The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016
These are the novels and short story collections that we absolutely loved in 2016. (Ranked in no particular order.)
1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Winner of a 2016 National Book Award, The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave who escapes via the Underground Railroad, which is rendered as an actual railroad system. Through its brilliant visions of a past both ours and not quite ours, The Underground Railroad depicts America's horrifying history with a devastating clarity.
Bonus: Read about BuzzFeed's interview with Colson Whitehead here.
2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
In The Vegetarian by South Korean writer Han Kang (translated into English by Deborah Smith), a housewife decides to become a vegetarian. This seemingly harmless decision has terrible, wide-ranging consequences, throwing her entire family into disarray. With its phantasmagorical images and haunting, alienated characters, The Vegetarian is a book that compels even as it dares you to look away.
3. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
The stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours are linked thematically by keys of all kinds, but are otherwise only bounded by the limits of Oyeyemi's playful, searching imagination — which is to say, not at all. Whether you're reading about puppetry schools or a disillusioned fan seeking an apology from a pop star, these stories have you diving in and surfacing somewhere else — delightfully, unexpectedly — altogether.
Bonus: Read an excerpt from What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours here.
4. The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales
The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, the first novel from acclaimed short fiction writer Manuel Gonzales, chronicles the secret history of the Regional Office, an organization composed of super-powered female assassins and the mysterious powers that be who manage them. Combining joyous comic book verve with masterful literary craft and a keen sense of character, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is a rare and special beast indeed: fun that tastes good and is good for you.
5. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Bennett's stellar debut, The Mothers, brings us into the world of a black church community in California, where three teenagers — Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke — navigate love and loss and consequences, all while being observed and commented on by a chorus of church mothers. Graceful, wise, and affecting, The Mothers is a beautiful exploration of community, and how its ties can both constrain and comfort.
Bonus: Read an excerpt from The Mothers here.
6. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family and its legacy of mental illness, first in the father, then in the eldest son. While Haslett is unflinching when it comes to the devastating toll that depression and anxiety can take on a person and their family, this coexists — and is inextricable from — his portrait of an unforgettable, frustrating, loving family.
7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, opens in18th-century Ghana with two half-sisters set upon different paths. While one of the sisters stays in Africa, the other is sold into slavery in America, and each following chapter delves into the lives of their descendants, showing clearly the effects of racism and slavery on the history of the world through its trauma to individual lives. Homegoing is ambitious, panoramic, and continually riveting.
8. The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Three young boys visit a New Delhi marketplace when a bomb goes off, killing two of them and devastating their families and the surviving boy. With great empathy and intelligence, The Association of Small Bombs explores the ramifications of a terrorist attack on both the victims and the terrorists themselves.
9. Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Rebecca, the main character of Version Control, has the funny feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with her world, where self-driving cars fill the roads, her husband is obsessed with building a time machine, and the president just doesn't seem right. Of course, it's a world much like ours, which is part of the brilliance of Version Control, a novel that, by holding up a science-fictional mirror to our reality, reflects back something all the more truthful for its bizarreness.
10. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
In What Belongs to You, an American teacher in Bulgaria encounters a captivating hustler named Mitko in a public bathroom, setting into motion an ambiguously transactional relationship marked by both tenderness and brutality, connection and isolation. What Belongs to You speaks of desire and the lives of those who desire with exquisite specificity and power, and will haunt you long after you turn the final page.
Bonus: Read an essay by Garth Greenwell here.
11. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
When 22-year-old Tess moves to New York City and takes a job in a renowned restaurant, she falls headlong into the intense, intoxicating world of food. Sweetbitter shows clearly how the glamour of delicious cuisine and the attractive, knowing people populating the kitchens coexists with the toil and pain involved. With its lush prose and its keen insights into what it takes to make your way in the restaurant world (and the world at large), Sweetbitter casts a strong spell.
12. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang
When the patriarch of the wealthy Wang family loses all of their money in the financial crisis, the Wangs are forced to pack up and take a drama-filled road trip from Bel-Air to upstate New York. Rollicking, engaging, and full of heart and irresistible characters, The Wangs vs. The World is a riches-to-rags story that is totally fresh.
13. Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Poised tantalizingly between memoir and fiction, Moonglow by Michael Chabon begins when a writer named Mike Chabon visits his grandfather, who on his deathbed has decided to tell all about his life and their family's past. And what a tell-all it is. A story as much about the art of storytelling as it is about family, history, and the 20th century, Moonglow is a dazzling achievement.
14. We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Greenidge's debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, follows the Freemans, a black family invited by a New England research institute to live with and teach sign language to a chimpanzee (the eponymous Charlie). But the institute is not all that it appears to be, and both the pressures of the situation as well as the dark secrets of the institute's past bring the Freeman family to a crisis. We Love You, Charlie Freeman engagingly explores family, race, and language with great insight and fearlessness.
Bonus: Read an essay by Kaitlyn Greenidge here.
15. Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Chee's glittering, glamorous second novel Queen of the Night spins the tale of celebrated opera star Lilliet Berne, the toast of Paris, from her early days as an orphan from Minnesota to her rise as a singer. Lilliet is mesmerizing — a fierce, complex survivor who can seemingly thrive anywhere — as are the other vivid characters, who scheme and plot and love and hate against a masterfully rendered historical backdrop of 19th century France.
Bonus: Read Alexander Chee's work for BuzzFeed here.
16. Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
After a popular boy in their small town commits suicide, good girl Hannah and troublemaker Lacey become close friends. As they act out, struggling against the limitations of small-town life, harrowing secrets surface and test the bonds of their obsessive friendship. An exhilarating page-turner to the very end, Girls on Fire reads like a grungy punk girl anthem, intense and terrifying and wonderfully alive.
Bonus: Read an essay by Robin Wasserman here.
17. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Here Comes the Sun follows three women who live near a Jamaican tourist resort: Delores, an embittered mother, her older daughter Margot, an ambitious employee of the tourist resort, and her younger daughter Thandi, a teenager trying to live up to both Delores and Margot's expectations. Heartbreaking and gorgeous, Here Comes the Sun delves into the true costs of tourism, of Caribbean vacations and sunny beaches, with its fine-grained portraits of the people who stay when the tourists are gone.
18. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond provides one of the great pleasures of fiction: really getting into someone else's mind and finding it both mundane and weirder than imaginable. Narrated by a woman living alone in a small, bucolic town, Pond concerns itself with the stuff of daily life—gardening, oven knobs, dinner parties, neighbors — yet renders these things strange, new, and bewitching through the fascinating perspective of the narrator.
19. Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
Private Citizens follows four friends in mid-aughts San Francisco, who are flailing through post-college life despite an abundance of brains and privilege. Tulathimutte's prose is hilarious, brilliantly acute, and merciless — San Francisco and millennial bad behavior provide plenty of satirical targets — but also evinces hard-won compassion for his characters, too spiky and self-aware to be likable, too uncomfortably close to ourselves to be dislikable.
20. Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips
Some Possible Solutions, a collection of short stories, presents us with a surreal, disturbing assemblage of worlds, each complete and somehow totally convincing despite their strangeness. Though the characters of Some Possible Solutions struggle to connect with one another, all the while dealing with problems such as knowing the exact date of their deaths, or what happens when friends disapprove of their high-tech sex robot, Some Possible Solutions is a delight — there is joy in its darkness, and pleasure in its exuberant imagination.
Bonus: Read an essay by Helen Phillips here.
21. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
Traversing time and space from 1903 Moravia to a hoarder's apartment in New York City (with many stops in between), The Lost Time Accidents is a 20th-century epic of science, history, and inheritance. When a Czech pickle merchant discovers a theory of time, his descendants become obsessed and dedicate their lives to either studying it or attempting to escape what has become their family legacy. Ambitious and audacious, The Lost Time Accidents succeeds on both a grand and small scale, as it delves into the saga of one strange, captivating family.
Bonus: Read an essay by John Wray here.
22. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
An anthropologist returns to Brooklyn after her father's death and muses upon her girlhood in 1970s Brooklyn, when she and her three best friends came of age in often tumultuous circumstances. Lyrical and moving, Another Brooklyn is truthful in its aliveness to both beauty and pain.
Bonus: Read a poem by Jacqueline Woodson here.
23. The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky
The Red Car is a sly and marvelously surprising take on the road trip novel. Leah, sad and dissatisfied in New York with a clingy husband and a dull job, learns that her former mentor has died, leaving her a red sports car. Haunted by memories of her past, Leah travels to San Francisco on a journey both physical and mental, as she finally faces up to what her life has become. Funny, unpredictable, and moving, The Red Car is an irresistible book for anyone who's ever felt stuck.
Bonus: Read a profile of Marcy Dermansky here.
24. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
In Swing Time, two young biracial girls bond over a love of dance and their shared racial identity. Over the years, their fates diverge and one becomes a dancer, while the other becomes an assistant to a pop mega-celebrity. Both frustrating and fascinating — and all the while gloriously human — Smith's characters take us through an entrancing exploration of subjects such as race, class, friendship, talent, and much more, giving us the world in all its great complexity and contradiction.