In a year that brought out the misanthrope in all of us, 2017’s best books—from vibrant recastings of the past to the freshest voices of the future—brought warmth and light to our days.
Many fiction writers have unlocked history’s vault to wondrous effect; few have done it with the high-concept wizardry of short story master George Saunders, whose Man Booker Prize–winning first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House), mixes piercing fact—the death of the 16th president’s young son, Willie, and the bereft father’s nocturnal visits to his son’s crypt—with imaginative whimsy—a Greek chorus of garrulous graveyard spirits.
Perhaps no contemporary novelist has done more to illuminate the unfinished business of the American South than Jesmyn Ward, whose National Book Award–winning second novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), summons deep empathy for a flawed young mother whose allegorical-feeling road trip across Mississippi with her children reminds us of just how far we still have to go.
The year’s standout debut was that of Zinzi Clemmons, whose collage-like autofiction, What We Lose (Viking), written in the aftermath of the death of the author’s South African mother, read like an exorcism of grief, mixing archival photographs, disquisitions on the Mandelas and Pistorius, and stick-in-the-mind observations on racism’s brutal intimacies: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”
The best novel to date about the migration refugee crisis, German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (New Directions) felt both urgent and tender, taking on depicting Europe on the brink of its next profound change—as seen through the eyes of a professor from Berlin’s former East, a man who knows something of what it means to lose one’s place in the world.
With wit, nuance, and roving insight, Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) maps the massively influential and controversial author’s life and work, finding that the themes of his time—dislocation and connection, immigration and xenophobia, power and powerlessness—uncannily mirror our own.
Post–Elena Ferrante, the heated intimacy of adolescent friendship remains a rich literary subject—this year, most compellingly in Claire Messud’s elegiac, New England–set latest, The Burning Girl (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.), written with a pained awareness of how tales of young girls in peril have become a kind of cultural fetish, blotting out all other possibilities obliterating all else.
The New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy has made a career writing about “women who are too much,” as she puts it in her gorgeous maelstrom of a memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply?(Random House), an unsparing look at the ways in which her own youthful assumptions about feminism’s “lavish gifts” dissolved into midlife loss.
Recalling college life and love at the dawn of the digital age is Elif Batuman’s roman à clef, The Idiot (Penguin Press), in which an ingenious, formidably bright Harvard freshman who wants know what books really mean falls for her own email-stoked illusions, resulting in heartbreak—and the funniest novel of the year.
The self-deceptions of a new generation are at the core of Sally Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends (Hogarth), which captures something wonderfully odd-cornered and real in the story of an Irish millennial who is “anti-love as such” but finds herself involved in, of all things, an adulterous affair with an older man.
“Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person,” thinks the young narrator of Catherine Lacey’s cracklingly inventive (and double-edged one-liner-filled) take on human relations in capitalist end times, The Answers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about a young woman ensnared in an exploitative “romantic experiment”—and a culture desperate to be healed.