The Novel That Earned America's Biggest Prize (and Others)
320 pages; Doubleday
Yes, this book was selected for Oprah's Book Club. However, Colson Whitehead's sixth novel is also the 2016 winner in fiction of the National Book Award (presented by the National Book Foundation) and, as of yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize. In this chilling, unforgettable novel, the Underground Railroad—the historical network of safe houses that helped slaves escape north before the Civil War—is an actual railroad. Riding these subterranean rails is Cora, a headstrong slave determined to find her freedom and uncover the fate of her disappeared mother. What follows is a surreal adventure, complete with harrowing eugenics experiments and lynchings, wild escapes from danger, and unlikely alliances. Whitehead's straightforward style blurs the line between fact and fiction when it comes to the history of slavery, but he's located some essential truths in the process, delivering a powerful allegory for today's racial divisions.
384 pages; Harper
For the past three decades, Erdrich has explored reservation life in North Dakota and Minnesota with a depth that rivals Faulkner, encompassing family, war, violence and the push and pull of tribal and American law. Her 15th novel, LaRose, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, covers plenty of that cultural ground; its plot touches on homicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, religion and racism. (L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, gets called out for the anti-Native American screeds he wrote in his day.) But at the heart of this writer's inquiry lies the question of what makes a family, and in LaRose, Erdrich begins the story by tearing two families apart: A man accidentally kills a neighbor's son and then offers his own son as a replacement. That exchange has its roots in Native American traditions and opens up an exploration of past grievances and abuses on Ojibwa land, suggesting centuries of bad blood. "Energy of this nature, chaos, ill luck, goes out in the world and begets and begets," she writes. "Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that." Author Claire Vaye Watkins praised this stellar work as "a brutal, ultimately buoyant dramatization of the way unexpected kinships heal us."
340 pages; Counterpoint
Geni's debut novel, the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for fiction, is a dazzling blend of dark mystery and adventure—as well as an unexpected meditation on motherhood. The book begins with an eye-opening setting: the Farallon Islands, 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, where globe-trotting photographer Miranda plans to spend a year shooting sharks, whales, seals, birds and other wildlife. The landscape is perilous and savage, and there's also plenty of feral behavior back at camp, where old-salt naturalists and younger scholars harbor secrets and bad blood. When Miranda suffers an act of cruelty (worth discovering on your own), more anger and violence rise to the surface. Geni is so skilled a storyteller that The Lightkeepers keeps you on the edge your seat as if you're reading a thriller, but she's done more here than write a straight-ahead mystery. Each chapter is framed as a letter from Miranda to her dead mother, which adds poignancy to the story. The lyrical sentences also create vivid, breathtaking snapshots of this little-explored land. (She marvels at how the whales "camouflage themselves as waves, as clouds, as islets, as reflections of light.") The Farallons may be tiny and remote, but Geni knows that, from Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies, such constrained and lawless spaces can make for great dramatic fiction.
320 pages; Knopf
"When you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?" asks a Ghanaian professor in Homegoing. That line could serve as a mission statement for the whole of Yaa Gyasi's sweeping novel, which explores the hidden impact of slavery on Africa and America across three centuries. The novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize for debut books and a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, is soaked in history: The story opens in the mid-1700s, as British slave traders arrive on Africa's Gold Coast, and then moves propulsively forward, from tribal warfare in Africa to the Fugitive Slave Acts to the civil rights movement to Barack Obama's election. However, even though history always looms as a shaping, often malevolent force in the book, Gyasi keeps the story rooted in intimate, ground-level stories about characters on each side of the ocean, from the woman who marries a British soldier only to discover his vile intentions, to the Alabama coal worker who bravely defies his racist minders. It is an impressively intense study of "how place and fate shape us all," by a writer who's just getting started.
480 pages; W.W. Norton
Music and politics are tightly intertwined in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won Canada's prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016 and was short-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize. At its core are two musicians, Kai and Sparrow, who are similarly talented but divided by the cruelties of Mao's Communist regime. For one, political oppression demands protest; for the other, the pressure to give in and follow the party line is too strong. The deeper Thien delves into the two men's pasts in this, her third novel, the fuller the cruelty of history becomes, from the famines of the Great Leap Forward to the ideologically driven public beatings of the Cultural Revolution to the military brutality of the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite its dark themes, it's also an effective novel about how families, their stories and music find ways to persevere in spite of oppression, and Thien writes exquisitely about storytelling and songwriting, from brief studies of Chinese ideograms to lush descriptions of passages of music. For Thien, music is a potent metaphor for the changes that swept across China throughout the 20th century: "atonality etched into a falsely harmonious surface ... brittle ruptures and time speeding up like a wheel spinning ever faster."