Best Books of 2017 – Fiction!
2017 was another outstanding year for fiction. Even the mediocre novels were sounder and smarter than in most years, and the terrific novels were correspondingly even more terrific – so much so, in fact, that many of the year’s best novels achieved that status despite committing venial and mortal sins against their own genre: things like pandering topicality, chasing buzzwords, and avoiding plot, things that would ordinarily torpedo a novel, were in 2017 transformed by sheer talent into working parts of the performance. And those performances included some mighty fine works – these were the best of them:
10 A State of Freedom by Neal Mukherjee (WW Norton) – The first book on the list this year might have been the worst offender when it comes to pandering topicality, since through the experiences of five central characters it deals squarely with the migrant experience, the reality of today’s immigrant population so much in the news. But right from the start, Mukherjee’s book shines with such spare rhetorical cut and anger that I plum forgot to be anything but awestruck.
9 Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Little, Brown) – Arthur Less, the main character in this wonderful, hilarious book by Greer, is a hapless failing writer on the brink of the mother of all midlife crises and trying simply to avoid reality by hiding behind cheap profundities and a series of ill-advised junkets, and Greer tells this (admittedly familiar) story with such glee and sharp attention that I was grinning all the way through – the only other 2017 book I can say that about was Joe Hagan’s biography of Jann Wenner, but there the grins came from boiling hatred, whereas in Less they came from sheer readerly enjoyment.
8 A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco) – I’ve always been hit-or-miss with Oates’ fiction, and I very much tend to be extra-irritable about ‘issue’ novels, so by rights this big novel squarely about the raging abortion debate in America should have left me cold. The book is a dual story: the vicious Evangelical who kills an abortionist and painful aftermath for the abortionist’s family – but instead of irritating me, it moved me more than any other novel I read this year, and even given all its competition, I think it may be the best thing Oates has ever written.
7 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House) – This thrillingly ambitious debut novel by Saunders about a grieving President Lincoln and a graveyard full of spirits who don’t quite understand why they should be grieved isn’t just a virtuoso feat of sustained genre-bending; it’s also the most convincingly strange novel of the year in any genre.
6 The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Penguin Random House) – Boyne’s panoramic narrative of one gay man’s life in the second half of the 20th century (here seen in its UK cover, which is fractionally less boring and insipid than the US version) manages the tricky feat of giving readers an Everyman focal character who’s also an individual – and then surrounds him with an endlessly fascinating supporting cast.
5 Motherland by Paul Theroux (HMH) – This big, hugely detailed novel from Theroux surprised me at almost every turn. Its plot – a wizened and virtually immortal Cape Cod matriarch tyrannizes her large brood of adult children – doesn’t seem like this author’s fare, and the biting comedy here is darker and more relentless than anything Theroux has ever written. And like so many of the books on this list, the novel is full of vividly memorable characters.
4 Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller (Liveright) – Miller’s book is the only short story collection on this list this time around, and its stories concentrate almost exclusively on squalid people poorly living useless lives – a trash-fest of exactly the type that usually infuriates me. But Miller crafts every page with such wonderful, evocative care that I was completely invested from start to finish.
3 This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Flatiron Books) – This novel, about a “normal” family whose little boy secretly (and then not so secretly) wants to be a little girl, raised all kinds of warning-flags for me before I’d read a page; I instantly worried that it would be a strident exercise in woke virtue-signaling only slightly masquerading as a novel. But again I was pleasantly surprised: Frankel brings her characters to life with such convincing earnestness that I was completely caught up in the story.
2 Night of Fire by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins) – A house catches fire, and this stunning novel tells the stories of the six people who live there – and tells those stories with the surreal and steadily-mounting urgency of a housefire, where old certainties and comforts are hungrily consumed and sanctuary is impossible. Thubron hasn’t written a novel in a long time, and this brilliant book seems steeped in every minute of that time.
1 The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Knopf) – Once again, this time in the best novel of 2017, Roy takes a core group of characters (connected, as always in her fiction, by equal measures of hopeless love and despairingly angry nationalism) and somehow manages through them to tell a dozen sprawling stories about India and its connection to the larger world. The result is an almost opulently magnificent sprawl of a novel.