Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2016

by Review 31

As is customary at this time of year, we invited some of our regular contributors to look back over the past 12 months and select their literary highlights of 2016. They produced a varied and eclectic list of recommendations, ranging from Garth Greenwell’s poignant exploration of sexual identity to Yuri Herrera’s bleak panorama of urban decay; from Roger Lewinter’s meditations on the beauty of everyday objects to Madeleine Thien’s poignant exploration of history and memory; and a couple of more experimental works – by Alejandro Zambra and Jung Young Moon – that riff on the porous border between fiction and non-fiction. [read full essay]

A Dying Art?

Roberto Calasso, The Art of the Publisher

reviewed by Robin Baird-Smith

The first thing to draw attention to in this book, by the Italian editor of great distinction Robert Calasso, is its title. The art of macramé, the art of fly fishing perhaps; but the Art of the Publisher strikes one initially as strange. But Calasso is of the old school where every detail of a book is fussed over – the jacket, the blurb (which he describes as the editor`s mission statement) and the typography – not to mention the hours on editing the author's text. Calasso writes short ... [read more]

'I never sat down on lavatory seats, public or otherwise...'

Peter Stansky, Edward Upward: Art and Life

reviewed by Louis Goddard

Towards the end of his valuable new biography of Edward Upward, Peter Stansky charts the tidal course of the communist novelist’s literary reputation: occasional waves of recognition interspersed with long periods of neglect. Upward was a key figure among the young writers of the 1930s, a close friend of Christopher Isherwood and well-acquainted with both WH Auden and Stephen Spender. He dropped out of view as teaching and political work – he was a committed member of the Communist Party... [read more]

All You Need Is Hate

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry

reviewed by Joe Kennedy

At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, another of Fitzcarraldo’s nonfictional tenuities, the Midwesterner relates a grade-school anecdote. Asked to memorise a poem and perform it in front of his classmates, he seeks to steal a march on his peers and asks a Topeka librarian to find him the shortest poem she knows. This happens to be Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which opens ‘I, too, dislike it’. However, Moore’s brevity is a ruse concealing complex internal dynamics,... [read more]

Fasting Girls and Fairy Tales

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder

reviewed by Maya Caspari

On 15 July, 1870, the Tivy-side Advertiser reported the death of a Welsh ten-year-old named Sarah Jacob and the subsequent trial of her parents for manslaughter. This was the culmination of a story that had been gaining increasing levels of attention. In the months leading up to her death, Sarah had become renowned for her ability to live without any food. News of her miraculous powers had spread; visitors had flocked to see the ‘little wonder’. A committee of doctors and nurses had been... [read more]

A Polemical Life

Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

reviewed by James Heartfield

In the middle of the 19th century a German student who had been arguing over the latest ideas about the reform of philosophy and the possibilities of putting man at the centre of creation, was swept up in the revolutions that shook Europe. Karl Marx took part in the debates and meetings of different continental movements in Brussels, Paris, London and Cologne, and was, for a while, the editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, a radical newspaper that argued for democracy, and often against the... [read more]

Afterlives and Misdirections

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others

reviewed by Mark West

Innocents and Others is Dana Spiotta's fourth novel. Her books are characterised by the way they proceed through a number of separate narrative strands that are connected less by plot and more by associative patterns of thought. She follows ideas and characters as they wind distinct ways through the novel, and she often highlights the impossibility – or perhaps obsolescence – of more traditional methods of narrative cohesion. Her novels feature concentrated images arranged in a fragmented,... [read more]

How to Read

Jan Wilm, The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee

reviewed by James Draney

Towards the end of his life, Heidegger gave up on philosophy. The emerging world of high technology no longer demands the reasoning logic of the philosophe, he argued in an essay from 1969, because metaphysics, like everything else, has been spoiled by the positivistic impulse of science. Instead, we require a new task, something Heidegger preferred to call, simply, thinking. Our world has become ‘entirely technical,’ he writes. The triumph of science and cybernetics ‘transforms language... [read more]

‘The equally reasonable alternative’

Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

reviewed by Niall Gildea

Of the dubious consensuses that still obtain concerning ‘high theory’, one of the more curious is the worry that, if unchecked, it tends toward the amoral or downright unethical. This objection has been levelled from both left- and right-leaning positions: the former accuses ‘theory’ of enshrining a canon of ‘elite’ literature, for instance, whilst the latter suspects it of doing pretty much the opposite. These basic arguments against theory have mushroomed at various points to... [read more]

Le Droit à la Différence

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I Don’t Remember

reviewed by Jude Cook

Very early in the new novel by Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Kehmiri, one of its many narrators anticipates the questioning that will follow when he reveals his real name to the protagonist, Samuel: ‘How Swedish do you feel? . . . Are you whole or half?’ It’s a question that resonates through the entire novel, though on many occasions not explicitly. Insecurity about a coherent identity is merely a background hum; a tinnitus of vulnerability heard underneath the hubbub of everyday... [read more]


Robert L. Belknap, Plots

reviewed by Andre van Loon

'Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do.' – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms People lie. White lies, amusing lies, horrid lies. Sometimes you might think the liar didn’t know any better. Or that the truth was difficult to tell. Often, trauma victims have a poor recollection of what happened; eyewitnesses to historical events veer away from the official story. There are liars who take pleasure in embellishing a story, sharpening its outlines, heightening the drama,... [read more]