Fiction Highlights: Review 31's Best Novels of 2016

by Review 31

As is customary at this time of year, we invited some of our regular contributors to look back over the past 12 months and select their literary highlights of 2016. They produced a varied and eclectic list of recommendations, ranging from Garth Greenwell’s poignant exploration of sexual identity to Yuri Herrera’s bleak panorama of urban decay; from Roger Lewinter’s meditations on the beauty of everyday objects to Madeleine Thien’s poignant exploration of history and memory; and a couple of more experimental works – by Alejandro Zambra and Jung Young Moon – that riff on the porous border between fiction and non-fiction. [read full essay]

Contested Spaces

Henry Heller, The Capitalist University: The Transformation of Higher Education in the United States since 1945

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

It is one of the most potent ironies of the neoliberal age that the expansion of the universities has also meant a narrowing of their contribution to social understanding. For those of us born into the era of ‘critical courses’ and university occupations, the hope was that the education sector would produce critical citizens, interrogators of governments and institutions, free thinkers driven by moral and ethical principles. And their debates would be informed by a sense of history, whose... [read more]

‘Exactly what I am saying is’

Matthew Welton, The Number Poems

reviewed by Holly Isemonger

Jeffrey Wainwright writes that the central paradox of poetry results from two conflicting desires: the desire to ‘say something meaningful and memorable’ and the desire to say nothing and simply delight in the nature of language itself. This issue is at the heart of Matthew Welton’s praxis, and his latest collection uses experimental techniques coupled with more conventionally meaningful elements of lyric poetry to engage with this poetic contradiction. Welton is certainly not the first... [read more]
 

Another Girl, Another Planet

Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones

reviewed by David Collard

‘My name is Inez Kissena Fardo. I lived my whole life in Queens and never got anything.’  Fifty years from now, in a world regularly swept by pandemics, Inez is a so-called 'hardy' and thus immune to all diseases. She exploits this adaptive advantage by selling her genetic material — teeth, nails, urine, cells, eggs — to unregulated obstetricians and gynaecologists. At the start of this unnerving, beautifully written dystopian fiction Inez travels from New York to The Farm, a backwater... [read more]

Self and Nation

Hannah Kohler, The Outside Lands

reviewed by Mark West

David Foster Wallace's The Pale King features a debate about civics in a stalled elevator, in which a number of characters offer reflections on the perceived decline of civic idealism and national collectivity. The 1960s come in for particular attention, with one character suggesting that in protesting the Vietnam War, a generation of young people asked whether individuals owe ethical duty firstly to the nation or to themselves. As Wallace puts it, the protestors ‘said that their individual... [read more]
 

What We Think About When We Think About Driving

Lynne Pearce, Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness

reviewed by Elsa Court

The age of the car is coming to an end. Or at least, the driving era as we know it. As we count the benefits (urban, social, environmental) of switching to driverless cars in a not-too-distant future, one looks back on what we may be losing with the activity of driving a personal car. The mind, for example, has a life of its own when the body is at the wheel of a car. Drivers are conscious of the surrounding landscape of the road when they drive, but the activity of driving also delivers us to... [read more]

A Blueprint for Resistance

Amílcar Cabral, trans. Dan Wood, Resistance and Decolonization

reviewed by Rafe McGregor

Amílcar Cabral was born in Portuguese Guinea in 1923, trained as an agricultural engineer in Lisbon, and returned to the colony to become one of the founding members of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1956. After six years of unsuccessful civil protest, the PAIGC took up arms against Portuguese rule and opened hostilities in the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence with an assault on a military garrison in 1963. Cabral was assassinated ten years later,... [read more]
 

‘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]