A ‘classic’ was defined by Italian author Italo Calvino as “…a book that’s never finished saying what it has to say.”
Now, I’m not claiming that the books I truly loved this year are ‘classics’, however, I’m borrowing Calvino’s definition to guide my list of top picks for 2016. This year, I’m paying less attention to five-star ratings and more attention to the books that are still speaking to me.
There were two books that made me really laugh – Penelope by Rebecca Harrington (which represents the best kind of campus-lit) and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (the first and only time I’ve enjoyed magic realism). I loathe the word ‘quirky’ but if I quickly looked away, it would be okay to apply it to both of these books.
I don’t normally think ‘funny’ and ‘historical fiction’ go together but Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! breaks that mold. I loved every unexpected moment.
In contrast, the book that made me cry the most was Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. There was one scene in particular that broke me.
I read three novellas in the middle of the year and each was remarkable – Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, and The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. Swift, Haruf and Smith all managed to etch a rich story with an economy of words – the writing in all three was extraordinary.
Perhaps the most original book I came across in 2016 was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. Although I didn’t rate it highly at the time, there are elements I’m still thinking about, which says a lot. I’m also still thinking about Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault – perhaps because of the furore she caused on the Australian writers festival circuit, perhaps because she writes damn-fine stories.
‘Contemporary-literature relationship stories’ are my go-to genre (think Yates, Shriver, Hartnet, Dee), so obviously Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety sang to me. Likewise, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am was marvelous (all the more thrilling thanks to the autobiographical hints).
My two absolute favourites for 2016, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg, stood-out for similar reasons – both books were beautifully written, had memorable characters and were so layered with meaning that I’m quite sure I missed half of it – both books truly fulfill Calvino’s definition.
Thanks for your readership this year and I look forward to more ace books in 2017.