Since the sole focus of today’s post is my literary year, it will be a rare positive verdict on 2016. Obviously it has been significant for me as the year my debut novel was published – I will always look back on the launch of Paris Mon Amour as one of the happiest moments of my life. I am so grateful to my agent, my publishers, my husband and the many people who have supported me for years. It’s daunting to send your book out to stand or fall for what it is; the strong response to Alexandra’s story means a great deal to me and has made it all worthwhile. Many thanks to all the readers, writers and bloggers who have supported the book and taken the time to share their thoughts. 2017 will bring a new chapter!
2016 has been a rich and rewarding year of reading, with some big changes of habit. Now I’m less hung up on new releases, I’m able to read more books I’d missed when first out, more in French (a full fifth of the total) and more non-fiction. I’ve also enjoyed re-reading The Corrections (Franzen), Perfume (Süskind), Chéri (Colette), Bonjour Tristesse (Sagan) and Belle de Jour (Kessel).
The total number of books I’ve read is 98 and for the fifth consecutive year ‘since records began’, the split turns out to be 2:1 female:male authors, a factor I consider precisely once a year. Every book that’s appeared on the Literary Sofa (about half of the total) is one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to recommend. Given everything I do, reading with pure enjoyment is a rarity, but I fully surrendered to the 13 books below, all of which left a deep and lasting impression. When I came to compile this Best Books of 2016, I realised they mostly come in pairs, which is a first and rather strange! Some have done extremely well, whilst others have not received the attention they deserve – I urge you to check them out!
Since most have been mentioned on the blog already, I’ll add links and keep my reasons brief.
My Book of 2016 is Douglas Cowie’s Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, a fictionalised account of the long and turbulent affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Chicago author Nelson Algren. This tender and vividly imagined novel simply couldn’t be more my kind of thing: France, America, writers, complicated love – I absolutely adored it. It also led me directly to my favourite non-fiction book of the year, Sarah Bakewell’s lively and accessible At the Existentialist Café. Whilst we’re at it, I was hugely taken with Sandrine Kiberlain’s portrayal of Beauvoir in the biopic Violette, on the life of her protegée Violette Leduc.
I savoured these next two for their large casts of misfits, their seemingly chaotic storylines plotted with great skill, and for their refreshing boldness. The harsh realities of the characters’ lives are portrayed with warmth, wit and insight that genuinely engaged me. Bit of a brag, but I was raving about Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies long before it scooped both The Desmond Eliot and Bailey’s prizes. Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I was the undisputed highlight of my summer holiday reading and a treat for anyone who wants Paris sans clichés – it is due to be published in English by MacLehose Press in June 2017.
Next are two stirring historical novels set in the American South: Avril Joy’s Sometimes a River Song in 1930s Arkansas and Virginia Reeves’ Work Like Any Other in 1920s Alabama. The first has a subtle feminist streak, expressed in the voice of a teenage girl longing for emancipation, the second a strongly male perspective and story reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption. At some level both are about freedom, integrity and family ties – beautifully written and so poignant I can’t recall either without a lump in my throat.
When it comes to pre-teen narrators I’m a tough nut to crack; capturing innocence without being too cutesy is a real challenge. But of course it can be done, and two such books on the theme of a family crisis touched my heart this year: Kit de Waal creates a believable and desperately endearing 9-year-old in My Name is Leon, as does French Burundian rapper Gaël Faye with his loosely autobiographical Petit Pays, in which the 11-year-old narrator experiences the repercussions of the Rwandan genocide on his own life. Thanks to my lovely Paris-based friend Helen Stanton for giving me this book (and many other fabulous tip-offs) – no doubt it will appear in English but if you can read fairly straightforward French, I wouldn’t wait. Faye’s music is just as vibrant and eloquent – here’s the song Petit Pays.
Now for two novels each with two female main characters. I was very impressed by Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life, which vaults across cultures and continents whilst uncovering very relatable truths about love, friendship, what it means to be a woman who exists (as we all do) in many conflicting dimensions. Similar themes run through Irish novelist Catherine Dunne’s stylish and unbelievably gripping The Years That Followed: the best of women’s fiction and literary thriller in one inspiring package.
Quality of writing is the least negotiable aspect of any text for me as a reader (and, I hope, as a writer) and this year two novels in particular left me in awe of the beauty and potential of the English language: The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert, whose novel-in-fragments was featured here, and The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell, the third Irish writer on this list. Some unmistakable parallels include mysterious old houses with enigmatic storylines (which I’m not sure I entirely followed, but no matter). The Maker of Swans includes one of the most stunning pieces of writing I’ve ever read on a given topic – I can say no more out of respect for others’ (possibly quite different) interpretations. The Children’s Home exudes gothic atmosphere and contains one of the most visually arresting and profoundly sinister scenes I’ve ever encountered.
The final word goes to Graham Swift’s tiny but perfect Mothering Sunday. Sexy and tragic is my favourite combination, and this is beyond compare.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my personal round-up of the best books of 2016 (and apologies for the infuriating technical glitches that have prevented me from editing the layout) – I’d love to hear about yours. Thanks to everyone who has made this another stimulating and successful year on the Literary Sofa, and especially to my guest authors for contributing such outstanding pieces. I will be disappearing for a few weeks from 16 December for my favourite kind of end-of-year celebration: getting away from it all. Whatever you’re doing, I wish you good times!