Our favorite novels and story collections of 2019.
Add Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive to the canon of great American road trip narratives, where it deserves a special place for looking beyond the borders of this vast and conflicted country to reveal how our insularity damages us -- and others. It's an unforgettable and heart-rending achievement that feels contemporary while also transcending our current moment to speak to problems as old as our nation.
I'm so grateful to NYRB Classics for reintroducing Sylvia Townsend Warner to a new generation of readers. Like her classic works Lolly Willowes and Summer Will Show, The Corner That Held Them demonstrates Warner's great stylistic breadth. Telling the story of a 14th century convent through the lives of several of its inhabitants and passersby, The Corner That Held them is a sweeping and captivating account of communal life in all its rigors and joys, through a particularly troubled time of history.
Max Porter writes like a visionary. His wide-angled view of the world encompasses so many that influences that lies unseen or overlooked, like clouds or hills or the spirit that animates the land. With Lanny, a novel that I read in one mad rush, he's managed to pull off a rare feat of storytelling that will linger with any reader long after the book has been closed. I enthusiastically recommend this polyphonic, moving novel.
Jeff VanderMeer, who has memorably been called "the weird Thoreau," has throughout his career extended the boundaries of what fiction can do. With each book, he probes a little further into the murky area just at the limit of human understanding, and Dead Astronauts may be his finest work yet. Through a fractured narrative that willfully courts confusion, VanderMeer provides us with an emotionally compelling ecological vision that ranges beyond the human into territories I wish more writers would explore.
I'll say right out that Animalia is not for everyone. It is muddy and bleak and elemental. Following in the tradition of writers/pessimists like E.M. Cioran and Georges Bataille, del Amo is not for the squeamish, as man and animal are reduced by the pitiless gaze of an author intent on demonstrating our privilege as human beings is, at best, a fiction. It may not be for everyone, but in its singular vision and moments of rough beauty, I think it will be one day hailed as a classic.
It's obvious that Lucy Ellmann has literature in her blood. Her father, Richard Ellmann, was an eminent biographer of--pertinently--James Joyce, whose spirit haunts the pages of 'Ducks, Newburyport;' Mary Ellmann, her mother, was a pioneering feminist scholar who coined the phrase "phallic criticism" to characterize, witheringly, the habit of male critics to misread women's work. This of course is not to say that Lucy Ellmann writes in the shadow of her parents, but to offer context for her unruly masterpiece, a 700 page unspooling of the bitter, hilarious, emotionally riveting, mundane, angry, overstuffed, and extraordinary mind of a 21st century Ohioan everywoman. No novel I've read about contemporary America has managed to do quite what Ellmann has done in 'Ducks, Newburyport,' which insists that in order to close in on the truth, we must move beyond the dictates of tidy realism, the confines of the so-called stream-of-consciousness and the limits of orderly arranged sentences, and to find a way to fit everything between the pages of a book so bursting with exuberance and energy that its pages rustle on their own when you put it down. It is, as I hope is obvious to many readers, a masterpiece.