Colson Whitehead’s follow up to his Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railway tackles the predicament of African Americans in a very different style but with no less effect for that. Where the previous novel brought metaphor to life, The Nickel Boys is a starkly realistic tale of Elwood and Turner, two black boys incarcerated in a Jim Crow-era reform school based on a real-life institution in Florida. “They treat us like subhumans in our own country. Always have. Maybe always will,” Whitehead writes in this powerful, carefully structured, gripping novel of racism, brutality and inspiring friendship.
There was Still Love – Favel Parrett
Favel Parrett has now written three observant, tender novels told largely from the perspectives of children, but revealing much about the adult lives around them. In her latest, Little Fox and Ludek, two grandchildren of sisters separated before the war – one living in Melbourne, the other remaining in their home city of Prague – are our eyes on the women and the lives that changed so dramatically through no fault of their own. Switching from 1938 in Czechoslovakia to Australia in the 1980s and back, this is a subtle and delicate novel that examines the tensions in families and the deep love that lies underneath them all. This is a lovely book that could well have you in tears.
The Weekend – Charlotte Wood
Four women have been friends for years when one dies and the dynamic between the surviving three changes dramatically, when they spend a few days clearing out their friend’s beach house and dealing with emerging tensions, tirades and trauma. Charlotte Wood’s sixth novel is a marvellous, humane and compassionate book. Her three lead women – Jude, Wendy and Adele – are wonderful creations: flawed, infuriating, weak and strong, and full of life lived and being lived. And one can’t ignore poor Finn, Wendy’s demented old dog who serves as some sort of touchstone for them all.
The Rich Man’s House – Andrew McGahan
Perhaps not Andrew McGahan’s best – it’s hard to go past his first, Praise, or his Miles Franklin winner, The White Earth, for that – but his final book, published eight months after his tragically early death from cancer, is a riveting and strange haunted-house mystery set on a mountain emerging from the sea hundreds of kilometres south of Tasmania. All of McGahan’s books were different but they invariably reflected his interests in extreme weather, houses, nature and the sea. Walter Richman is the only man to have conquered the world’s highest peak and has now built an architect-designed home on an adjacent outcrop. When the late architect’s estranged daughter visits the house to see the completed project, she senses a restless presence that is gradually threatening the lives of everyone present. But why and how?
Room for a Stranger – Melanie Cheng
Doctor, short-story writer (Australia Day) and now novelist Melanie Cheng has produced a sensitive story about the unlikely encounter between Meg, a woman in her 70s, and her new lodger, university student Andy from Hong Kong. When he moves in – she lives alone with only her parrot for company – it changes them both and how they negotiate the other critical relationships in their lives. This is a gentle book with a serene quality – no bombast or tricks here – that is compassionate, moving and, in the end, profoundly uplifting.
Agent Running in the Field – John le Carre
He may be 88, but the great spy writer has lost nothing of his fierce love for his country. His 25th novel crosses familiar territory of loyalty, love and betrayal and burns with a distaste for current American and British politics and a specific anger at his country’s imminent exit from the European Union. Nat, a 25-year veteran of the intelligence service, is running a section for agents and Russian defectors past their use-by date. But then word comes of possibly reactivated Russian moles and Western defections. Le Carre has his imitators, but it’s hard to improve on the real thing.
Stalingrad – Vasily Grossman
Published for the first time in English this year, Stalingrad is Vasily Grossman’s massive prequel to his masterful Life and Fate. It loses nothing in comparison with the later book as Grossman brings all his humanity and experience as a journalist reporting on the war to his panoramic account of the crucial World War II battle. It’s not all focused on the forces of history, however. Like Tolstoy, Grossman’s novelist eye is on his characters and their own struggles to survive: on the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters; on the individuals often ignored in histories without whom there would be no history. It’s a book to immerse yourself into – nearly 900 pages long – but its rewards are substantial.
Damascus – Christos Tsiolkas
Here’s a surprise. Christos Tsiolkas does the early Christians through the figure of Saul of Tarsus, initially their persecutor who, after his experiences on the road to Damascus, became an apostle of Jesus and is better known as St Paul, writer of various epistles in the New Testament and driving force behind those waiting for the second coming. Along the way we meet Lydia, said to be the first convert to Christianity; Timothy, to whom much of Paul’s writing was addressed; and Thomas, who in Tsiolkas’ version is Jesus’ brother and rather more than a simple doubter. It’s a violent, brutal world and Tsiolkas does not spare the reader, but it’s also a deeply researched, crafted fictional world created by one of Australia’s greatest literary talents.
The Wall – John Lanchester
At the heart of John Lanchester’s fifth novel is a question for our times: What will the world we leave for future generations look like? It is set years after The Change, an event that has devastated Britain and the rest of the world, and Joseph Kavanagh is starting a stint on the National Coastal Defence Structure, which has been built to keep “the Others” – those who live outside the country – from storming over the wall. The issues of intergenerational fairness and climate change drive this dystopic novel from the always interesting Lanchester.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald