It’s been a great year for stories. I’ve lost count of the times I was immersed in another world; so moved by the power of the written word. Here’s my pick of five of the best books of 2016 (it was nearly impossible to choose so few):
Holding By Graham Norton
Given the old adage “write about what you know”, it comes as little surprise that Graham Norton’s fiction debut Holding is set in rural Ireland. The author admitted that it seemed a good place to start, for what is his first novel and one that will have you hooked from the first chapter. Duneen is a quiet, remote town, but the grim discovery of human remains on an old farm – said to be that of Tommy Burke, who vanished 20 years ago – reveals its dark side. It’s up to PJ Collins, the town’s only policeman, to unravel the mystery and work the most thrilling case of his stagnant career. He soon discovers that no one in this sleepy town is who they appear to be. What happened that someone was so desperate to hide? This is an eloquent and brilliant fiction debut from Norton.
The Girls By Emma Cline
This one is everywhere but believe the hype; it is simply brilliant. The year is 1969 and unsure Evie is fascinated and slowly lured in by members of a mysterious cult and its enigmatic yet creepy leader, Russell. She’s lonely, she’s enthralled, she yearns to fit in. Based on Charles Manson and the infamous gruesome murders of the late sixties, Cline’s focus is on the impulses that drove his female acolytes to their dark and drastic actions.
Swing Time By Zadie Smith
There’s something energetic and refreshing about Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and this is because she writes with such musicality – the fact that she is a talented jazz singer might have something to do with it. And so it seems fitting that music and dance take centre stage in her first novel since 2012’s NW. We begin in 1982, where an unnamed narrator meets Tracey, “another brown girl” in North West London arriving for dance class. Both dream of being dancers, but only one, Tracey, has true talent, while the other has ideas: ideas about music, black bodies and black dancing, and what it means to be free. Their ambitions take them off in different directions – Tracey makes it to the chorus line, but struggles as an adult, while her friend leaves their old life behind, travelling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee – and the story takes us on their journey of rivalry, love and loathing, until one day, the two leave each others’ lives. Smith beautifully uses the themes of music and dance to explore the complexities of race, culture, talent and a friendship, which neither can forget. This is Smith’s finest work so far.
Hag-Seed By Margaret Atwood
Esteemed author Margaret Atwood returns with a read suitably different from her usual dystopian-centred universe. Hag-Seed (Penguin Random House, approx €16, out now), a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, centres on theatre director Felix, who, after a revered career marred by the tragic deaths of his wife and young daughter, is exiled to teaching in a prison after losing his job. His staging of The Tempest was to be the show of his life, so he begins to plot his revenge against those who wronged him. The project series, which sees Shakespeare’s works retold by today’s acclaimed and bestselling novelists for a modern audience, is all very Atwood; her unique take on vengeance, enchantment and second chances is sure to delight old and new fans alike.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead comes on the back of much hype – highly recommended by both Oprah and Barack Obama – but this is a book that refreshingly lives up to it. It’s the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, who manages to escape a hellish existence via an underground railroad (which was in reality a series of safe houses and secret routes to help slaves get to Canada, but in the novel it serves as an actual railroad in America). Her journey is long and harrowing as she seeks a life free from slavery. This isn’t always easy to digest; it’s dark and disturbing, yet so powerful is the message of hope that you simply won’t stop reading, if only to stay with Cora until the end of her journey. Already compared to the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, this has classic written all over it.