The Straits Times reviews the 10 best novels of 2016

In a grim year marked by political twists and senseless violence, literature offers readers somewhere to turn - if not for escapism, then at least for an attempt to comprehend what is happening to the world around them.

Some of this year's best new works looked back into history - from the felling of the world's forests to the scars of the slave trade - to work out what went wrong.

Others traced the unexpected paths to terrorism, or explored communities fraught with racial tension.

There was room for laughter too, whether in a Shakespearean tale told by an unlikely narrator, or the tall tales of a dying man.

Here are the best 10 novels The Straits Times reviewed in 2016.

1. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen's debut novel clinched this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction with its searing take on the Vietnam war and race in America. Its unnamed narrator, a Vietnamese spy, flees war-torn Saigon for Los Angeles, where he becomes a consultant to a Hollywood film clearly inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic classic Apocalypse Now (1979).

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2. Now That It's Over by O Thiam Chin

This exquisitely-crafted Singapore novel won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize with its chronicle of the slow unravelling of two couples' relationships, set against the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

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3. The Association Of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

This stark, devastating novel tracks the aftermath of a bomb blast at a Delhi market, following characters ranging from the grief-stricken parents of the dead to the miracle survivor haunted by trauma. It is a timely look at the ways in which people are affected by terrorist ideology.

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4. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In this harrowing family saga, the paths of two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana 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 traces the devastating legacy of slavery on both sides of the ocean.

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5. Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal

In this complex family drama set in Singapore's Punjabi-Sikh community, Jaswal cleverly explores through food the tensions between modernity and tradition, while portraying prejudice and racism with an unflinching hand.

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6. Barkskins by Annie Proulx

This astounding doorstopper of an epic covers 300 years of deforestation. It charts the generations that spring from two penniless woodcutters who migrate in the 17th century to New France, and how the forests of the world are depleted at their hands.

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7. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

In this moving Man Booker long-listed novel by the Canadian-Chinese Thien, two families are caught up in the tumultuous events spanning 50 years in 20th-century China, from the ascent of Chairman Mao to the Tiananmen Square protests.

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8. Nutshell by Ian McEwan

In a year oversaturated with postmodern retellings of Shakespeare plays, McEwan stands out with this darkly funny twist on Hamlet in which the narrator is a foetus in his mother's womb, witness to her affair with his uncle and their plot to murder his father.

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9. Black Water by Louise Doughty

British writer Doughty adeptly blends hope and horror in this look at the history of Indonesia from World War II to the Asian financial crisis, through the eyes of a half-Dutch, half Indonesian analyst who was raised abroad and returns to profit from the country of his birth.

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10. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

An old man dying of bone cancer shares his last days - and snatches of his blockbuster life - with his grandson, as Chabon weaves larger-than-life adventures of hunting Nazi scientists and capturing pet-eating pythons into a powerful tale of love and legacy.

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