Some of our writers tell us about their favourite books from 2017 (and those from 2016 that they didn’t quite get round to reading in time for last year’s list).
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Autumn is the first volume of Knausgaard’s “Four Seasons Cycle”, in which he details for an unborn daughter the banality and beauty of the day-to-day. In each of the 61 short entries making up the book, he describes an object or person he has picked out, before allowing his thoughts to meander more broadly. These are elegantly written reflections on things that don’t often invite deep consideration in our everyday lives (wasps, thermos flasks, and chewing gum are amongst those featured), and their perspicacity frequently leaves you nodding in agreement. A word also for the translator Ingvild Burkley; this cannot have been an easy book to translate, but her text is fluid and eminently readable.
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986 is an event that has gradually faded from our collective consciousness, but in Chernobyl Prayer, Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich lays bare the impact of the disaster in unflinching detail. The polyphonic form of the book is what gives it its power, with the monologues presented giving testimony to both the suffering and courage of civilians, as well as the unforgivable attempts by Soviet authorities to cover up what happened. This is a book that evokes anger, horror and pity in equal measure, and stands as a monument to those whose voices would otherwise be lost to the course of time.
The Last London by Iain Sinclair
The Last London sees psychogeography legend Iain Sinclair explore various tenets of contemporary London and its edgelands, including his home turf, Hackney. Whereas Lights Out for The Territory was structured around nine different walks, Sinclair takes a step back from the map and writes about topics ranging from the Shard to Barking regeneration, from the ‘Piano Man’ to the ‘Mole Man’, and weaves in memoir, arcane history, social commentary and allusions to his previous texts. Much has been written about Sinclair’s style, and The Last London is full of savagely funny one-liners and incendiary remarks. Those on technology and ‘antisocial media’ get a bit tiresome, but those on the colossal stupidity of Brexit and the figures associated with it are very astute. It is a kind of farewell letter – Sinclair has stated he no longer has a compulsion to write about London. You don’t blame him, and yet you wish he would continue writing to illuminate the facets of an increasingly divided, increasingly grotesque city.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Days Without End is a gorgeous love story between two soldiers set in the American Civil war. The story follows the two men from their teenage days, dressing up as women and performing in bars, through their military days and finally to domestic life with their adopted daughter, Winona. The voice of the protagonist, Thomas McNulty, is one of the strongest I have ever read, making it hard not to fall in love with him. Barry contrasts violent scenes of war and massacre with heart-stoppingly beautiful lines such as “John Cole’s long face, long stride. The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was already beautiful”. It’s a war story that is not about war, but about love, friendship and family.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
An incredible story with a huge twist that you really don’t see coming. An unputdownable that will keep you hoping for longer escalators so you can read just one more paragraph. The book follows the life of the protagonist, Rosemary, who is a middle child and has lost her older brother and younger sister. It will make you laugh out loud while it breaks your heart, and will make you question your assumptions about what it means to be human.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends is the debut novel from Irish writer Sally Rooney. Set in Dublin, it follows two pairs of characters, friends and former girlfriends Frances and Bobbi, and married older couple Melissa and Nick. They meet after Melissa, a photographer, takes an interest in the former pair at a spoken word poetry night at which they’re performing. Later, after Melissa decides to profile them, they meet her husband, Nick. The ways the relationships between the four of them unfold are the subject of the rest of the novel, written in some of the most readable yet substantial prose I’ve read in a while.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
Journalist Gary Younge selects an ordinary day in the United States of America, a day in which 10 young people were killed as a result of gun violence. The youngest was just nine years old. Each chapter tells the story of these young people, hearing from both local authorities and loved ones. There is a unique pain in each story; from the horror of gang violence to the painful ease with which children playing with guns can go wrong. Unflinchingly honest, this book will change the way you think about gun control in America.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel explores the devastating and unforgettable legacy of slavery in the US. Protagonist Cora escapes from a cotton plantation in Georgia via the Underground Railroad, depicted here as a literal railway with wooden carts deep beneath the earth shuttling slaves out of captivity in the south. But this is only the beginning of her journey, as Cora must avoid the clutches of slave-catcher Ridgeway and at the same time try to shelter from the racism that pervades the country. A plot that is as gripping as it is horrifying.
Image Credit: Faber & Faber