A Critic’s Picks: Five Best Novels of 2017

As a source of harmless outrage, lists of the best books of the year can scarcely be bettered. In the first place, it is obvious that the choices are necessarily skewed toward what the choosers have read and any number of works of the hundreds of thousands published each year fall “dead born from the press,” never publicized, never reviewed. In the second place and more to the point: Tastes differ. This is where that heady feeling of indignation kicks in. Every year I writhe in exquisite umbrage at half the titles on the lists that begin to appear in this season. And so here, for your enjoyment, edification, or exasperation, is my own roster of the five best novels that I have read this year, wonderful books which appeal to my own particular taste.

Richard Mason’s Who Killed Piet Barol?  was a real surprise. I picked it up on an inexplicable whim—inexplicable because I had never heard of the author and, for some reason, was not scared off by the fell words “magic realism” used in a blurb on the jacket. The story is a very dark comedy of misapprehension, presumption, and bad faith set in South Africa just as the First World War breaks out in Europe. Most saliently, the Native Land Act of 1913 has gone into effect in the Union of South Africa, evicting native peoples from their land and opening it to white settlers. Piet Barol is a Dutch poser, adventurer, and furniture maker who sets off with two Xhosa guides into territory hitherto unexplored by Europeans. His hope is to find some fabled trees which he intends to turn into exotic furniture, thereby making his fortune. His guides and the Xhosa villagers they lead him to do not fully grasp his intentions and Barol, in his complacent, top-dog obliviousness and mounting greed, certainly does not understand their frame of reference. European and Africans see the world through incompatible cosmological lenses—a reality that is skillfully conjured by Mason and disastrously realized in the blundering relationship the characters have with each other. The results are comic and, ultimately, tragic. The aspect which might be called magical realism is, I guess, the attribution of what we may call human thoughts and emotions to animals and plants, instances of which, I must say, were some of my favorite parts of the novel—though I speak as one whose esteem for The Wind in the Willows has no bounds

I reviewed Who Killed Piet Barol? in February , at which time it was the best novel I had read in the year. As it happens, 2017, so dreadful in some ways, turned out to be an excellent year for novels. Sharing the top-five berth is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 which I also reviewed here. Although this book and Mason’s are as unlike as could be, both are almost as attentive to creatures of nature as they are to human beings. While Mason gives plants and animals emotions which could be ours—jealousy, spite, humiliation, wonder, dread, dismay—McGregor’s creatures are all business. Oblivious to human affairs, they cycle through the seasons, their activity a busy bustle alongside human affairs. Life in all nature—human, animal, plant—follows an eternal rhythm of impermanence: what is here today is gone tomorrow; and then the whole thing starts all over again. This implacable movement is both backdrop to and unspoken commentary on a tragedy: a 13-year-old girl has disappeared on a walk in England’s Peak District. Unexpectedly and brilliantly, what starts off as if it were a missing-girl thriller, gradually turns into a panoramic and completely engrossing detailing of the doings in an English village over many years, years that cover the corrosion of traditional economic and social arrangements by the forces of global capitalism. (Read a conversation with Jon McGregor and Maile Meloy here.)

The characters who tenant the pages of Arundhati Roy’s superb second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, are also, if more directly and brutally, affected by global forces, most especially by the “war on terror.” This construct has produced the rubric of the “security state,” under which governments have imposed increasingly authoritarian measures of control and fostered national paranoia. In India it has given momentum to ultra-Hinduism and license to “security” forces, a dismal situation that is both background and foreground in Roy’s novel. The plot has two main threads which are eventually united. The first is the story of Anjum, a transsexual (hijra), who has set up a house for outcasts and victims of “the new India” in a graveyard in New Delhi. The other, follows Tila, a woman whose love and tragedy are bound up with the brutal suppression of the secession movement in Kashmir. There is a large element of the political in this book and the erratic movement of its plot gives it a rackety feeling—but neither is detrimental as I see it. The back-and-forth, hither-and-yon nature of the plot is in perfect accord with the stitched-together, ramshackle lives of India’s underprivileged, which is to say, of the people who make up the book’s sympathetic characters. Roy infects us, as Dickens did, with a sense of festivity and fondness for her idiosyncratic creations. This is a huge novel, terrifying, wryly humorous, and moving, a story of vexed identity and the power of friendship. (Read our interview with Arundhati Roy.)

I could not get Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko out of my head for a very long time—and now it’s taken up residence again as I think how best to describe it. This is the story of four generations of a Korean family beginning in 1910, the year Japan annexed Korea. The arranged marriage between a fisherman and his wife, a boarding-house keeper, produces a daughter, Sunja, who is seduced at 16, by, Hansu, a married crime boss. She is saved from disgrace by Isak, a visiting clergyman, who marries her out of generosity and the two emigrate to Japan where Koreans are a despised and highly regulated underclass denied the rights of Japanese citizens. There the couple suffer the precariousness and vulnerability of the outsider, a situation worsened, as we will see, in times of war. Sunja gives birth to a son, Noa, and later, with Isak, another son, Mozasu. But Hansu, emanating power and an inkling of menace, is a presence in the background as he keeps an eye on his natural son. His machinations lend the story an element of the fairy tale, an unnerving one of hidden forces, sometimes beneficial and, ultimately, disastrous. This tremendous, many-stranded novel expands to include a large cast of fully-formed characters reaching into the 1980s. It is a historically rich, psychologically deep, and often heart-breaking story of four generations caught in the toils of ethnic identity.

In this country, the last objects of unexamined, reflex misogyny by right-thinking people are nuns. They live in the liberal imagination as twentieth-century sadists and termagants, a monstrous regiment of virgins who took out their (obvious) sexual frustration on innocent children. It is a vision entertained most robustly by people who have never actually had any dealings with them and for this reason, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour might be considered required reading. At its heart are the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, ministering in these pages to the ailing and feeble of working-class Brooklyn of the first part of the twentieth century. They perform their duties and tasks with differing degrees of toleration and, indeed, live together with stoic forbearance, but the notion of sacrifice is central—and central in a way that is scarcely conceivable to most people now. The nuns take Annie, the widow of a suicide, and her daughter, Sally, under their protection. The girl grows up doted upon by them and infected by a self-dramatizing desire to become a nun herself—a fantasy that cannot outlive a bruising encounter with the reality of the human condition and, to put it as the nuns might, man’s (and woman’s) fallen state. Unlike, Sally, the nuns suck it up and get the job done in a hands-on way, in contrast also, we see, to the puffed-up parish priest who takes a greater interest in his dinner than the plight of a girl being molested at home. There are wonderful scenes of work in this book, the most thrilling (to me) amounts to a paean to the art of laundering clothes. This is a great and subtle novel—whose plot I leave you to discover. I do notice that it is, for no reason I know, the only one of my top five to be set in this country. I reviewed it here.



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