Most of the year’s strongest novels had historical heavy subject matter, befitting a year that felt to American readers like the darkest in memory. My “best of” list is reflective of that trend, including novels that touch on the Holocaust and slavery, colonialism and violence. Many of these books made me weep or close the pages to take a calming breath. And yet I kept going, because literature has the power to see us through, to help us stare right into the darkness and see it clearly, but also to find improbable hope.
For the sake of transparency I’ll say that there is a decided bias in this list and it’s a temporal one — weighted towards the latter months of the year, thanks to the baby I had in early 2016. Therefore, I’ll conclude the list with a sampling of several major books that I missed this year but remain on my must-read list.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s novel is one of a family tree sundered by slavery. Two half-sisters, unknown to each other until it’s too late, are divided by the trade in human bondage; one marries a slaver and the other is sold away in the putrid basement below her chambers. From there, each chapter follows one of their descendants through the decades to come, offering us grim looks at deep south slavery, the fugitive slave act, the treatment of convicts after reconstruction — and across the sea, at tribal wars in Africa, madness and repression and the painful dynamics of family. Each chapter reads like a short story and a novel chapter at once, and what is incredible about the book isn’t just the detail and characterization, but the way it has unstoppable forward momentum; you keep reading to find out the fates of the previous generation in the story of the next one.