At the start of 2017 when I chose a selection of books to look out for in 2017, it was difficult to know what the year would have in store. Some of those predictions were fairly accurate, but others in the literary – as well as the wider – world could not be anticipated.
When Philip Pullman announced in February that he would be publishing a new trilogy set in the His Dark Materials universe, bookworms the world over squealed with excitement, and the release of the first novel in the trilogy was arguably the biggest literary event of 2017, scooping the Waterstones Book of the Year title and receiving rave reviews. The launch of La Belle Sauvage led to midnight events at bookshops across the country, as well as a pre-publication event at the Bodleian Library which brought to life Lyra’s Oxford.
Elsewhere, one of the other major literary events of the year saw the American author George Saunders as the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo. It is perhaps these two events that epitomise a year that saw the return of some of literature’s heavyweights, as well as the runaway success of some more indie and diverse pieces of work. Saunders’ Booker win was perhaps one for those who consider themselves more “literary” than most. Previously known for short story collections such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and In Persuasion Nation, Saunders set his first work of fiction in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington DC, in 1862, with then-President Abraham Lincoln standing over the body of his recently buried son Willie. The innovative narration is presented in the style of a Greek chorus, with the voices of many different spirits from the bardo – a space between life and rebirth – chiming in to reflect on events. To some this might make the novel difficult to read or too caught up in stylistic concerns to be really enjoyable, whilst to others it might be an outstanding achievement, not least for its originality. Now its author has joined the pantheon of previous winners that includes Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje.
One man who was hotly tipped to win the Booker Prize is Paul Auster. Whilst for some Auster was “too wedded to his own experience to pretend that it’s everyman’s”[i], other readers who persevered through more than 900 pages, including culturised’s own Olympia Shipley, lauded Auster’s work as “compelling” and “beautifully readable”[ii]. Other notable comeback works by world-renowned writers to be longlisted for the Booker include Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. An honourable mention must go to the longlist’s two debutants, Emily Fridlund and the longlist’s wild card Fiona Mozley, a PhD student at the University of York whose novel Elmet was published in the JM Originals series, dedicated to “fresh and distinctive writing”[iii].
The announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature in October was hotly anticipated after it was controversially awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016. It is highly unlikely that the winner of the Nobel Prize pleases everybody, but Kazuo Ishiguro was a return to a more conventional choice, given the wide range of fans he has garnered from works such as The Remains of the Day, adapted into the 1993 award-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, to Never Let Me Go, which received the Hollywood treatment in 2010, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Thus, Dylangate was not to be repeated, at least for the time being.
Elsewhere from the hysteria surrounding the return of Pullman and the best-known literary prizes, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies was a popular favourite. Simple yet masterful in its storytelling, the book is every bit as emotive as Boyne’s previous works such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Following the life of Cyril Avery from conception to old age, the novel covers some of recent history’s most significant events, such as the proliferation of the IRA and the 1980s AIDs epidemic. High-profile fans of the book include Nicola Sturgeon, who described it as “a beautifully written epic”[iv].
In terms of non-fiction, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is one work that has certainly got people talking. Whilst becoming something of a sensation – though perhaps more with our transatlantic friends than here in the UK – the book has confronted the issue of who should take responsibility for Western (again, particularly American) racism.
In the world of children’s literature, David Walliams is still sitting comfortably at the top of the UK market, with his latest title Bad Dad reaching second place on the list of the year’s best-selling books, despite only being published in November[v]. The freedom of movement between being a celebrity and being an author is much debated in literary circles, but Walliams is now known as much for his writing as for his penchant as dressing as a laydee and flirting with Simon Cowell. Even Susan Hill is an admirer.[vi]
As always, it is impossible to even acknowledge all the fantastic books that have made an impression in 2017, let alone to choose just one title that sits about the rest. However, the headlines indicate that there can still be surprises in this industry, but old favourites still remain.
[i] Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, The Guardian, 27th January 2017.
[ii] Olympia Shipley, “Man Booker Prize 2017: The Interweaving Narratives of Paul Auster’s ‘4 3 2 1’”, culturised, 12th October 2017.
[iii] Sarah Shaffi, “John Murray launches ‘distinctive’ new JM Originals list”, The Bookseller, 7th January 2015.
[iv] Nicola Sturgeon, “Books of the year 2017, part two: chosen by Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Johnson, Sara Baume and others”, New Statesman, 20th November 2017.
[v] John Dugdale, “Bestselling books of 2017: the top 100”, The Guardian, 30th December 2017.
[vi] Susan Hill, “Books of the year 2017, part two: chosen by Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Johnson, Sara Baume and others”, New Statesman, 20th November 2017.