Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2017

by Review 31

Given the turbulent state of world politics, it is unsurprising that political themes loom large in some of 2017’s most eye-catching works of fiction: these include Tom Rachman’s ‘rapid-response’ snapshot of American decline in Basket of Deplorables, Daniel Magariel’s searing portrait of toxic masculinity in One of the Boys, and Mohsin Hamid’s timely meditation on migration, Exit West. This year’s recommendations are formally diverse, ranging from Emmanuel Carrère’s essayistic opus The Kingdom – described by Andre van Loon as 'emphatically not a novel' – and Sam Riviere’s digitally inspired fragmented narratives to more conventional, plot-driven novels and short stories. [read full essay]

A Precarious Privilege

Kate Briggs, This Little Art

reviewed by Annie McDermott

I don’t know how stockings are made nowadays, Roland Barthes says in a lecture he delivered in 1980, but when I was a child they were knitted. He describes growing up surrounded by women who were ‘obsessed with the risk of getting a hole in their stockings’ which would then form a ladder, and the gesture ‘whereby a woman would wet a finger in her mouth and apply it to the weave, cementing it with saliva, and in this way she would stop it.’ He remembers, too, a tiny stall of... [read more]

This Is Normal

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today

reviewed by Peter Mitchell

Consider the gas-mask dancers of Gezi Park. In 2013, during the occupation of Taksim Square, dancers – whirling dervishes, ballet dancers – started to put on shows, spinning and dipping in their full regalia, with the addition of the gas masks which were by then becoming the cardinal symbol of the protests. The images quickly gained traction within the feverish meme-jockeying that surrounded Gezi, and no wonder: there’s something indecently powerful in the juxtaposition of dervish robes... [read more]

Some Freaks

James Miller, UnAmerican Activities

reviewed by Jude Cook

The loosely linked short stories in James Miller’s third book – it’s not quite a novel, despite the back-cover blurb, though this is not to diminish it one iota – focus, in the words of its meta-narrator, on ‘a subterranean America full of un-American activities.’ This, at first glance, might appear to be familiar, even hackneyed, territory, supported by the book’s impressive quasi-graphic-novel cover, which drips with junkyard spares, palms, neons and law enforcement officers in... [read more]

An Unusual Fecundity

Jean Giono, trans. Paul Eprile, Melville: A Novel

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

Although Jean Giono’s short book (105 pages) begins in a biographical vein, it is not the historical Herman Melville that it depicts. Instead, the narrative soon drifts into the depths of the hypothetical and the fictional. Melville, in the process, becomes a kind of spirit-summoning: both a tribute to the American writer, and, as Edmund White puts in his introduction, the product of Giono ‘trying on’ Melville as an alter ego. The narrative itself describes only a brief episode. In a... [read more]

A Most Unnarcissistic Poet

Frank Bidart, Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

reviewed by Ben Leubner

Frank Bidart’s Half-Light contains half a century’s worth of poetic output and runs to 665 pages. There are, however, only 144 poems total, and a mere ten of those poems, which I’ll discuss briefly in what follows, take up over a third of the volume, 244 pages, to be precise. Bidart has thus been prolific in his career in terms of sheer volume, not unlike Robert Lowell, but also fairly restrained in terms of the number of actual poems published, where in this regard he has more in... [read more]

What Happens Now?

Naomi Klein, No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

reviewed by Claire Potter

It’s a year after the American Election Day that shook the world, and a new book that seeks to explain the disaster of Donald Trump’s victory drops every few weeks. We political historians are scrambling to keep up. Last month, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? hit the stands. How does it feel to be a smart and seasoned politician and lose to an uneducated novice? Not good! Not good at all! This month, it was Hacks, Donna Brazile’s account of the train wreck at the Democratic National... [read more]

The Self-Advertising Male

Philip Mann, The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century

reviewed by Stuart Walton

It is the melancholy of manifest individualism that it proves to be anything but inimitable. What begins as the exquisite crafting of the esoteric persona, initially conceived against the prevailing orthodoxy, becomes reified into a style for others to emulate, and before one has blinked, a whole social movement, or the fleeting fancy of this week, has been generated from the most minute scrutiny of the self. Individualism depends, fatally, on a surrounding milieu of homogeneous conformism, in... [read more]

Who is Oscar Babel?

Baret Magarian, The Fabrications

reviewed by Jamie Mackay

Who is Oscar Babel? This refrain from Baret Magarian’s mind-bending debut has been stuck in my head for weeks now, replaying itself in the myriad of accents, guises and disguises it adopts throughout the novel. At first it seems to be a simple question posed by a writer about his new character, but it soon mutates into the PR brainchild of a media mogul, a hushed whisper in a crowd, an intimate utterance of self-interrogation and a whole variety of other distortions. Double, triple,... [read more]

Before the Indifferent Beak

Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating

reviewed by Leonora Craig Cohen

Eli Goldstone’s debut novel, Strange Heart Beating, begins not long after the death of Seb’s wife Leda, who drowns in a London park after an attack by a swan. Is this an encounter with some divine force that cannot resist handing out tragicomic deaths to the women of the Kauss family? Or the ridiculous and sad death of a young woman for no purpose? Seb struggles throughout the book to either create a narrative around his wife’s death or accept it as random and unrelated to the rest of her... [read more]

Steel Skeletons

Hideo Furukawa, trans. Doug Slaymaker & Akiko Takenaka, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima

reviewed by Dan Bradley

As one of the first literary responses to the Great East Japan earthquake of March 2011, Hideo Furukawa’s new novel is characterised by a visceral emotive power, laying bare the frustrations, despair and hope of one author’s attempt to make sense of unimaginable loss and devastation. It also bears the shortcomings that might be expected from a work produced in only four months. The inhuman scale of the earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, where over twenty... [read more]