By Ellen Northrop
This year has seen the arrival of some exciting new novels, pushing the boundaries of what already exists on our bookshelves, speaking to current affairs and the instability of our times, with authors writing their first new novels in years. I have selected five books, heralded as great by the likes of Waterstones, The Guardian and The Telegraph, as this years best fiction books.
Waterstones Book of the Year Award went to La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1 by Philip Pullman. It is a children’s novel that, by all accounts, is equally suitable for adults to enjoy. The Book of Dust is a story in three parts, La Belle Sauvage being the first, set 10 years before the events of His Dark Materials. It has, however, been twenty-two years since Northern Lights (from His Dark Materials) was published; Pullman making his fans wait before rewarding them with the next part of heroine Lyra’s story. The story centres around the struggle for free speech in a totalitarian state, speaking to political conflicts that exist today around the globe. Pullman is also interested in the subject of matter, consciousness, whether matter is conscious. He interrogates concepts of the spirit and the soul to examine which parts of us are conscious, asking, what he describes as, the ‘oldest philosophical question of all’.
Another novel that has been at the top of many ‘books of 2017’ lists is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Winner of the Man Booker Prize this year, this is his debut novel. Taking President Lincoln’s loss of his son as its focal point, the novel departs into the world of the supernatural, with Willie Lincoln trapped in purgatory until his father can let him go. This use of a bardo (a state of existence between death and rebirth), in similar ways to Pullman, explores another level of consciousness and highlights the presence of the soul. Taking a historical truth that is weighted with emotion, and setting it within the surreal world of ghosts and spirits, has the effect of creating something highly imaginative and nuanced whilst remaining deeply affective. Like Pullman, Saunders also poses an age-old question, in this instance one of life and death, loving and losing.
Arundhati Roy was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named New York Times Best Seller with her first novel in twenty years, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy has spent this hiatus as a political activist, writing nonfiction works about ecological crises, capitalism and globalism, to name a few of the topics she has covered. Reviews of The Ministry of Happiness describe it in a way that portrays a novel which moves quickly with action and characters, echoing the fast-paced India in which it is set. Journeying across the Indian subcontinent, Roy deals with India’s violent modern history, as well as focusing sharply on Indian society with characters including a trans woman (hijra). Despite this large and daunting theme, however, the novel remains at its core a story of love and hope.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid has been called a ‘magical vision of the refugee crisis’ by The Guardian. Hamid depicts a world in which there are special doors that lead to different countries, and follows two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, on their journey to escape their war-torn home. The novel confronts the battle that refugees face with uncertain futures, forgotten pasts and a lost sense of self and belonging. Hamid depicts a realistic account of what it is like to live through a war, juxtaposed with a magical realism that echoes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as the characters pass through doors into new worlds. It is a novel of movement and boundaries, but one that is ultimately hopeful. As with Saunders’ novel, it acknowledges the loss that unites humanity.
The second part of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is Winter. It follows the first novel in the sequence, Autumn. Although it is not a sequel, it is similar in structural and formal ways. Smith, again, attempts to capture very current events, with references including the Grenfell Tower fire, as close to publication as possible. The novel takes inspiration from Scrooge’s ghosts, with visitations from a floating child’s head, but despite this is rooted in the real. It celebrates protest, and those who think and act for the collective interest. It takes on aspects of winter, a time that is certainly cold and bleak, but also clear and crisp. Undeniably a modern vision of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, tragedy looms but never strikes, and while there is a forgiveness and resolution of sorts, there is an awareness that we remain at the mercy of nature. A thought we can all appreciate as we shiver in December snow.
These five novels stood out to me as highly acclaimed by different sources, and whilst all differing greatly from each other, offering both an exciting display of creative talent as well as an interesting insight into the ways in which we are navigating and making sense of the world we find ourselves in at the end of 2017. What I take away from this list is that we are questioning what it means to be human, holding on tightly as we recognise our mortality and the inevitability of loss. We are looking for hope and proceeding through political unrest, and the bitterness of winter, with hopefulness.