The Man Booker prize winner George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) was a unanimous favourite this year. It is exceptional not only for its content, but for how it reconceptualises the form of the novel itself. American author Saunders takes a single image from history—that of President Abraham Lincoln grieving the death of his 11-year-old son and refusing to let his body go, and spins an entire tale from that. Packed with voices of the living, the dead, and not-so dead (the ‘bardo’ is a liminal space between this realm and the next), this novel is path-breaking for its innovation. While the book is a deeply imaginative work, it is also a researched historic work that delves into 1862 and the American Civil War. Sections of it are made up of verbatim quotes from various historical sources, which have been spliced together to form part of the narrative. The format and language (it often reads more like a play than a novel) can bewilder readers, but stick with it and you’ll feel immersed in an early 19th century cosplay, where the theme is mortality, one’s own and one’s loved ones’. Saunders has always been a master of the short story, but his debut novel has sealed his place as one of the ‘great’ contemporary writers.
If Lincoln in the Bardo echoes a play, the other landmark novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury), which re- imagines the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. It uses the framework of an individual standing up to an unjust state to comment on the realities of our times. In Home Fire, Aneeka is Antigone, the fierce sister who must ensure that her brother Parvaiz is not ostracised by the state. She will get him a befitting burial, one that was denied to her father.
The triumph of Home Fire is that it takes unconditional and uncritical familial love and pits it against the muscle of the state, to tell of the arbitrary nature of nationhood and identity. Shamsie, who belongs to both Pakistan and the UK, is familiar with a scenario where migrants are all too often scapegoated for society’s ills. Home Fire is a stellar example of how the strongest novels question prevailing political realities, with both heart and mind.
Another important novel for our times is Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (Hamish Hamilton). While Kunzru has grappled with ideas of belonging in his earlier novels, White Tears stands out for the finesse of its prose and its ability to hack into the minds of its characters.
White Tears is a very American novel, because it is about the Blues and the road. But its pivot is ideas of appropriation. It is the story of how the Blues has been hollowed out, how capital has besieged authenticity. This novel is special because it is synesthetic: you hear New York, just as you listen to that Blues singer at the piano. It starts off as a story of an unlikely friendship between two White art college graduates. They hail from different social classes but both understand the world through sound and not sight. It then spirals into an unexpected thriller, which heeds the reality that ‘in here skin is everything’.
Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints (Aleph) also plunges readers into questions of art and the market, artists and consumption. This novel will be celebrated for the scope of its canvas and for asking that basic question—what is the wellspring of art? What are the stories, the sacrifices, and the savageries behind some of the greatest Indian artists and poets? The novel maps the journey of Newton Francis Xavier (if it’s FN Souza, or Dom Moraes, we shall never know) from New York to Delhi as he readies for his final show. The Book of Chocolate Saints stands tall in Indian English writing today because it is smart, cheeky and unsparing. It glissades between fact and fiction, real people and the imagined. Through it all, you can hear Thayil’s voice hiss, ‘I see you’.
A landmark non-fiction book which makes observation into a fine art is Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree (Aleph). Drawing from art, myths, legends, photography, poetry and literature, she makes readers see trees anew. She asks simple questions: are trees kind, do trees commit suicide, can trees be discontented? And from these explorations she suggests that maybe we could all be more tree-like. This is a work of deep thinking and deep listening. Roy calibrates the reaction of different leaves to the wind; from trees she understands patience and from grass persistence. This gentle and compassionate book urges us city slickers to stop and stare, for ‘being under a tree is a holiday from reason’.
Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (HarperCollins) has been rightly hailed as one of the best debuts of the year. This is a non-fiction book that should be made mandatory reading for anyone keen to understand caste in India. Gidla’s family story, whether it is her resolute mother or her Naxalite uncle, reminds us how in India ‘your life is your caste, your caste is your life’ much too frequently.