John Owen picks his four must-read titles of 2017…
1. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The avalanche of books published in the weeks and months leading up to Christmas can be exhausting, overwhelming even. Due to the publishing industry’s love of naming days, there is even a ‘Super Thursday’ in October on which hundreds of books are published. Last year’s fiction offering was, however, particularly rich, and this book is certainly one of the highlights.
Zadie Smith’s work is so obsessed with London and her characters include so many different kinds of Londoner that it is hard to believe that she no longer lives there. Her latest novel, Swing Time mimics or reimagines her own journey from North London to Manhattan (in the loosest possible way). It tells the story of an unnamed narrator and her best childhood friend, Tracey. From the outset they are united by common identity, in that they are both mixed race but, importantly, are disunited by their parental relations. Tracey is brought up by her single mother, while the narrator grows up in a reasonably stable home. Both, as the title suggests, take to dance and it is this that bonds them most tightly as friends. Even here though, there are differences; Tracey is the more dancer while the narrator has an almost intellectual obsession with watching films of the great 20th-century dancers. This divergence informs their later life as Tracey attempts an ill-fated career as a dancer, while the narrator gets a job as the assistant to a famous singer.
This association with great fame takes the novel from its tight focus on the friendship (although it remains critical to the narrative thrust) and allows Smith to explore themes of celebrity and wealth. The use of this wealth for aid in Africa becomes central when the narrator assumes responsibility for her charge’s philanthropic endowment of a girls’ school. By drawing out the focus from a London-centric novel (although the story of friendship and the bits set in London still feel the strongest), this allows Smith to raise bigger questions about identity but also to question its limits as the (fittingly) anonymous narrator struggles to understand herself both as an individual and as part of various groups. Hamish Hamilton, £18.99
2. The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
The author’s first novel to be translated into English (A Whole Life), told the story of one man’s life in a remote Austrian valley, This, in many ways, could not be more different as it focuses in on a big city (Vienna) at a critical point in its history (1937). However, in examining great historical events through one seemingly unimportant character, a tobacconist’s apprentice, Seethaler can replicate his previous success of showing subtle changes in mood alongside the everyday human concerns of his characters. Picador, £12.99
3. Cove by Cynan Jones
The novels written by Jones are exactly the sort that can easily be lost in the Christmas rush. They are small; this one weighs in at only a shade over 100 pages and the prose is set out on the page in what looks like poetry. This is deliberate for it shows Jones’s central concern, which is to distill his prose down to its bones. The effect can be astonishing, here the story of a man getting lost at sea becomes a powerful, moving and exceptionally memorable story in about as few words as possible. Read it. And then read it again. Granta Books, £9.99
4. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This came out long before the Christmas rush but it did win the Man Booker prize in the midst of it, and the author’s touching humility about his success means that it may not have made quite the impact it deserves. The Sellout is an uproariously funny, surreal satire about a black man’s life in America. From growing up on an urban farm to being arrested, it holds its mirror up to many aspects of American life and bitingly mocks them. Oneworld Publications, £12.99