Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2016

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because several of the books commented upon explore the dark side of transgressing boundaries.

Author Julian Barnes. (Photo: Graham Jepson)

As many have also said, 2016 has been a terrible year. One of my consolations has been deriving pleasure from reading, and offered here are some of the best books I have read. One criterion for inclusion on this list is whether they stayed with me long after I read them. In some of the following, that quality became more important than literary excellence. – Bob Douglas 

Madeleine Thien’s novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is my choice for the most outstanding book this year both for its literary strengths and its deep emotional resonance. Rarely have I read a novel that communicates as forcefully the belief that regardless of the invasiveness and destructiveness of a regime culturally and physically – in this case totalitarian China – the power of music and of storytelling can inspire hope and are instrumental in maintaining access to our humanness.

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time is a masterful example of a new hybrid form, that of the fictional biography in which there are no imagined characters; the novelist confines himself to the historical record, but enters into the consciousness of his subject. Barnes’ subject is the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his ghastly “conversations with power.” Barnes limits himself to three major episodes in the composer’s life: the period during the Great Terror of the 1930s when the composer confronted the possibility that he would be sent to the Gulag or shot after Stalin wrote a blistering editorial condemning his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; after the war when he is blackmailed into attending a propaganda tour in New York to deliver a series of speeches denouncing his own work; and the third section provides a 1960 snapshot of an elderly Shostakovich, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, during the reign of “Nikita the Corncob” in which he is forced to join the Party that has humiliated him throughout his professional life. There is little action as the composer waits; memories surface that in turn give way to rueful reflections. Yet the novel is one of the most insightful about the difficult role of the artist in a police state.

Carol Anderson’s White Rage serves up a powerful historical overview from the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to the election of Barack Obama in which she argues that every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in American democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. Rarely does an historical work provide such penetrating insights into the present state of white/African-American relations.

Phaedra Patrick’s debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, is about a pensioner who has lived a routine life for a year since his beloved wife, Miriam, died, that in some ways is reminiscent of the early scenes in Tom McCarthy’s 2008 film, The Visitor. All that changes when Arthur happens upon a mysterious gold bracelet  with eight distinctive charms  that belonged to Miriam. Screwing up his courage, he embarks on a picaresque series of escapades that will take him far from his comfort zone as he tracks down the story behind each ornament and learns about the woman his wife was before she married him. In the process, he begins to care about a widow and her adolescent son, strengthens his relationship with his two adult children and learns much about himself. The novel, charming and quirky, yet not treacly or sentimental, is spiced with laugh-out-loud moments and remorseful regrets that Arthur never saw sides of his wife that others appreciated about her.

One of Ireland’s most distinguished writers, Edna O’Brien, has written one of the most outstanding and timely novels of the year, The Little Red Chairs, that investigates the impact of the twisted mind of a Balkan war criminal seeking to camouflage his identity among the locals and bona fide refugees in a small Irish village. In the novel’s second half, O’Brien serves up a larger canvas of refugees, migrants, and displaced workers in London fleeing war, fundamentalism and hatred. The power of their individual stories provides a rich texture to her exploration of the strength of the human spirit within disrupted lives.

Nina Willner has written a powerful, moving family memoir spanning three generations divided by the Iron Curtain in Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. When her mother, Hanna, escaped to Berlin's Western zone as a young woman in 1948, she left behind her parents, siblings and the taint of suspicion that her family carries for decades. Their separation widens after Hanna marries an American army intelligence officer and moves to the United States. In describing the life of her family in East Germany and their suffering under the Communists – her grandfather was forced out of the teaching profession into impecunious retirement and the isolation of internal exile – Willner delineates a grim picture of an open-air prison. One of the most remarkable features of her memoir is how Willner links her own family with the larger tableau of world events to the extent that Gorbachev becomes the deux ex machina responsible for tearing down the Wall and reuniting both sides of the family. What lingers are the personal stories, especially exemplified by the author’s grandmother, Oma, whose hopeful optimism and generous spirit determines a way to build a Family Wall that offers the family sanctuary from the destructive forces of the outside world, and the author’s aunt, Heidi, who subversively lives her life with quiet dignity and integrity beneath the radar of the omniscient Stasi secret police.

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is of all the books cited here the most commercially successful and it is not hard to see why. Despite its moments of sentimentality (which for some readers may enhance its appeal), The Nightingale is a gripping, character-driven novel about two strong but vulnerable sisters who respond in different ways to the Nazis invasion of France. Viann survives the German occupation by billeting a Nazi in her home who in turn secures food and medicine for her daughter, Sophie, arousing suspicion among some of her neighbours. When a series of tragedies personally affect her, she finds a quiet but subversive way to resist the enemy. Some of the most harrowing passages describe how her younger sister, Isabelle – dubbed "Nightingale" – shepherds downed British and American pilots across the treacherous Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain, echoing a similar powerful scene in the recent documentary (and book), Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, the grandson of the Sharps.

Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, first released in 1998 and reissued in a 2009 paperback, is both a police procedural involving the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in 1990s Lisbon investigated by Ze Coelho, a homicide cop, and a historical thriller about a businessman turned SS officer, Klaus Felsen, who is sent to Lisbon in 1941 to purchase wolfram (tungsten), a rare metal mined in the mountains of Portugal, in order to smuggle it back into Germany to bolster the Nazi war machine. Wilson demonstrates great skill in weaving these two ostensibly disparate narratives together.

Linwood Barclay’s finale to his “Promise Falls” trilogy, The Twenty-Three again demonstrates that Barclay is a compelling storyteller. Sometimes described as Canada’s Steven King, Barclay does something that I rarely encounter in the mystery novels of King: he has a great facility for maintaining several story lines without losing focus. I counted between four and six in The Twenty-Three. King also has the gift for the cliff-hanging ending. For example, reading the ending of the second book Far From True, I could barely contain myself waiting forThe Twenty-Three to appear. In the latter, each chapter ends with a nail-biter but the reader must wait for at least four chapters to pick up that plotline. I know that the structure is formulaic, but the riveting suspense more than compensates. By the conclusion, the two major mysteries are resolved but not before Barclay dazzles us with a couple of twists that I suspect few readers would have seen coming. Because two other threads are not tied up, I wonder whether Barclay is planning a sequel.

With American Heiress, Jeffrey Toobin has written one of the best biographies this year. The book focuses on the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst and her foray into the world of terrorism in California during the 1970s. He offers a much-needed corrective to Hearst’s own self-serving memoir Every Secret Thing wherein she conceives herself solely as a victim who was not only violently kidnapped and sexually assaulted but who was indoctrinated into joining the ragtag Symbionese Liberation Army, and that her participation in two violent robberies and hiding on the lam from the police for over a year were against her volition. By excavating a variety of documents and putting her story into the larger social and political context of the era, he persuasively challenges the simplistic picture portrayed by Hearst.

Two of the best thrillers I read this year were Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow and Charles Cumming’s A Colder War. Both vividly convey the dangers of engaging in the world of espionage whether through assuming a secret identity and entering into the enemy’s terrain and its operations as illustrated in the former or seeking to ferret out a mole within the Western intelligence agencies who is sabotaging its operations and causing the death of its agents as dramatized in the latter. Where they differ is that Silva is more interested in serving up political commentary and Cumming’s major protagonist questions the psychological costs of spycraft. Cumming’s third novel in his Thomas Kell series, A Divided Spy, will be published in February this year and will be reviewed then in Critics at Large.

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