Presenting members of The White Review editorial team, esteemed contributors, and friends of the magazine on the books they’ve been reading in 2017
LUKE BROWN, author of My Biggest Lie
The most sensible thing in book culture this year was the overdue presence of Gwendoline Riley on the prizelists, for her fifth novel First Love (Granta). Written with poetic precision and black wit, this is a novel about the difficulty of loving and being loved, about the way the personal mythologies of our partners make us take strange shapes in their imagination. There is a controlled rage at the heart of all her novels but here it erupts into scenes of marital argument that recall Roth’s My Life as a Man in their delicious nastiness. Luke Kennard’s debut novel The Transition (Fourth Estate), set in the accelerating disaster of the near future, is based on a superb premise: what if the solution to the property crisis is to force insolvent millennials to move into the interior-designed Victorian homes of childless older couples who will mentor them on how to become useful members of society? Full of scenes of exquisite comedy, there is a howling sadness at the core of this book; as well as being a timely satire this is also a story about difficult love.
I couldn’t work out why the praise was so unreserved for the book that won the Booker, an amusing pantomime lent gravity by a clever structure, and the manipulative use of a child’s death. Colson Whitehead wrote the much better historical novel of the same period in The Underground Railroad (Fleet), making the novel of slavery feel fresh with an ingenious organising principle: what if the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad? The device allows for a compelling tour of the American experience under slavery as Cora, the novel’s heroine, flees north across the states of America. Whitehead restrains his comic impulse here for a serious subject; the prose is laconic; the events are horrific.
THOMAS BUNSTEAD, translator of Nocilla Dream
I went to a Cervantes event at the end of 2016 at King’s in London and made two discoveries: Declan Ryan read a poem by Karen Solie, and Patrick Mackie read a hilarious ‘Brexiad’ piece. Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (FSG) and Mackie’s The Further Adventures of the Lives of the Saints (CB Editions) have been my 2017 soundtrack. I was so happy to see Jesse Ball get on the Granta America list, I re-read his incomparable Silence Once Begun (Text). Javier Cercas’s El monarca de las sombras (due out with Maclehose Press in 2019) was a fascinating return to the same territory as Soldiers of Salamis. Naomi Booth’s Sealed (Dead Ink) was a brilliant dystopian distillation of just about all the ecological fears a young parent can suffer from. I have also struggled to recover from Claire-Louise Bennett reading in the Bold Tendencies strawditorium, at TWR’s sultry summer do. With my daughters, two and four – if I get to choose – Carson Ellis.
SOPHIE COLLINS, author of Small White Monkeys
Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (Pavilion): This is an important book for contemporary poetry. That it is not shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize is surprising – at the very least.
Daisy Lafarge’s understudies for air (Sad Press): It is difficult to believe that this is Daisy’s debut publication. Like Fourth Person Singular, the work in this pamphlet challenges and torques the (dominance of the) lyric ‘I’, as well as making a virtue of the pamphlet form.
JON DAY, author of Cyclogeography
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories this year, and as literary editors don’t seem keen for me to write about them, I thought I’d do so here. David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On (Little Island Press) is a collection of macabre tales told with a deadpan glee. They’re funny and strange and devastating. Joanna Walsh’s World’s From the Word’s End (And Other Stories) is another collection which, like all of Walsh’s work, has great fun exploding the tenets of realism. I loved Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (Penguin) and Homesick For Another World (Penguin), her first collection, is preposterously enjoyable, dripping with glamorous seediness.
An unforgivably belated discovery has been Ann Quin, whose stories and unpublished fragments have been have been sleuthily tracked down and brilliantly edited by Jennifer Hodgson. They’ll be published next year as The Unmapped Country (And Other Stories), and you should read them. Finally Chris Power’s Mothers (Faber), also to be published in 2018, is unmissable.
Also, Eley Williams’s Attrib. And Other Stories (Influx Press): the most gleefully clever collection I read all year.
MARIA DIMITROVA, critic
No fiction writer was more exciting on sentence level than Eley Williams in Attrib. (Influx Press), her first book of stories. Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country (Corsair) and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (OUP) – now updated to include a chapter on Trump and two other exceptional essays – combined rigour and style in revealing the historical logic of events experienced by many as anomalous. And The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (New York Review Books), which needs no introduction.
BEN EASTHAM, Founding Editor, The White Review
Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art (Verso) offers a powerful defence of contemporary art’s capacity to disrupt (rather than reinforce) systems of unequal distribution – of wealth, violence, power. This collection of essays is sometimes funny, frequently moving – as when Steyerl joins female resistance fighters in Kobanê, or traces the footsteps of her friend Andrea Wolf, killed fighting for the PKK – and always impassioned. Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1 (translated by Frank Wynne, Maclehose) was a love song – albeit with embittered lyrics set to a scuzzy, postpunk riff – to Paris, to dropouts, and to an idea of community that could transcend reactionary identity politics and liberal pieties.
Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster (Fitzcarraldo) was another to celebrate the outcast figure, and remind us that all the best things happen on the edges, in the margins, to mongrels and monsters. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (Duke University Press) is a brave and provocative reading of our current slide towards environmental catastrophe and the means by which we might address it. Quinn Latimer’s Like a Woman showcased the talents of a brilliant poet and essayist, while Martin Herbert’s Tell Them I Said No (both Sternberg) explored refusal as an artistic and political strategy. Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (Granta) lived up to its title, and Ned Beauman’s Madness is Better than Defeat (Sceptre) turned the history of US intervention in Latin America into a paranoid conspiracy theorist’s idea of a screwball comedy, which felt appropriate to 2017.
LAUREN ELKIN, author of Flaneuse
Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (Granta) and Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster (Fitzcarraldo) were the stand-outs for me. First Love does exactly what the novel should be doing: challenges and undoes the genre from within. Riley is heartbreakingly precise – about love, men, mothers, voices, even, somehow, about ambiguity. I will read everything she writes, from now on.
This Young Monster is another genre-undoing book – incredibly funny and fierce, with its finger on the pulse of the truth. It asks us to think about what is ‘narratable’ (the word is Anne Carson’s), and how narratives themselves can turn monstrous. You should see my copy – all covered in fangirl marginalia. But with this book, it seems part of Fox’s plan – as if he envisioned all the blank spaces and the white Fitzcarraldo cover flaps as an invitation to the reader to get scribbly, get monstrous.
NICOLE FLATTERY, winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2017
I loved the strange beauty of Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster (Fitzcarraldo) and Leonora Carrington’s short story collection (Silver Press). Hugely different books but both attuned to the moments in life when, as Fox puts it, ‘reality pulls off a costume change and turns into a dream.’ I finally read Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and it’s now twinned in my mind with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (Granta). Both first-person narratives, and both brilliant on love, loneliness and family trauma. It helps that the two women — similar although decades apart — write uniquely devastating sentences. Here is Duras: ‘I’ve never written though I thought I wrote, never loved though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.’
EDMUND GORDON, author of The Invention of Angela Carter
Among the year’s novels, Madness Is Better Than Defeat (Sceptre), Ned Beauman’s intricate and eccentric tale of north American hubris in the Honduran jungle, was by far the funniest and most vividly drawn. Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (Granta) has stayed with me for its unflinching honesty about a variety of human failings, its intelligence, and its cool, serrated prose. And Colm Tóibín is on masterful form in House of Names (Viking), a hallucinatory reworking of the Oresteia.
My great discoveries of the year came in the form of two short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s astonishing debut, The Lucky Ones (Faber), which announces one of the boldest and most distinctive talents to emerge in recent years; and Stuart Dybeck’s The Start of Something (Cape), which is inexplicably the first of his many books to be published in Britain: it belatedly lets us in on a voice that’s funny, wise, and perfectly tuned.
CAMILLA GRUDOVA, author of The Doll’s Alphabet
This year, two long overdue books were published: a new biography of Sir Hans Sloane, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum by James Delbourgo (Harvard University Press) and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy Press). Both books are a delight to the mind’s eye, whether descriptions of baby boars, carnivorous rabbits, seashells, plants, corpses. My author of the year is Richard Holmes. I began with The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperCollins), and have been working my way through his oeuvre; he is joyous to read on a myriad of things from Chatterton, to following Robert Louis Stevenson’s mule journey through France, to hot air balloons and Percy Shelley (his nightmares, early science experiments, diet, and of course poems).
JOANNA KAVENNA, author of A Field Guide to Reality
Having judged two prizes this year, I can heartily recommend the winners of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions (translated by Sondra Silverstone, Pushkin Press) and Philippe Sand’s East West Street: On the Origins of Crimes Against Humanity (W&N) – as well as the winners of the Somerset Maugham: Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (Chatto & Windus), Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Sunshine (Penned in the Margins) and Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground (Atlantic Books). I’ve also been reading an array of essayistic fictions/fictional essays this year, from the excellent Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End (And Other Stories) to the elegant subversions of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Vampire in Love (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, And Other Stories) to Nicholas Rothwell’s dreamlike mediations on landscape and myth in Quicksilver (Text Publishing) – as well as returning to the original urban-alchemist Iain Sinclair’s Black Apples of Gower (Little Toller Books). I’ve also greatly enjoyed Harry Gallon’s Every Fox is a Rabid Fox (Dead Ink), Neil Griffiths’s As a God Might Be (Dodo Ink) and Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (translated by Anthea Bell, Granta Books). Also Rainald Goetz’s Insane (translated by Adrian Nathan West, Fitzcarraldo) – described by Die Zeit as ‘a hammer’. We need more hammer-like books, in that case.
CALEB KLACES, author of Bottled Air
Three of my favourite books from this year all put landscape in the foreground. In Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta), a man walks out on his wife and children and into the woods. It’s a compelling anti-dystopia, where apocalypse is just things as they are: bleak, friendly camping shops; sad, helpful police; eating bracken for no good reason. Oli Hazzard’s skill and sensitivity are amazing. His long poem Graig Syfyrddin, or Edmund’s Tump (If a Leaf Falls) mixes language from online walking forums with beautiful pared-back lyrics, to make a surprisingly moving study of a Welsh hill. Rarely have I enjoyed failing to read a book as much as Condensations (Uniformbooks) by Nathan Walker. The letters are stratified: printed over one another. Walker constructed his ‘slow-collage-word-terrains’ with texts from the Armitt library and archives. Sometimes they look like poems and sometimes like Cumbria.
CHRIS KRAUS, author of I Love Dick
Eugene Lim’s DEAR CYBORGS (FSG) is a novel of the future, surprising, inspiring. A Bolaño-esque labyrinth of shaggy dog stories flow through the narrator to detail the existential and physical conditions of the present where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but all of it’s written in a calm and succinct elegant prose. Lim nails the amnesia of sensory overload perfectly: Jonas Mekas’s chilling meditation on culture and mortality evaporates in the minds of his audience when they repair to a bar and can’t take their eyes off the gross-out stunts being performed on the screens. In THE FUTURE WON’T BE LONG (Serpent’s Tail), Jarett Kobek captures the cultural climate of New York c. 1986-1996 with a breathtaking, polymath accuracy. The fates of Baby and Adeline, two likeable-enough lumpen creatives, guide the plot, but Kobek’s larger agenda is to locate where the present began.
PATRICK LANGLEY, author of Arkady
Writing recently in the New Statesman, John Burnside described 2017 as ‘a rather thin year’ for poetry. Perhaps he isn’t reading enough. I had high hopes for Emily Berry’s second collection, and her intensely strange and moving Stranger Baby (Faber) did not disappoint. Nights of Poor Sleep (Test Centre) was another revelation. This collaboration between poet Rachael Allen and artist Marie Jacotey blends diaristic pencil sketches with intimate, crystalline poems to mesmerising effect, images echoing poems, and vice versa.
In fiction, Ned Beauman’s Madness is Better than Defeat (Sceptre) was remarkable: densely plotted, restlessly inventive, and frequently hilarious. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber) and Patti Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (And Other Stories) were, for me, the standout debuts of 2017. But perhaps my favourite book – a ‘constellation novel’, in the author’s words – was Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft: a marvellously freewheeling meditation on travel in all its forms.
SOPHIE MACKINTOSH, author of The Water Cure
In 2017 I loved Eli Goldstone’s darkly witty Strange Heart Beating (Granta), which explored the unknowability of love with panache and tenderness. There was also Little Labours (Fourth Estate) by Rivka Galchen, a series of vignettes on early motherhood; disorientating observations on everything from the colour orange to her own new ‘black magic’ feelings. The Folded Clock (Bloomsbury) by Heidi Julavits is a diary; its observations continually make the mundane beautiful, and it also made me wish fervently to be best friends with the author. Finally The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo) by Camilla Grudova, with its lush and eerie recurring motifs, is one of the most exciting story collections I’ve read in my life, not just 2017.
ŽELJKA MAROŠEVIĆ, Co-Editor, The White Review
This year I’ve been making my way through the work of the
ROSANNA MCLAUGHLIN, Art Editor, The White Review
For ambition alone, Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Penguin) is hard to beat. Stories of post-partition politics, a trans community, environmental catastrophe, and government corruption in Modi’s India, all swirled together by a woman who could dance rings of prose around the rest of us. On the non-fiction front, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were 8 Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton), a reflection on the Obama years and how it is that the first black US President was followed into office by a racist, is poignant and necessary reading. This summer, I returned again to Carson McCullers’ The Member of The Wedding, a portrait of a kid marooned in the in-between – neither child nor adult, girl nor woman. McCullers shucks adolescence, revealing its salty, tender, and wondrously queer interior. As another year draws to an end, this is still my favourite novel.
TOM OVERTON, editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists
I learnt from Studio: Remembering Chris Marker (OR Books) that Marker lived on small amounts of yoghurt and raw minced beef ‘of the highest quality’, made a film on ‘The Hollow Men’ which T. S. Eliot’s estate is currently blocking, and died among the serried DVDs, VHS cassettes, books, cats and owls shown in Adam Bartos’s studio photographs. I learnt lots from Stuart Hall’s autobiography-in-conversation Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Allen Lane) and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury). Anne Michaels’s All That We Saw (Bloomsbury) and Amarjit Chandan’s The Parrot, The Horse and the Man (Arc) are both moving collections by poets mourning their friend John Berger. I also enjoyed Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art (Verso), Anthony Barnett’s Lure of Greatness (Unbound), Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body (Fitzcarraldo), Douglas Murphy’s Boris Johnson book Nincompoopolis (Repeater), Eley Williams’s Attrib. (Influx), Spitzenprodukte’s Confirmed Pigfucker: Political Poems (Vile Troll Books), and Silver Press’s excellent edition of Audre Lorde.
SANDEEP PARMAR, author of Eidolon
This year I’ve been fortunate to read across an expanding list of roles: critic, reviewer, prize judge, lecturer. In each of these readerly acts or attitudes, the books I felt most passionate about were the ones that progressed their forms or underlying ideas about how ‘we’ read and write, and under what constraints or expectations. For me, the most exciting poetry collections published this year did all of the above: Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Graywolf) and Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (Pavilion) were a relief from the unbending isolated lyricism of mainstream British poetry. However, notable poets this side of the Atlantic who spoke back to the world and its canonical romance include: Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda (Chatto); Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet); Andrea Brady’s The Strong Room (Crater Press). I am haunted by Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I am a Haunting (Peepal Tree).
SAM RIVIERE, author of Safe Mode
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online (Studio Operative) is Michael Crowe’s update of Perec’s famous experiment with time and attention, relocated to Los Santos, GTA’s ultra-violent T-shirt-weather multiplayer environment. Crowe’s avatar looks like Perec, with a fan of grey hair and black turtleneck, and immediately becomes a victim of griefing (repeated killing of the same player on respawn). Rachael Allen and Marie Jacotey’s Nights of Poor Sleep (Test Centre) took me back to the drunk carparks and bedroom shrines of small-town teenagehood, when dial-up internet access coincided eerily with the onset of puberty. I first saw an excerpt from Ian Svenonius’s Censorship Now!! (Akashic Books) at the Whitney in the spring, where Frances Stark reproduced several spreads from the book as wall-sized paintings. Read it to find out why Ikea wants couples to split up, and why you shouldn’t give Wikipedia any money.
HANNAH ROSEFIELD, critic
I started 2017 with two books that I’ve often thought about since: Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy (Bodley Head), less provocative and more convincing than it sounds, and Virgin and Other Stories (Granta) by April Ayers Lawson, a collection about sex and religion in the American South that deserved greater attention than it received. Since then, I’ve had to read a lot of long Victorian domestic novels that feature enormous families, many members of which share the same first name. They remind me of the boarding-school stories I read as a kid, both for the huge character casts and for the high value placed on religiously-inflected obedience and stoicism. When this has grown wearing, I’ve been reading mostly Irish fiction. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber) sent me to Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (Faber), another debut about two young female best friends, and Tana French’s Dublin-set thrillers have consistently made it impossible for me to do anything else until I’ve reached the end of them.
LUCY SCHOLES, critic
Five novels stood out from the rest: Elif Batuman’s deadpan but often hilarious 90s-set Bildungsroman about love and literature, The Idiot (Cape); Zinzi Clemmons’s moving meditation on grief, identity, love and family, What We Lose (Fourth Estate); Patty Yumi Cottrell’s striking Jane Bowles-esque Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (And Other Stories); Samanta Schweblin’s chilling ecological horror Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell, Oneworld); and Vivek Shanbhag’s piercing tale about class anxieties and social ambition in contemporary India, Ghachar Ghochar (Faber). Also, two short story collections: Marina Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello), uneasy tales from a post-dictatorship Argentina; and A Life of Adventure and Delight (Faber) by Rathbones Folio Prize-winner Akhil Sharma, a writer who doesn’t shy away from his characters shame and pain. Last but not least, one highly original and entertaining memoir about failing to write a novel on an all but deserted island in the Falklands: Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House (Picador).
DEBORAH SMITH, translator of The White Book
As so often, it’s the tiny presses that do the most interesting work, and whose books are like miniature art objects. Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (translated by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives), the Keshiki chapbooks of contemporary Japanese stories (Strangers Press), and the new edition of Audre Lorde’s poems and essays from Silver Press were particular favourites. Finally, my picks for the respective Man Bookers (International and the other one) would have been Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen (Maclehose), in an extraordinary translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, and Elmet (John Murray) by Fiona Mozley, not only for the heady thrill of it being set around Doncaster. But the book I want to press on everyone I know is Against Purity (University of Minnesota Press) by Alexis Shotwell, which draws on disability praxis, SF, veganism, colonialism, and frogs, to argue for the politically generative power of contamination and compromise.
REBECCA TAMÁS, author of Savage
This year I read a lot of good poetry by women. I was moved and challenged by Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (Pavilion), a book that merges questions of psychoanalysis and the self with fragmented considerations of lyric meaning. It pushes the boundaries of poetics in ways that feel urgent. Another brilliant collection touching on psychoanalysis, via personal loss, dreamlife and the struggle of language, is Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (Faber). Berry’s poetic voice: deadpan and clear, but almost unbearably affecting, stays with me like the taste of metal in my mouth. I must also mention Daisy Lafarge’s unique understudies for air (Sad Press) — her poetry crackles with intelligence. Look out for her.
In prose, I became completely obsessed with Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), an overwhelming and fascinating expression of female Soviet voices from the Second World War. I similarly became obsessed with Sally Rooney’s novel, Conversations with Friends (Faber). I read it in one go, and it made me cry and feel things. It was good.
JACQUES TESTARD, Founding Editor, The White Review
I was very impressed by Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker), a brutal novel about the effects of the financial crisis on the Valencian coast by one of Spain’s late, great writers, written from the perspective of an ageing carpenter on the brink of financial and moral ruin. I have masochistic tendencies, so read it on a beach holiday, and it is one of the most powerful and affecting novels I have read in some time. I have found myself drawn to politically engaged fiction of late – go figure! – and also very much enjoyed Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut The City Always Wins (Faber), an intense novel about the promises and ultimate failures of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
FRANCESCA WADE, Co-Editor, The White Review
Having worked with her in 2015 on one of the eeriest and most memorable short stories I can remember publishing in The White Review, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Camilla Grudova’s debut story collection, and the defining images of The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo) – sinister sewing machines, slippery automata, dubious canned goods – have been reverberating with me since it was published on Valentine’s Day. I also loved Kate Briggs’s This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo), a beautiful probing into the practice of translation, weaving together the personal and the political, the aesthetic and the everyday. And I enjoyed reading Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber) just as much as I’ve enjoyed talking to friends about it.
RALF WEBB, Managing Editor, The White Review
On poetry: Emily Berry’s second collection Stranger, Baby (Faber) kicked off the poetry year; a phantasmagoric exploration of loss that complicates conservative notions of ‘autobiographical poetry’. My summer poetry pick is Kumukanda (Chatto) the long-anticipated debut full-length by Kayo Chingonyi, an alert, finely-woven and deeply affecting collection exploring – among much else – masculinity and dual identities. In small presses, clinic, thankfully, continue to send out beautifully-made missives into the poetry world – this year, Noelle Kocot’s surreal and staggering Sonnets was a highlight.
On non-fiction: Joan Didion’s South and West (Fourth Estate) – Didion’s essay-notes of her travels through the American South in the 1970s – are as poetic as they are politically prescient; a hazy collage of swimming pools, Good Old Boys, Confederate Flags and motels (interesting to read alongside Baldwin’s 1959 A Letter From The South). Finally, Rebecca Solnit’s enlivening, urgently needed The Mother of All Questions (Granta) – essays on feminism, masculinity and misogyny – ought be read everywhere, by everyone, now.