All that follows is the product of serendipity. Almost every book I read this year came to me through some unexpected channel—blurb requests, books picked up at random in literary festivals. Every year I set out with a plan, a list of upcoming releases to look out for, classics to catch up on. And every year, thankfully, I fail.
Here is the best of the accidental rabbit holes into which I climbed this year, the accidental lives I briefly lived.
The book I’ve thought about the most this year is a novel called A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba. It takes place in a small city called San Cristóbal, where one day a group of 32 children, seemingly feral and speaking their own secret language, arrive. Slowly they begin to sow terror among the residents, and the municipal government goes to greater and greater lengths to hunt them down. If Lord of the Flies charted the ugliness that follows societal collapse, A Luminous Republic charts the chaos of societal tyranny, what happens when human beings abdicate their humanity.
A few months ago, a publisher sent me a copy of a novel called They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, by Johannes Anyuru. Upon reading the synopsis—amidst a terror attack, one of the Islamic extremists has a change of heart—I was prepared to hate it. I’ve read a lot of “reluctant terrorist” novels and almost all of them descend into lazy, often racist cliché. But this is something else entirely—a mind-bending thing, wandering across alternate futures and playing with time and space in ways I didn’t expect at all. It’s much more a novel about belonging and nativism than terrorism, and is the most original piece of writing I read this year.
A few people recommended to me the tiny Japanese novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, describing it as a kind of comic gem. It’s the story of a woman who works in a convenience store because, well, the routine is a welcome respite from the machinations of the rest of the social world, a world she doesn’t understand or want any part of. But upon reading it, I was left with the same sensation I had after reading A Confederacy of Dunces—this novel billed as a laugh riot is in reality a story about a deep and crushing loneliness, about the ways in which the world is a supremely difficult place for many of us to navigate. It’s a marvelous story, but what’s comic about it masks something much darker.
Two of the best novels I read this year were debuts. Little Gods by Meng Jin opens with a woman giving birth in a Beijing hospital on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What follows is a slow-burn unveiling of what happened to the woman, her husband, and her child in the years that followed. It is a masterfully crafted story about the gravity of the past, that unceasing pull toward a thing at once hidden and all encompassing. Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn opens with a 7-year-old boy falling off a cruise ship and into the shark-infested waters below, only for the sharks to carry him to safety. It is the first sign of the strange magic that lives within Nainoa Flores, the magic with which he and his family will have to contend. Washburn’s novel is an exceptional meditation on otherness, belonging, the ravages of poverty, and the many meanings of family. Both of these books come out early next year and both deserve all the attention I suspect they’ll soon be getting.
I read a lot of marvelous poetry this year, beginning with Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. It’s a book about war, and I’ve read a lot of books about war, but few as capable of mining that gray space where resistance and cowardice intersect. In Kaminsky’s work there is, amidst the violent oppression of wartime, room for love, lust, self-interest, self-sabotage—room for so much humanness, so much life. Quarrels by Eve Joseph is a stunning piece of literary beauty and whimsy—it begins with a train coming to a stop too suddenly, and all the babies lifting out of their carriages and into the arms of strangers. Every vignette moves in entirely unexpected directions, every page in this way reading like a strange and wonderful secret. I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters—which cannot be described as either poetry or prose, but rather an experimental thing somewhere in between—is something like a dark mirror of Joseph’s work. Told in vignettes, the story takes place in an unnamed town where the women residents are subjected to grotesque and surreal cruelty. Much like Quarrels, it’s a book that has gotten almost no attention in the United States, and really should have. Finally, there is Invasive Species by Marwa Helal, a collection largely concerned with what it means to exist between cultures, between nations, a hyphenated American, and contains one of the most memorable lines I read this year: “they will say: show, don’t tell / but that assumes most people can see.”
A few weeks ago, a galley of Garth Greenwell’s new short story collection, Cleanness, arrived at my door, and I inhaled it. Greenwell is, pound for pound, my favorite writer working in the English language right now, and his debut novel, What Belongs to You, is my pick for novel of the decade. The stories in Cleanness are each a masterpiece. There is no pretension here, no dishonesty—be the subject matter sex or joy or vulnerability or the many meanings and consequences of human proximity. It’s difficult to explain just how much depth there is to Greenwell’s writing; suffice it to say there are things he accomplishes, emotional destinations he reaches in the course of a sentence that many other writers can’t get to over the course of a whole novel.
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