From novels spanning centuries to a history of existentialism, Jane Ciabattari chooses the best titles the year had to offer.

By Jane Ciabattari
21 December 2016

10. Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Credit: Credit: Knopf)

10. Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

“Separated sisters,” Gyasi writes, “are like a woman and her reflection doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.” In her artfully written first novel, Gyasi follows two half-sisters born of the same mother on Africa’s Gold Coast. Effia, who is born in 1744 in Fanteland, marries the British governor of Cape Coast Castle; her son Quey is educated in England. Her sister Esi, the daughter of an Asante leader, survives the horrors of the castle’s slave dungeon and the Middle Passage. Esi’s daughter Ness ends up on an Alabama plantation. Gyasi creates an unforgettable cast of characters as she follows seven generations of this family through the dislocations and continuing repercussions of slavery on both continents. (Credit: Knopf)

9. Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café (Credit: Credit: Other Press)

9. Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café

Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron drink apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse in Paris in 1933. Aron is excited about phenomenology, a new concept coming out of Berlin. “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” he says. Thus begins Bakewell’s idiosyncratic At the Existentialist Café, a book as refreshingly original as her award-winning How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. She tracks the growth of Existentialism through the work of Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and others, and shows how its emphasis on authenticity and freedom are relevant today. (Credit: Other Press)

8. Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Credit: Credit: Liveright)

8. Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Shirley Jackson was best known for literary suspense in the tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James. Her 1948 story The Lottery is a horror classic, as are her novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). But Jackson’s unique contribution, writes Franklin, was “her primary focus” on the lives of her generation of women who were raised in the mid 20th Century. Franklin tracks Jackson’s mythmaking life from her girlhood in a northern Californian suburb through her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, with whom she had four children. They met at Syracuse University, where he began a lifetime of infidelities. “Their sometimes tortured intimacy reverberates seismically through her work,” writes Franklin, who gives equal weight to Jackson’s life and work in this groundbreaking new biography. (Credit: Liveright)

7. Liz Moore, The Unseen World (Credit: Credit: Norton)

7. Liz Moore, The Unseen World

The intellectual excitement of the dawning computer era is the backdrop to Moore’s story of Ada Sibelius and her single dad David, who heads a computer science lab at a prestigious Boston university. Ada is homeschooled by her dad, and by age 12, she is working with him and his team on an early virtual reality program called Elixir. When David’s mind begins to unravel from Alzheimer’s, his colleague Diana becomes Ada’s guardian. As Diana sorts out legal issues, she discovers that David is not who he has said he is. Ada grows up to be a pioneering computer scientist herself. Haunted by her father’s past, she searches his origins, following clues in his hidden computer file. Moore captures the powerful ties between father and daughter as she unspools a string of compelling scientific and personal mysteries. (Credit: Norton)

6. Ben H Winters, Underground Airlines (Credit: Credit: Mulholland Books)

6. Ben H Winters, Underground Airlines

Winters’ timely new work of speculative fiction is set in an alternative US: Lincoln never became president, the Civil War never happened, and there are still slaves in the certain states. His narrator is a 40-year-old former slave, free since he was 14, who works as a slave hunter – a clandestine operative for the US Marshall service. He investigates a team of northerners who work on the Underground Airlines – “grabbing people up and hustling them to freedom”. He remains free as long as he pursues his job as a bounty hunter. On the trail of a runaway called Jackdaw, he is challenged to his core. Winters, an Edgar award winner, has crafted a fast-moving thriller with a contemporary ethical framework. (Credit: Mulholland Books)

5. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things (Credit: Credit: Random House)

5. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things

Cole shows a breathtaking range in his splendid new collection of 55 essays. He begins with pilgrimages to Leukerbad in Switzerland, where James Baldwin wrote his 1953 essay Stranger in the Village about being black in an all-white village, and to WG Sebald’s grave at St Andrew’s church in Framingham Earl in the UK: “There he is… the teacher I never knew.” He writes of President Obama, Boko Haram, Virginia Woolf, how Google Earth is changing art and the “white saviour industrial complex”. Cole, who was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos and teaches at Bard College in New York, is the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Guardian and The New Yorker. His cultural criticism is filled with surprising connections and intelligent provocations. (Credit: Random House)

4. Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (Credit: Credit: Little, Brown)

4. Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Imagine Me Gone is a powerful story of loss and love. Margaret, a recent Smith College graduate, moves to London in the 1960s and marries John, a reserved and troubled British man whose mind, she learns, “goes into a sort of hibernation” at times, requiring a hospital stay. Haslett follows the arc of their family, as he traces how John’s eventual suicide affects Margaret and each of their three children over several decades. Their youngest son Alec becomes a control freak. Celia, the responsible one, moves to California, marries and has a child. They both worry about the oldest, Michael, who inherits the mental illness his father calls “the beast”. We’ve come to know intimately the joys and struggles of each member of this troubled family by its heart-wrenching conclusion. (Credit: Little, Brown)

3. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth (Credit: Credit: Harper)

3. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Patchett, winner of the 2001 Orange Prize for Bel Canto, opens her brilliantly structured new novel with a christening party for Fix and Beverly Keating’s second daughter, Franny. An uninvited guest – a Los Angeles deputy district attorney named Bert Cousins – shows up with a bottle of gin. Within hours, he has kissed Beverly. Patchett follows the consequences of this impulsive act over half a century, as two marriages end, and six children are left adrift, shuttling among parents. The children share a tragic secret, a summer adventure leads to one boy’s death. In her twenties, Franny shares this story with her lover, an award-winning author who uses it to write a novel that becomes a film. Betrayals and forgiveness are at the centre of this complex and memorable family drama. (Credit: Harper)

2. CE Morgan, The Sport of Kings (Credit: Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

2. CE Morgan, The Sport of Kings

Morgan’s ambitious and epic tale of a racehorse bred to win the Triple Crown of elite US thoroughbred contests spans several centuries. Hard-bitten Henry Forge is descended from a man who settled Forge Run Farm in Kentucky after traveling through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia with a slave and a Naragansett Pacer he’d raised from a colt. Henry and his daughter Henrietta pin their hopes on Hellsmouth, an aptly named temperamental filly. They hire Allmon Shaughnessey, a young black man with a knack for taming skittish champions, to help them. Morgan’s scope is Faulknerian, her language hypnotic as she immerses us in the stories of these three characters, and the legacies and passions that overwhelm them. The finale of this Kirkus Prize winner is breathtaking and tragic. (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

1. Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Credit: Credit: Scribner)

1. Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others

Spiotta raises questions about truth, reality and how the digital world is affecting us all in her mesmerising new novel. Meadow, who claims as a teenager to have had a months-long tryst with Orson Welles, and her best friend Carrie are raised in the shadow of Hollywood. Both become film-makers. Meadow’s first film, an eight-hour video of her boyfriend, wins a jury prize, and she draws further acclaim for a 1992 documentary called Kent State: Recovered. Carrie creates features with a genre twist, and her comedies win Golden Globe nominations. Meadow’s penchant for documenting ambiguity and raw emotion draws her into telling the story of Jelly, a woman who seduces powerful men through phone conversations. Mid-career, Meadow stops making films – and only Carrie knows why. An innovative and provocative stunner. (Credit: Scribner)

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