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]

‘Things that thing’

Evija Trofimova, Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With

reviewed by Alex Wealands

Paul Auster once stated in an interview that all of his books are in fact the same book. Whilst this may seem like a playful misdirection from the author, anyone familiar with Auster’s work will be aware of the interconnections woven throughout his entire oeuvre, which Evija Trofimova has explored in Paul Auster’s Writing Machine: A Thing to Write With. Cigarettes or cigarillos, typewriters, notebooks, New York, names, doppelgängers, themes of chance and fate – these are all motifs that... [read more]

A Temporary Phenomenon?

Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power

reviewed by Daniel Whittall

Where did Jeremy Corbyn come from? For decades he had been in the minority as a left Labour MP, his columns appearing in the comparatively obscure Morning Star rather than the more mainstream newspapers. He had stuck firmly to his socialist principles, defying the Labour whip consistently, especially during the years of New Labour. Alex Nunns’ The Candidate superbly brings into clarity the three key processes that facilitated Corbyn’s rise. First, and often unappreciated by other writers... [read more]
 

A Fraught Enterprise

Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

reviewed by Stuart Walton

The Grand Hotel Abyss is not currently taking bookings. There is a two-year waiting list for its Economy rooms, its Superior Doubles are block-booked by stag weekenders, and the Executive Suites are largely given over to elderly residents and myself, whom it would be positively dangerous to move by now. For those who may never get to see it first-hand though, books about the establishment continue to proliferate. The Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle's Grande Hotel Abismo (2012) appeared... [read more]

As Necessary as Solitude

Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

reviewed by Helen Tyson

When the bombs fell on London in 1940 and 1941, Virginia Woolf, devastated, wrote to a friend that it ‘raked my heart’ to see ‘the passion of my life, that is the City of London,’ destroyed. Her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ is a testimony to that passion. Woolf’s narrator describes the charms of walking in London on a winter’s evening, and revels in the ‘irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow’. She embraces the sense of anonymity we feel... [read more]
 

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]