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]

Eccentrics and Individualists

Garry MacKenzie, Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

When Walter Scott explored the Scottish lochs and Robert Louis Stevenson wandered the narrow alleyways of Edinburgh, many travellers would probably have carried their volume of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ or ‘Kidnapped’ in their bags as literal literary companions. Scotland, after all, was just being ‘discovered’ by new bourgeois tourists agog at the prospect of unearthing the romantic ghosts and medieval heroes that Scott had placed in the landscapes of the Highlands. They might have... [read more]

Fail Again, Fail Better

Clare Hayes-Brady, The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace: Language, Identity, and Resistance

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Scarcely any contemporary writer has passed into the literary canon more swiftly and seamlessly than David Foster Wallace. Undergraduate dissertations on him were already being written while he was still working on his posthumously published unfinished novel, The Pale King (2011). The writer himself was endlessly courted by academic journals to pronounce on anything from American literary culture to the status of political engagement in a disengaged world, while Harper's and Esquire magazines... [read more]

‘A boy’s adventure in the void’

Don DeLillo, Zero K

reviewed by Katie Da Cunha Lewin

‘The death of the novel’ is still a popular phrase bandied about by writers and critics both – particularly popular, it seems, for those authors who pride themselves on a cultivated cantankerousness, such as Will Self or Philip Roth. Roth in particular seemed rather churlish in his dismissal of the novel, as it coincided with the announcement of his retirement from fiction writing, seemingly suggesting that his retreat from the world of literature somehow accelerated the inevitable... [read more]

Anything and Nothing

Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space of Writing

reviewed by Alex Wealands

What is literature? This question continues to elude a satisfactory answer accounting for the all the intricate nuances and inconsistencies of writing, interpretation, imagination and reality. It is with this conviction that Lars Iyer is able to write, in his introduction to Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space of Writing, that this collection of essays is for ‘the writer for whom literature is in some way a problem.’ It is not so much that Mitchelmore attempts to definitively answer this... [read more]

Childbirth: Fiction’s Overlooked Drama

Pamela Erens, Eleven Hours

reviewed by Melanie White

Historically, war has supplied the ultimate proving ground for men: it’s arguably the most challenging test of strength and character, not to mention survival. In cultures the world over, this rite of passage has proclaimed that boys would engage in battle and emerge as men. For women, the equivalent is surely childbirth, especially in the days before modern medicine. Childbirth was once so dangerous that women in Renaissance Italy, for example, would promptly prepare a will upon discovering... [read more]

God Only Knows

David Park, Gods and Angels

reviewed by Jude Cook

A collection of great short stories, if carefully curated, can have the coherence of a novel, or at the very least a classic album. If Dubliners is the Sgt Pepper of the form, then later collections such as Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love or Annie Proulx’s Close Range are Blood on the Tracks and Hounds of Love respectively. Gods and Angels, the latest brace of stories from veteran Belfast novelist David Park, might well one day qualify as a minor classic – a... [read more]

A Nothing Match

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, trans. Shaun Whiteside, Football

reviewed by Joe Kennedy

Right at the beginning of the Belgian novelist and filmmaker Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s gnomically titled Football, in a stark epigraphical boot-print on an otherwise immaculate page, we’re told that: This is a book no-one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual. But I had to write it, I didn’t want to break the fine thread which connects me to the world. For any reviewer, this is almost certainly the... [read more]

‘My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.’

Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

reviewed by Sharlene Teo

Hot Milk, the title of Deborah Levy’s sixth book, evokes smothering maternity and the fraught, oftentimes messy dependencies between mothers and children that extend into adulthood. It is an uncomfortable and intriguing title, tantalisingly vague and a little ominous – much befitting of this hypnotic novel. In her previous works, including Beautiful Mutants (1989) and the Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), Levy interrogates the concepts of exile, identity, and the slipperiness and... [read more]

Such Terror Out of Europe

Geert Buelens, Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe

reviewed by Eleanor Careless

Geert Buelens’ extraordinary, novelistic study of the poetry of the Great War concludes ‘so that was the First World War . . . a Twin Tower every afternoon.' Buelens’ concern to make the events of over a century ago measurable by contemporary standards introduces a radically new perspective to the field of war poetry studies. Rather than replicate the Western European-centric innocence-to-experience narrative popularised in works from LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) to Ian McEwan’s... [read more]

Utility or Ideology?

Stephen Willats, Vision and Reality

reviewed by Owen Hatherley

'If I look at any object', says one of the residents of his flat in Saffron Court, Bath, in an interview with the artist Stephen Willats about life in the building, 'it tells a story.’ This book collects some of the interviews and photographs collected by Willats over several decades of work in planned housing, from the 1970s through to the 2000s – mostly, if not exclusively, in post-war, high-rise estates. Willats' extensive work on housing (never just 'houses') and the people who live in... [read more]