I am trying to figure out my top reads of 2016 and it is tough. I read so many amazing books, not all of them published in 2016. Without intending it that way, most of them are written by African writers with the exception of two. Here are the absolute gems in no particular order:
Drawn in Colour by Noni Jabavu
And They Didn’t Die by Laurette Ngcobo
Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle by Sindiwe Magona
I’m so happy I read these three books within a few months of each other. They all speak to similar topics and focus on racial issues, land issues and the role of black women as upholders of culture despite their oppression by that very culture. Fraught relationships occur between women because of patriarchy; women are shamed for being raped by a white man; women are forced to prejudice themselves for the sake of family; these are some of the themes explored in all three books. I loved the way all three books simultaneously celebrated and critiqued their culture.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
I did not realise when I read Tram 83 that the writer had been influenced by Alain Mabanckou, but once I read Broken Glass, it was clear. Inventive, creative writing like nothing else you have read before. The discarding of conventional punctuation makes the reads a roller coaster ride, breathless and unpredictable. Both set in the Congo and translated from French, they critique neo-colonialism, explore power relations in original, witty language that satirises everyone and everything.
The Search Warrant (Dora Bruder) by Patrick Modiano
Missing Person by Patrick Modiano
Patrick Modiano was virtually unknown to the English-speaking world of letters until he won the Nobel Prize in 2014. Suddenly publishers were scrambling to publish his work. His work reads like literary crime fiction and is highly autobiographical. In The Search Warrant, he investigates a young Jewish girl of 16 who went missing in about 1942. He had stumbled across an old newspaper article where it was recorded. The book chronicles his obsession and research as he tries to find out what happened to her. He explores old maps and archives as well as visiting the area on foot. It is as if by resurrecting Dora’s history he is honouring all those who died and are unknown. A very poignant book. As is Missing Person; in this novel the narrator is an amnesiac and has been for at least 10 years. He decides to find out who he really is / was. Scraps of memories, names and articles take him from one possibility to the next. The writing is sparse yet sufficient.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Yes, I know, I’m late to the Lauren Beukes party. The wait was worthwhile. I love the off-beat, impossible to believe yet highly believable, dystopian Johannesburg of Zoo City where people are assigned animals that they have to carry as burdens. These animals are indicative of the type of crimes they committed and give them psychic powers. Zinzi, the protagonist, uses her powers to discover missing people. The Shining Girls is about a time travelling serial killer who becomes hunted by one of his victims. Marvelously imaginative, it is set in Chicago and delves into its history across the decades, beginning in the 30s. Both books are delightful in their craziness and imaginary worlds.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
These three books were each written by African women though, apart from that, they have little to connect them. Ghana Must Go is possibly my top read of the year. It explores a family from Ghana whose children are raised in America; neither of the parents know how to stay with each other and when the father, a medical doctor, is framed for a malpractice, his world falls apart. The writing is rich with similes and psychological insights into a family where everyone is troubled by secrets and the heritage of hardship.
I Do Not Come to You By Chance is a hilarious take on the world of Nigerian 419 scams, the title being lifted from one of these nefarious emails that lure people to part with their money. Cash Daddy is a marvelous, larger than life character and disreputable brother to Kingsley’s highly respectable yet poverty stricken father. He involves Kingsley in the business which leads to some very funny situations. Despite the humour, it also makes a serious point regarding how difficult it is to get anywhere in life by following the straight and narrow.
Dust is set in Kenya, from Nairobi to the northern desert around Lake Turkana, an area of which I previously knew nothing. The plot delves into a family’s secrets in the context of Kenya between WWII and 2007. The writer uses an unconventional narrative style; many short sentences which convey a sense of the immediate experience of the particular character. Odidi is an innocent, principled character who is murdered. His sister is devastated and cannot accept it so she scours Nairobi trying to find traces of him. She is an artist and I really liked the way her art helped her express the inexpressible. Odidi’s death sets off a chain of events which unearth the secrets that have plagued this family for decades. The narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present. The lyrical highly descriptive writing conveys the anguish that consumes a nation as much as it does a family. I found it a beautiful read.
The Return by Hisham Matar
I usually prefer fiction but I read so many glowing reviews of this book that I felt compelled to try it. It helped that his style approximates that of literary fiction. He writes poignantly about exile and his mixed feelings when returning to Libya after the demise of Gaddafi. His father disappeared after being imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime and he spent many years trying to find him; his own writing was banned in Libya. I was enthralled by his interviews with many of his vast extended family, quite a few of whom were also imprisoned for many years. It deals with family, loss, leaving a place you loved and returning. Reading about the Gaddafi regime from his perspective, I do wonder why Mandela and the ANC were so supportive of him.
The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo
This is my South African book of the year although I did not read that many; I think it was a leaner year than we have had for a while. Marubini is a successful contemporary young black woman who works on a wine farm combating every day racism in the boardroom, having wonderful sex with her restauranter boyfriend and hooking up with a girlfriend for lunch. However, all is not well; she has strange episodes that no-one understands. The narrative shifts to her childhood where she grew up in between Soweto and Limpopo. Her grandparents on both sides feature prominently in her life and through these relationships she learns about her culture. Memories that are locked up inside need to be uncovered so she can heal. Flashes break through now and again. Spirituality threads through life; dreams trouble and illuminate; her brother’s drawings also reveal much. What is this yearning? An excellent novel with good characterisation and themes that speak to the modern condition of many young people.
I simply could not choose a top 5 or even a top 10. These 14 books were all marvelous reads in different ways. How reading truly enriches my life!
P.S. 04 January 2017
What an oversight! I have just realised that I left The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile off my list. It is a fearless, heart-piercing novel about the German genocide of the Herero people in the early 20th Century. The story of a young Afrikaans woman captured and imprisoned in a British concentration camp runs parallel. The characters are warm, brave and proud; they face hardship after hardship yet prop each other up. While it is not a book for the faint-hearted, it is worth putting yourself through the pain. Fiction of this calibre brings tragedy home by humanising the cold facts of history; history that is measured in numbers. Despite the difficulty of this topic, Lauri Kubuitsile of Botswana, handles it with insight and sensitivity.