The best books of 2017: have you missed something great?
The year’s best novels and collections from emerging authors at home and abroad
A retelling of King Lear set in a corrupt, contemporary India. A young Finnish girl’s bleakly funny immigrant childhood. A Trinity graduate’s languid affair with a married man in the south of France. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s dead son clinging on to limbo in his Washington crypt.
This year offered up a wide range of fictional backdrops from debut and emerging authors. It was a good year for first-timers, with half of the Man Booker shortlist made up of debut novels. Of the three – History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Fiona Mozley’s Elmet – Saunders’s book, the eventual winner, was the most engaging. The renowned short-story writer combined various forms from historical letters, to footnotes to comic dialogue, into a moving – if not entirely cohesive – story about loss, grief and our unwillingness to let go.
Elmet, set in a beautifully rendered Yorkshire, was atmospheric and well observed but let down by issues with pace. Fridlund’s History of Wolves was an interesting pick from the judges, a narrative diluted by two competing strains that was chosen for the quality of its writing. The Minnesotan author is definitely one to watch for the future.
But if there was a conscious effort by the judges of this year’s prize to give debut authors a platform, there are others who arguably deserved the nomination more. Was any novel more talked about this summer, at least in Irish literary circles, than Sally Rooney’s whip-smart and highly readable Conversations with Friends? Rooney’s tale of four vibrant personalities and their criss-crossing relationships – a great choice for this month’s Irish Times Book Club – is like your smartest college friend dishing her deepest secrets.
From a strong international field, Booker judges might also have considered Lisa Ko’s masterful immigrant story The Leavers, set between 1990s New York and the Chinese industrial city of Fuzhou, or Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, a mammoth retelling of Lear that forensically dissected Indian culture and economics. Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, a brave and original story set in the Californian wilderness, gave a masterclass in the complex emotions felt by victims of abuse. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman was another high-concept, highly intelligent debut. Centred on the emotional and physical distresses surrounding body image and eating disorders, it was reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood and could have been a worthy contender.
More Irish gems
Emerging Irish authors brought us some great new work this year. Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade was a quietly moving story of two lost souls in 1980s Dublin. In the same illiberal era, the formidable heroine of Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away tried to break into the male world of boxing. With his debut Ithaca, the Galway author Alan McMonagle gave us a quirky take about a teenage boy’s quest for belonging in disenfranchised small-town Ireland. Sara Baume’s second novel, A Line Made By Walking, was a meticulously written account of an artist who loses her mojo and retreats to rural Ireland. The American academic Marilynn Richtarik helped to piece together the playwright Stewart Parker’s unfinished debut novel Hopdance, a powerful story based on the Belfast author’s own experiences of having a leg amputated as a college student.
Arja Kajermo’s The Iron Age turned the miserable Irish childhood into a miserable Finnish childhood, with drawings and grim humour bringing the story to life. Eithne Shorthall’s entertaining Love in Row 27 brought match-making to the skies, while Andrew Meehan’s One Star Awake offered a very different picture of relationships as seen through the eyes of Eva, his beguiling amnesiac protagonist. The historical fiction genre was also well represented with engaging second novels from Andrew Hughes and Bernie McGill. A number of Irish debut short story collections were published this year; standouts were June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker and Elske Rahill’s eagerly anticipated In White Ink.
Farther afield, the American authors April Ayers Lawson and Jenny Zhang provided perceptive, modern voices in their respective collections Virgin and Other Stories and Sour Heart. In particular, Zhang’s razor sharp sense of humour stood out. The tale of the immigrant in the US, which Sour Heart charts so insightfully, also resulted in knockout debuts from Patty Yumi Cottrell with Sorry to Disrupt the Peace and, as previously mentioned, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers.
Finally, those in search of a quirky stocking filler should consider two debut novels that published this year from English authors. Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human sees a woman in Hackney split from her fiancee and fall in love with a fox. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine pieces together the story of a reclusive accountant who drinks three bottles of vodka every weekend in her house alone. And if that doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, I don’t know what will.