The Pool’s books of the year for 2016

Alexandra Heminsley rounds up the books that have captivated us over the past 12 months, transporting us to brilliant new worlds or beginning important conversations 

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout

Small but perfectly formed, this short novel is a window into the life of the average yet extraordinary Lucy Barton. Left bed-bound for weeks by an operation, Barton is visited by her estranged mother for a few days. They chat, they gossip and there’s the odd awkward silence. But, by showing us Lucy’s internal monologue as well, we see much deeper than the bedside chat – her childhood memories, her anxieties about her mother, her children and her life’s achievements. A lesser author could have rendered this deathly dull, but Strout, who also wrote Olive Kitteridge, created a quiet masterpiece.


Freya, Anthony Quinn 

Opening on VE Day and spanning a couple of decades in the life of Freya Wyley, this is a loose sequel to last year’s fabulous Curtain Call. We see our complicated, likeable and smart heroine navigate the end of the war, university and a career in Fleet Street at its most toxically masculine, while remaining the sort of woman you’d like to be friends with, even if your boyfriends were bewitched by her. An unassuming novel, but don’t mistake the quietness for lack of depth – it was the closest any British writer came to producing Ferrante-like storytelling about female friendship all year. 


This Must Be the Place, Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell’s most stylistically adventurous novel, yet every bit as good as her track record, if not better – stories about the implosion of a marriage just shouldn’t be this enjoyable. Claudette is a once-in-a-generation movie-star-turned-recluse and Daniel, her second husband, is an awkward linguist, and the mystery of their relationship is the book’s crux. Told in a series of flashbacks and auction-catalogue entries, as well as the voices of the supporting characters, barely a word is wasted in creating a moving, complicated yet hugely readable novel.


The Girls, Emma Cline

It felt like the book of the summer and, as the year ends, The Girls has lost none of its power. Largely 1960s-set, but framed by a series of current-day vignettes, it sees Evie Boyd as both uncomfortable, eager-to-please teenager and casualty of the Californian hippy dream. Sucked into a Manson Family-esque cult, not by its (almost hilariously) flaky leader, but by the insouciant cool girls who make up his grubby harem, Evie turns her back on her almost oblivious family, becoming close to feral in her desperation to impress, to belong. The Californian setting is intoxicating, as laced with sunlight as filth, and its insight into the teenage girl’s mind is extraordinary.


Shrill, Lindy West

2016 saw a crop of excellent female essay collections – Amy Schumer, Jessi Klein – but this was the standout. West’s acid-sharp musings on topics ranging from weight to office politics, and Missy Piggy to Google search terms, feel raw and immediate, but still manage to be warm and inclusive – as well as screamingly funny. It’s a beautiful sleight of hand that she can write about herself, while making the reader’s life feel bigger, brighter and more full of potential. 


The Muse, Jessie Burton

In 1930s Spain, a family drama and a forbidden love affair swing into action against the backdrop of a nascent civil war. In 1960s London, a recent Trinidadian immigrant starts work at an art gallery with an intriguing, intoxicating female boss. Somehow, the stories, a dramatic painting and its beguiling muse are all connected. Actual romance and the romance of a job and a boss that engrosses you are told as parallel love stories, showing once again that Jessie Burton can inspire us as well as she can spin a great yarn. 


Lie With Me, Sabine Durrant

Paul Morris is 42 years old, skint and about to get kicked out of his flat, but has one ace left to play: he’s an absolute charmer. He knows his life is on a knife edge and he knows the old public-school pal he bumps into by chance is insufferable, but he also knows he has a killer smile, which some women his age find difficult to say no to. Part of the pleasure of watching him creepily try to inveigle his way into a new relationship, and thereby life, is seeing the ghastliness of the shallow middle-class set he’s mixing with through his cynical eyes. You despise him, but you kind of want him to succeed, as this crowd deserves no better than him – a perfect anti-hero for a perfect page-turner. 


The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla

A collection of essays by BAME authors, this project threw open the dialogue about diversity in both publishing and reading in 2016. With horribly serendipitous timing, it was published between the UK referendum and the US election, giving a voice to many who (rightly) felt theirs were no longer welcome, and both material and inspiration to those who were keen to read more widely. The essays, in turns witty, uncomfortable and inspiring, would make for great reading at any time, but were especially welcome this year. 


The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave from a grotesque but typical Georgia cotton plantation. Offered the chance of escape by newcomer Caesar, she seizes it and they set off on the underground railroad, at which point the novel takes a flight of fancy and the railroad becomes real – not a word-of-mouth collection of safe houses, but underground tracks, conductors, the lot. Tough reading at times, but never less than gripping and relevant, Cora’s journey is a story that is much needed, and one that will stick with you well beyond 2016.


The Power, Naomi Alderman

A world where teenage girls possess extraordinary physical strength and skills, and the ability to inflict unimaginable pain and revenge on men who displease them… The Power combines a compulsive, pulpy, dystopian tone (after all, Alderman also created the Zombies, Run! app) with lush writing that her one-time mentor and writing partner Margaret Atwood would be proud of. Other authors might have come close to The Hunger Games with this idea, but Alderman has a brain so fizzing with ideas and pace that this story of a world gone excitingly mad makes actual 2016 seem tame.


Swing Time, Zadie Smith 

Zadie is back, and back in north-west London, where she starts the story of two friends, mixed-race girls, obsessed by dance. Set largely in the 80s but shuttling across the years, as well as between London, West Africa and New York, Smith tells the story of these women and some of those who surround them – bosses, mothers, friends. This is the first time she has focused so squarely on life as a woman and she is exceptionally sharp-sighted on motherhood. It’s a wonderful, absorbing read, from one of our most transporting and empathetic writers. 


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