Critics’ choice: The year’s best novels and the year’s best nonfiction
1 Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders (Random House, $28)
George Saunders has delivered a first novel so profound, “it seems like an act of grace,” said Alex Preston in the Financial Times. A “strange and brilliant” mix of American history, Buddhist-inspired spirituality, and allegorical surrealism, it grows out of a tale from history: that Abraham Lincoln was so stricken by the death of his 11-year-old son that he visited the boy’s corpse in a Washington cemetery for one last embrace. Saunders’ tale is primarily set in the afterlife, in a limbo inhabited by ghosts who are cracking jokes and reminiscing about life when they’re joined by Lincoln’s forlorn child. Given the odd rules of this realm, “it may take a few pages to get your footing,” said Colson Whitehead in The New York Times. But the payoff is tremendous: an oblique but potent portrait of a president coming to terms with the unique burdens he bears while offering a model for all of us who have anxieties to put aside if we’re to help America find its proper course. Saunders has been rightly acclaimed for his wry short stories; here, he’s attained “an even higher level.”
A dissent: The novel’s “salty-sweet mix of cruelty and sappiness” won’t please all tastes, said Caleb Crain in The Atlantic.
2 Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, $26)
“As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul,” said Pamela Miller in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In Ward’s second National Book Award–winning novel, a young black woman brings along her two children when she makes a road trip through Mississippi to pick up her white husband from prison. The journey doesn’t go smoothly, but joining the ride “illuminates the love-hate tug between the races in a way that we seem incapable of doing anywhere else but in the most blessed works of art.” Sing, Unburied, Sing is Ward’s “riskiest work yet,” said Sarah Begley in Time. Though it begins in the same fictional Gulf Coast town featured in Salvage the Bones, this novel takes a supernatural turn when two tormented spirits join the travelers, communicating with 13-year-old Jojo to shed light on how the family’s troubles are rooted in the legacy of Jim Crow. The risk pays off: It “deepens the ghostly sense of the past reaching out to touch—or even strangle—the present.”
A dissent: So many stories get rolling, said Ismail Muhammad in Slate.com, that “the novel can’t satisfactorily resolve them all.”
3 Exit West
by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead, $26)
Mohsin Hamid’s poignant love story achieves “an astonishing synthesis of political commentary and vivid imagery,” said Elena Bruess in AVClub.com. Its protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, meet in a city tumbling into the chaos of civil war, and when the rising violence compels them to flee, they escape through a magic door that transports them instantly to a Greek island crowded with other refugees. They soon pass through other magic doors, first to London and then to California’s Marin County, and their once passionate relationship “hardens and cracks” the farther they move from home. “This is the best writing of Hamid’s career,” said Michael Schaub in NPR.org. The Pakistani-born author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist “captures the feeling of being displaced beautifully,” with long, poetic sentences that manage never to waste a word. And he offers no false uplift in a story that, for most of Saeed and Nadia’s real-world counterparts, remains without an ending. “It’s a breathtaking novel by one of the world’s most fascinating young writers, and it arrives at an urgent time.”
A dissent: In later chapters, the narrative sometimes becomes “more perfunctory than artfully spare,” said Michael Upchurch in the Chicago Tribune.
4 White Tears
by Hari Kunzru (Knopf, $27)
Hari Kunzru’s “transfixing” novel has more than a few tricks up its sleeve, said Gene Seymour in Bookforum. It begins as a satire about two young white guys, Seth and Carter, who bond in college over a love of early-20th-century African-American music before opening a recording studio in Brooklyn. But once the voice of a blues singer mysteriously winds up on a street recording made by Seth, “some really strange things happen,” said Anthony Domestico in The Boston Globe. The friends decide to fraudulently market the recording as a lost classic, but soon after the song gains attention, Carter is beaten into a coma under mysterious circumstances, prompting Seth to embark on a journey to the Deep South to make sense of it all. Once Seth reaches Mississippi, “time and identity begin to bleed and blur,” and the voices of the black artists exploited by whites finally have their say. The last 100 pages are simultaneously “hallucinatory and revelatory,” delivering a superb balancing of “the nightmarish and the clear-eyed.”
A dissent: The punishment that the novel visits on its protagonists, said Marion Winik in Newsday, “seems to outweigh their crime.”
5 Manhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan (Scribner, $28)
Whatever storytelling mode she chooses, Jennifer Egan “works a formidable kind of magic,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad has now written “an old-fashioned page-turner,” a big, “immensely satisfying” World War II–era story that revolves around a young woman from Brooklyn who works as a welder in a wartime shipyard before becoming the Navy’s first female diver. Egan crosscuts frequently to follow the connected stories of a father’s disappearance and a mobster’s rise, yet “the pieces fit together neatly,” said Rayyan Al-Shawaf in The Philadelphia Inquirer. What’s more, Egan explores “with keen insight and tremendous sensitivity” a host of larger issues—including war, racism, and the wonder and terror of the sea.
A dissent: “The novel so elegantly represents the past that it doesn’t have any sense of friction,” said Michelle Dean in The New Republic.
1 Killers of the Flower Moon
by David Grann (Doubleday, $29)
Give David Grann’s latest a chance to get its hooks in you, and “it will sear your soul,” said Dave Eggers in The New York Times. A “riveting” true-crime tale, Killers of the Flower Moon revisits a spate of 1920s Oklahoma murders that terrorized members of the Osage tribe shortly after an oil strike turned them overnight into the wealthiest people in the world. When local law enforcement failed to identify any of the perpetrators, J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI pulled together an undercover team that unearthed a disturbing conspiracy rooted in white resentment. And until the big reveal arrives, “you will not see it coming.” But Hoover didn’t even get the whole story, said Tom Drury in Slate.com. Grann, whose previous book was The Lost City of Z, spends the last 70 pages of this one laying out evidence that entire communities had actively supported the killings. “This is a book that may significantly alter your view of American history.”
A dissent: Grann’s wishy-washy final summation proves “as frustrating as what comes before it is compelling,” said Dara Lind in Vox.com.
2 The Future Is History
by Masha Gessen (Riverhead, $28)
“If I could get you to read just one book on this list, this is it,” said Mary Ann Gwinn in The Seattle Times. “An extraordinary work, told with authority, compassion, and sorrowful anger,” Masha Gessen’s National Book Award winner offers a view from the inside of how post-Soviet Russia so quickly forfeited its chance at democracy and embraced Putin-style totalitarianism. Gessen, who was born in Moscow and educated in the U.S., covers Russia’s history since 1989 by deftly weaving together the individual stories of seven well-educated Russians. “Her analysis of Putin’s malevolent administration is just as effective,” said Kevin Canfield in the San Francisco Chronicle. He has consolidated power by launching military campaigns and by targeting homosexuals and intellectuals. At a moment when many Americans wonder what type of threat Putin poses, this “harrowing, compassionate, and important book” is among the best places to turn.
A dissent: Gessen’s argument that “totalitarian” is the perfect word to describe today’s Russia “rings hollow,” said The Economist. “Language matters.”
3 We Were Eight Years in Power
by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World, $28)
Any book Ta-Nehisi Coates publishes these days qualifies as “a borderline cultural phenomenon,” said Carlos Lozada in The Washington Post. That’s even true when the book is mostly a collection of essays that have previously appeared in The Atlantic, because, besides being a greatest hits collection by one of the country’s most important voices on race, We Were Eight Years in Power offers a candid inside look at his growth as a person and as a writer. Coates exhibits an appealing humility in the essays’ introductions, said Chris Hartman in CSMonitor.com. He confesses to now being ashamed that in a long 2008 essay on Bill Cosby, he included only one sentence about rape allegations against the star. But on matters related to race, Coates “writes with uncommon vibrancy.” These are the essays that made his reputation, all of them illuminating the ways that racism remains a defining force in America, especially in the lives of its targets. At a stormy moment in racial politics, this timely work “adds considerable intellectual ballast to an unsteady American ship.”
A dissent: Coates’ fetishization of white and black racial identities “mirrors ideas that white supremacist thinkers cherish,” said Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times.
by Ron Chernow (Penguin, $40)
A reappraisal of Ulysses S. Grant is long overdue, said Thomas Ricks in ForeignPolicy.com. “Easily the most underrated and enigmatic of all U.S. presidents,” Grant has too often been downgraded because of underlings’ scandals and because he liked whiskey. But historian Ron Chernow recognizes that the greatest general of the Civil War was also an immensely consequential political leader, and Chernow’s big and rich biography becomes “far more fascinating” after Grant wins his greatest battlefield victories. He “makes a convincing case that Grant behaved nobly, even heroically, while in the White House,” said Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. The Ohio-born son of a tanner suffered the derision of opinion leaders in both the South and the Northeast establishment, but he fought hard to secure rights for the freed slaves and he defeated the Ku Klux Klan—at least for a generation. The real knock on Grant’s relative standing among our nation’s presidents is that much of the good he accomplished was later undone. In fact, the divided America that the reader encounters in Chernow’s account “is, in certain respects, painfully familiar.”
A dissent: At 1,100 pages, Grant “may prove a lumbering journey for casual consumers of American history,” said Matt Damsker in USA Today.
by Roxane Gay (Harper, $26)
“Every woman who reads Hunger will recognize herself in it,” said Cathleen Schine in The New York Review of Books. Novelist and essayist Roxane Gay might appear to have lived an uncommon life: Gang-raped at 12, she semiconsciously began converting her body into a fortress, gaining weight until, in her late 20s, she touched 577 pounds. Somehow, though, the Nebraska-born author of 2014’s Bad Feminist writes about the rape “with such wounded, intelligent anger” that the crime “becomes our reality as well as hers,” and she writes about the judgments her obesity continues to inspire in a way that reveals “a country we pretend we don’t know, one where women struggle every day for dignity, safety, and simple elbow room.” Gay has withering words for the celebrities who peddle miracle weight-loss programs but also makes clear that she has internalized some of the shame about her body that their work exploits. Her candor here “eviscerates existing taboos,” said Estelle Tang in Elle. No triumph awaits at the story’s end, and that makes Hunger “an extraordinary book: an account of a person in progress.”
A dissent: Gay’s writing, prone to repetition, “can feel circular and sometimes contradictory,” said Leah Greenblatt in Entertainment Weekly.
How the books were chosen
To create our list, we weighted the rankings of 23 other print sources, including AVClub.com, CSMonitor.com, The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, O magazine, Publishers Weekly, Time, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard. ■