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Happy holidays, and Happy Overlooked Novels By Women, 2016 Edition!
I wish this list weren’t necessary. But here are a few reasons it is:
– The New York Times Book Review Best Books of 2016 included just one book by a woman, Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian.”
– Even Hillary Clinton downplays novels by women.
– We’re still creating lists like this one. As if it’s a miracle women can write genre fiction. (NB, it’s the headline/assignment I’m cranky about, not list author Lisa Lutz, who is wonderful.)
As always, the books are presented alphabetically by author, and we can’t wait to hear your picks, in the comments.
This Too Shall Pass, Milena Busquets
We simply don’t read enough literature in translation in this country, and that means we miss novels like this one from Spain’s Busquets, set in the coastal town of Cadaqués. A slim meditation on loss, This Too Shall Pass manages to be both effervescent and filling, like a long lazy seaside repast—and there are plenty of those within its pages, as protagonist Blanca contends with how her mother’s death changes all sorts of relationships, including the one Blanca has with herself.
The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah
Memory, an albino woman, is languishing on death row in Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi prison. She tells her story in two parts: First, her childhood and then her years with a white man named Lloyd Hendricks to whom her parents sold her. That’s a chilling fact, but sadly for Memory, it remains an accusation until she can relate her story as a whole and convince her captors not only that Hendricks was no father to her (as is claimed), but that she is completely and wholly a human being worthy of respect.
Seeing Red, Lina Meruane
Meruane is considered the best contemporary Chilean novelist, but she’s really one of the best contemporary novelists overall, and you’ll learn why if you read this harrowing semi-autobiographical account of an academician who suffers a stroke that leaves her temporarily blind. Yes, it’s an account of frailty that uses blindness as metaphor, but more than that, it’s a scorching examination of how being utterly dependent on someone—even someone you deeply love—can make you a monster.
Everfair, Nisi Shawl
Sometimes a book gets overlooked because it’s in a genre that many reviewers overlook. While Nisi Shawl’s Everfair has gotten some attention this year, it deserves a great deal more, because here is a steampunk/science-fiction/alternate-history book for feminists set in Africa and written like a dream. Not only is the writing fantastic, it’s done from multiple perspectives. What would the Congo look like if colonizing Belgians had met up with more tech-savvy indigenous inhabitants? An important read.
Island of the Mad, Laurie Sheck
If we’re lucky, Sheck won’t get overlooked—but given that her book releases on December 13, it’s not likely to make anyone’s Best of 2016 lists. That’s a shame, as Island of the Mad shares the sinuous prose of Sheck’s re-imagining of Frankenstein, A Monster’s Notes. When a hunchback named Ambrose is beckoned to Venice by a sleep-deprived friend, all manner of literary, scientific, and historical anecdote sweeps in—and it may be too much. Then again, maybe it’s just right. You decide.
The Chimes, Anna Smaill
Smaill, a classically trained violinist, understands music’s connections to memory—and uses those to create a weird dystopian London in which daily chimes are used to prevent people from forming memories of their own. (Anything that feels different is considered “blasphony.”) Perhaps her own experience as a New Zealander who has had to leave home figures in to her themes of separation and commitment, but she’s used them to create something strikingly new.
The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain
So many great big novels came out this fall that you might easily have missed smaller quiet ones like Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, about the friendship between two Swiss boys during the Second World War—one Christian, one Jewish. Gustav’s mother is an anti-Semite, and changes her son’s friendship with Anton. That interference will affect their lives for decades, and is a beautifully modulated way to approach a war and its horrors that can seem too-often trammeled.
The Swan Book, Alexis Wright
Forgive another novel with elements of magical realism and dystopia, because this one set among Australia’s indigenous peoples crackles on the page. There hasn’t been one quite like it ever, although the best predecessor might be Keri Hulme’s The Bone People about New Zealand’s Maoris. Wright’s The Swan Book melds present-day history, age-old mythology, and “Mad Max”-style symbolism in a wild ride as foundling Oblivia Ethelyne becomes First Lady to the first Aboriginal president.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, Sarit Yishai-Levi
Have you read a multigenerational saga of women in Jerusalem before? Didn’t think so. That’s why Yishai-Levi’s novel stands out, and fortunately her writing stands up to scrutiny, too: She’s a journalist whose nose for character makes Beauty Queen a winner. There might not be any big secrets in the four generations examined in this book, but instead there is a lot of rich, real-life detail that demonstrates what a lively culture exists in the modern Jewish state.
Judenstaat, Simone Zelitch
But wait! There’s more alternate history! And it’s really good. “On April 4th, 1948 the sovereign state of Judenstaat was created in the territory of Saxony, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.” A Jewish homeland. . . in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe? But wait! There’s more—during the 1980s a historian of Judenstaat discovers that her personal history may affect her professional life, and both might cause an untenable rift in the safety of her fellow citizens. Mind-blowing, necessary.