The 5 best fiction books of 2016
From The Underground Railroad to Homegoing, here are the novels critics loved this year
1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $27)
This year's National Book Award winner is "something much more interesting than a historical novel," said Juan Gabriel Vásquez at The New York Times. The tale of a teenage slave named Cora who undertakes a long journey toward freedom, it adopts a conceit "as simple as it is bold": In the book's fictional world, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean network of rails and trains that transports fugitive slaves north, depositing them at random stops along the way. When Cora disembarks — in South Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and beyond — she encounters half-fantastic worlds that reenact, in strikingly skewed ways, the crimes America has committed in the name of race. The rabid slave-catcher who tails Cora is not her only shadow, said Kathryn Schulz at The New Yorker. Cora witnesses lynchings and mass sterilization experiments when she's below the Mason-Dixon line, but the North she slips into offers no true haven. "It is slavery, as much as the slave-catcher, that is pursuing her, and anyone alive in today's America knows that she will never entirely outrun it." Buy it at Amazon.
A dissent: Whitehead's formidable imagination at times feels "a bit hemmed in" by his sense of the story's gravity, said Laura Miller at Slate.
2. Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Penguin, $27)
Zadie Smith's "multilayered tour-de-force" wears its many insights lightly, said Karen Long at the Los Angeles Times. A story that turns on a long friendship and rivalry between two dance-loving biracial Londoners who meet as girls, Swing Time is in one sense "a book-length meditation on cultural appropriation." But it is so absorbing from page to page "that a reader might flip it open randomly and be immediately caught up." One of the girls has a gift for dance that initially appears to be a ticket to a fulfilling adulthood. The other is our narrator, and she falls into working as a personal assistant to a pop star whose charity efforts in West Africa lead to public conflict. Much of Swing Time is "a powerful story of lives marred by secrets, unfulfilled potential, and the unjustness of the world," said The Economist. But it captures as well "the dances people do to rise above it all." Buy it at Amazon.
A dissent: In some stretches, Smith succumbs to "a joylessness previously alien to her work," said Christian Lorentzen at New York magazine.
3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, $27)
A novel structured like this remarkable debut is "unbelievably tough to pull off," said Yvonne Zipp at the Christian Science Monitor. A 250-year epic told in 14 linked short stories, it weaves together a family portrait by introducing us to various offspring of two young half-sisters who, in 18th-century Ghana, wound up on opposite sides of the Atlantic slave trade. Vivid personalities inhabit tale after tale, and author Yaa Gyasi, who's only 26, shows "a poet's ability to paint a scene with a handful of phrases." She brings to every story "a courageous lack of sentimentality," said Ron Charles at The Washington Post. Whether we meet them in 1750 Ghana, 1850 Baltimore, or 21st-century Palo Alto, California, the black characters and white characters in this book prove "equally capable of kindness and nobility, savagery and wickedness." From start to finish, "the speed with which Gyasi sweeps across the decades isn't confusing so much as dazzling." Buy it at Amazon.
A dissent: Previous writers have taken on the African diaspora in linked stories, and "to much greater effect," said Walton Muyumba at The New Republic.
4. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Harper, $28)
Ann Patchett's newest book opens with "one of the most enticing first sentences I have read in ages," said Jocelyn McClurg at USA Today. "The christening party took a turn," Patchett writes, "when Albert Cousins arrived with gin." A kiss exchanged at that 1964 gathering ends up destroying two marriages, and its reverberations over the next 50 years make for a novel that's "both tenderhearted and tough, dryly funny and at times intensely moving." Six children of the 1964 divorce spend their summers together in rural Virginia, engaging in mischief that on one fateful day leads to tragedy. But as the novel hopscotches across the decades to drop in on members of the brood at other moments in life, Commonwealth becomes "a master class in the art of smart, accessible literary fiction," said Tom Beer at Newsday. "Patchett's slyly knowing voice — full of wit and warmth — elevates every page." Buy it at Amazon.
A dissent: Not only is the tragedy implausible, said Curtis Sittenfeld at The New York Times, but the reader has to endure the wrenching event three times.
5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Hogarth, $15)
Han Kang's first novel to be translated into English "has an eerie universality that gets under your skin," said Laura Miller at Slate. A powerful fable about a young Korean housewife who profoundly unsettles her overbearing husband and her family when she suddenly chooses to abstain from eating or touching meat, The Vegetarian arguably becomes "a protest against existence itself." Yeong-hye, previously an unremarkable person, "soon begins to withdraw into an impenetrable world," turning refusal into near religion, said Leah Greenblatt at Entertainment Weekly. She says no to sex, then to all food, and in doing so becomes a fixation of her artist brother-in-law. A reader is left to wonder: Is this woman mentally ill, or simply rebelling against the culture of conformity in which she was raised? "Kang's erotic, unnerving, and utterly mesmerizing novel is far too shrewd to tell." Buy it at Amazon.
A dissent: The novel's "disorienting effect" is less a product of genius than of poor writing or poor translating, said Tim Parks at The New York Review of Books.