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10. Joan Silber, Improvement
The much celebrated Silber creates yet another artfully structured new novel, in which stories of a multitude of characters ricochet in cunning ways, crossing generations and continents. Kiki heads to Istanbul in 1970, and marries Osman, a carpet seller. The marriage falls apart after she follows Osman to his isolated home village, where she’s tempted to take off with a trio of young Germans who are smuggling antiquities. Eight years later she returns to New York with nine valuable rugs. One rug ends up with her niece Reyna, a single mother living in Harlem who asks Kiki to babysit when she visits her boyfriend in jail. He and his crew get involved in an ill-fated contraband cigarette scheme. We know them all intimately by the end of this intriguing contemporary chronicle.
9. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award, follows four generations of a Korean family from 1910, when Japan annexed Korea, through most of the 20th Century. It begins with an aging fisherman and his wife, who run a boarding house in a village near the port city of Busan. Their son, who has a cleft palate and twisted foot, is married at last. When his teenage daughter Sunja becomes pregnant by a visiting businessman, a kind pastor marries her and takes her to Osaka. After he dies, Sunja’s grit keeps the family afloat during the tough war years. One son makes it into Waseda University. The youngest runs pachinko parlours, where gamblers play machines in a game similar to pinball. But their future is shadowed by past secrets and betrayals.
8. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, A Kind of Freedom
Sexton’s powerful first novel, which made the longlist for the National Book Award, traces the complex downward spiral of a black family in New Orleans from World War Two through to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She begins with Evelyn, a Creole debutante, who falls for Renard, from a lower-class family, in 1944, a time of Jim Crow segregation. Her family objects, but as Renard heads to war, their bond is set. In the 1980s their daughter Jackie struggles to raise her son after her husband Terry loses his pharmacist job and begins using crack cocaine. By 2010, Jackie’s son TC is released from Orleans Parish Prison after a stint for drug possession, eager to redeem himself, surrounded by temptation. Despite struggles, A Kind of Freedom glimmers with hope.
7. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Saunders, already renowned as a masterful short story writer, won this year’s Man Booker award for his first novel. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the cemetery after Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid at the age of 11 in 1862. The president mourned as the Civil War raged, its outcome unclear, and with daily reports of rising casualties. Saunders uses the Tibetan Buddhist concept of ‘the bardo’ – that netherworld between life and death – to centre his mosaic of voices within a vision of grief captured where Willie is buried. Saunders renders their eloquent voices, and delicately reveals a connection between a father’s grief and Lincoln’s strategic decision to “be brave and resolve the thing.”
6. Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God
Erdrich’s recent award-winning trilogy (The Round House, The Plague of Doves, LaRose) explored concepts of justice in lyrical prose. In a startling shift, she now turns to dystopian fiction. She creates a nightmarish regressive world in which evolution reverses, leading to ladybirds the size of cats, lizard-birds and stillborn babies. Panic in the human world triggers chaos, and a government round-up of pregnant women. Young Cedar Hawk Songmaker, four months’ pregnant, is soon on the run, with help from her adoptive parents, her Ojibwe birth mother and family, and the baby’s father. Erdrich pulls the net tight with surveillance, torture-induced betrayals, and hair-raising escapes. There are echoes here of The Handmaid’s Tale, but this nightmare is Erdrich’s own. “It is the future that haunts us now,” she writes.
5. Roxane Gay, Difficult Women
Gay brings the powerful voice that flows through her work as a novelist and cultural critic to the 21 short stories in her first collection. Some explore the intimate process of pushing through fear and pain to survival to strength. In I Will Follow You, she writes of two sisters who endure unspeakable abuse in childhood and how they protect each other as adults; in I Am a Knife, of a woman whose losses sharpen her. Other stories delve into the nuances of sexual attraction and vulnerability: in La Negra Blanca a mixed-race student putting herself through university as a stripper finds herself the target of a stalker. Gay’s “difficult women” are unforgettable.
4. Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Wild salmon provided physical and spiritual sustenance for the Interior Salish – Alexie’s Native American people – for thousands of years. In 1938, five years after the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, they were gone. Alexie’s Spokane mother and Coeur d’Alene father, fluent Salish speakers, were the first generation to live entirely without wild salmon. “Salmon-grief” echoes throughout the pages of his sardonic, raw and moving memoir. “Poverty was our spirit animal,” he writes of growing up on the Spokane reservation. His father was “a shy and gentle man even when drunk.” His mother was gifted and difficult (bipolar like he is, haunted by ghosts). He shapes his powerful memoir around her final days and his mourning, stitching together his memories with poems.
3. Cristina Garcia, Here in Berlin
Garcia’s new novel is ingeniously structured, veering from poignant to shocking. The Visitor, her Cuban-American narrator, comes to Berlin in 2013 in search of stories. And she finds them in unexpected places – parks, museums, outdoor cafes, the aquarium, along the Spree River. She learns of the fate of the 3,715 animals in the Berlin Zoo during World War Two from the zookeeper’s son, and listens to a child born of the Nazi breeding programme. She also speaks to a Berliner whose only time outside the country was to study “the oratorical styles of black preachers in the South” for Nazi propaganda purposes and to a Cuban held as a PoW on a German submarine. Here in Berlin has echoes of WG Sebald, but its vivid, surprising images of wartime Berlin are Garcia’s own.
2. Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach is a multi-layered noir-tinged novel set in 1940s Brooklyn. With intimate focus, Egan follows Eddie Kerrigan, a tough Irishman who survives the Depression by taking a job as a bagman to mobster Dexter Styles, and his daughter Anna. Five years after Eddie disappears, Anna becomes the first woman diver in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, repairing warships and offering acute assessments of the “naked prejudice” of her supervisor and the eerie pleasures of underwater work. Egan crafts unforgettable scenes and builds to an explosive ending that blends submarine attacks on a US warship off the African coast with a domestic crisis that threatens Anna’s future. Her A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle award. Egan has outdone herself with Manhattan Beach.
1. Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ward won the National Book Award for this haunting novel whose troubled souls include 13-year-old JoJo, who is at a crucial crossroads. His growing awareness of mortality and injustice are mixed with love for his grandparents Pop and Mam and his three-year-old sister Kayla. Pop shares memories of Parchman, the notorious Mississippi prison farm where he once did time, and teaches JoJo to live with dignity. JoJo’s mother Leonie takes both kids and her friend Misty on a bizarre road to pick up her white boyfriend Michael, who is being released from Parchman after three years. Hovering nearby: the ghost of a boy named Richie who died at Parchman 60 years ago. Ward unearths layers of history in gorgeous textured language, ending with an unearthly chord.
Ref: BBC News