The best books of 2017

Paul Auster, Philip Pullman and Jennifer Egan produced the landmark literature of the last 12 months

4321 by Paul Auster

This was my book of the year for 2017, and not just because of the time I invested in reading all 1100 pages of it. 4321, Auster’s account of four versions of the same life progressing in slightly diverging tendrils through 50s and 60s America is a panoptic yet personal look at a moment of existential crisis for the West. Doubling as a pretty efficient door-stopper, Auster doesn’t waste time trying to condense the life of his everyman (or everypoet), Ferguson, here, instead guiding us from birth through childhood and into young adulthood, by way of TV, sex, protest and literature. The Sliding Doors structure is brilliant, devastating and pulled off in a way that reinforces the seemingly contradictory ideas that things might have turned out differently, and yet we are always fundamentally the same. Hot tip: skip the last five pages, or, if you read them, ignore what they say.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has the faint whiff of something that a privileged prat doing a creative writing MFA would dream up, but, despite the lack of urgency, his vision of Abraham Lincoln’s purgatorial pilgrimages is a work of extraordinary craftsmanship. That might sound like damning it with the wrong sort of praise, but Lincoln in the Bardo is both technically proficient and emotionally engaging. The structure is wild: all presented in first person narration, sometimes soliloquy, sometimes dialogue, but the conceit quickly moves away from being a distraction, allowing Saunders to inhabit the lost souls of his Bardo in a manner that’s simultaneously grotesque and oddly sympathetic.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Winning the Pulitzer Prize is no more a badge of quality than an endorsement from the author’s mum, but, in the case of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, it’s a well-earned distinction. The book was released in late 2016, but sneaks its way onto this list by virtue of its Pulitzer win and appearance on the Man Booker long-list in this calendar year. Telling the story of an escaped slave, Cora, Whitehead’s novel follows her across both the years and the country, as she tries to outrun her inexorable entrapment. Like Saunders, Whitehead takes an important moment in American history and gives it a modernist twist: here the figurative underground railroad is literalised into a subterranean line. But this suspension of reality is never a distraction, and the novel steams onwards towards tragedy and redemption.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Another Pulitzer winner, Jennifer Egan, returned this year with her first book since 2011. Manhattan Beach, though an antidote to the postmodern tomfoolery of A Visit from the Goon Squad, is laced with a sense that at any moment it might burst into a new genre. War novel, spy thriller, romance: at different moments we seem on the cusp of tacking into a whole new aesthetic classification. The story of a female ship-repair-diver (if there’s a more elegant term for this job, it doesn’t appear in the book) in World War II-era New York, Egan’s latest novel is at once both symphonic in pulling together threads of modern American literature (gangsters mingle in nightclubs, ships dodge German U-boats, women swoon on moonlit beaches) and oddly specific. I have avoided discovering more about the genesis of the novel’s naval yard location, though learning from Wikipedia that Egan lives in that area of Brooklyn might well have provided her with the keys to unlocking such a precise historical moment.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I missed out on the His Dark Materials trilogy during childhood and adolescence, but was determined to make amends this year in advance of Philip Pullman’s new book, La Belle Sauvage. I found Northern Lights a delightful, near flawless, children’s book but felt the trilogy headed into increasingly deranged and incomprehensible territory as it progressed towards a battle on a mountain in a parallel universe (?) between humans (?) and the Authority’s Regent, Metatron (?). But it set me up nicely to read La Belle Sauvage, which, for more than half its length, is filled with the same parochial wonder as Northern Lights. Things veer towards the baffling in the final scenes, but there is so much to love about Pullman’s alternative Oxford, and his new protagonist, Malcolm Polstead, is every bit a match for Lyra and Will.

And a book that wasn’t for me…

I’ve always found reading Ali Smith to be a bit like trying to grab hold of smoke, but I persevere because so many clever people insist that she is brilliant. I found Autumn dull, rushed and trite, and while there seems to be a consensus that it’s one of her lesser works, it doesn’t leave me full of optimism for the remaining volumes of her seasons quartet. Clearly I’m missing the appeal, but I’ll get myself a copy of Winter, just published, to read over Christmas and see if I can be converted in time for next year’s list.


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