, this fascinating book, drawing on material in Oxford’s Bodleian library, confirms that Shakespeare is more alive than ever by celebrating his singular approach to mortality in his comedies as well as the tragedies.
Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
An eerie beauty graces Heaney’s version of the encounter Aeneas shares with his dead father in the Underworld.
Of All That Ends by Günter Grass, translated by Breon Mitchell
This beautiful, ironic and often funny final collage of asides and meditations sums up the fabulist’s genius.
Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel, translated by Amanda DeMarco
Hessel’s conversational style and subtle insights evoke Weimar Berlin and reveal a great deal about the Germany of his days. Not quite Joseph Roth, yet the book charms and informs.
Wherever the Firing Line Extends by Ronan McGreevy
My colleague’s passion for his subject and meticulous research has resulted in a valuable historical work, rich in compassion, documenting the Irish contribution to the Great War.
Today We Die a Little: The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek by Richard Askwith
Chronicling the glory and grief of the irrepressible Czech Olympic immortal who set 18 world records, revolutionised distance running, trained like a madman and paid dearly for his belief in ‘”socialism with a human face”, Askwith recaptures the loss innocence of athletics.
The Paper Zoo by Charlotte Sleigh
Exploring 500 years of animals in art and featuring the exotic, native, domestic and paradoxical, Sleigh’s splendid book is alive with marvellous images, accompanied by a superb text.
Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer
Superb, compassionate reportage about an ongoing tragedy.
Nordic Painting by Katharina Alsen and Annika Landmann
The most cohesive and revelatory studies of an intriguing and diverse school of art. It is both a history and a survey of emerging trends.
Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries
Lively, informed group biography of a singular body of early 20th-century German intellectuals.
The Return by Hisham Matar
The writer’s return to Libya in search of his father is heartbreaking yet impresses through the beauty of Matar’s lucid, elegant prose.
The Low Voices by Manuel Rivas, translated by Jonathan Dunne
Though presented as a novel, this elegiac family memoir by the Galician poet, fiction writer and commentator resonates with memory, love and palpable grief, as well as gentle humour.
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay
Widely praised as a novel, the strength of this uneven, at times heavy-handed, Sebald-influenced narrative, in which the Belgian author reimagines the life of his reticent grandfather, whom he knew as an artist, rests in the passages drawn from a wartime journal written in old age. It is interesting to see the war as experienced from the viewpoint of “Fleming” soldiers, who were looked down on by the French-speaking Belgian officers.
Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
Beautifully written in the graceful, lilting prose that dominated Our Lady of the Nile, a semi-autobiographical Chalet school meets The Lord of the Flies novel in which Mukasonga described daily life in an exclusive convent. However, this memoir recalling the destruction of her Tutsi family is harrowing reading, made all the more shocking by the way life later went on, as if the genocide had never happened. Mukasonga’s life remains dominated by her ghosts.
The Child Poet by Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis
Glorious memoir explaining how a childhood accident created a major Mexican writer.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue, is published by Dalkey Archive Press.