Best and worst 2016: Books


• Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This young Ghanaian-American writer's harrowing debut (pictured) is an epic yet intimate family saga that begins in 18th-century Ghana, where the paths of two half-sisters diverge. One marries into a life of luxury as the wife of a British governor, while the other is sold as a slave to America.

Through the lives of these women and their descendants, Gyasi takes on a daunting, panoramic subject - the devastating legacy of slavery - and pares it down masterfully to 14 tightly plotted chapters. The rising racial tensions in today's America make this novel even more of a vital read.

• The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

This is no simple paean to a greener diet. Rather, it is a strange and beautiful tale of a woman who wants, more than anything, to vegetate.

South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith won this year's Man Booker International Prize with this spare, unnerving parable of a housewife whose sudden vegetarianism and increasingly disturbing acts of abnegation shock her family.

Han's gripping blend of hypnotic sensuality and creeping horror will leave readers haunted, as she quietly but insistently questions the place of women in society, and of humans in the environment.

• Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two mixed-race girls growing up in working-class London bond over their love of dance, but their friendship is tested over the years as one rises to become the assistant of a pop superstar, while the other struggles to make it on Broadway.

Smith tackles a number of weighty themes - from the schisms of race and class to the controversies of cultural appropriation - but deftly tap dances across them all.

The novel's beating heart is its painfully poignant dissection of a complex female friendship and it is with this rhythm that her sprawling narrative keeps time.


• In Congo's Shadow: One Girl's Perilous Journey To The Heart Of Africa by Louise Linton

The Scottish actress' memoir of her gap year as a student volunteer in Zambia proved to be a cringeworthy, textbook example of the white saviour complex.

Zambians were quick to point out the geographical and historical inaccuracies it was riddled with. Even without these, Linton showed an astounding lack of taste in co-opting the socio-economical strife of a continent as the backdrop for her own personal journey.

Painting herself as an "angel-haired" benefactor of poor Africans, she described braving rape and murder at the hands of blood-thirsty rebels to shower HIV- infected children with love, affection and Coca-Cola.

She later apologised online and the book has since been pulled from sale, which will hopefully make the next wannabe "white saviour" think twice before trying to profit from stereotypes of "darkest Africa" (how Linton describes Zambia).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline Best and worst 2016: Books. Subscribe