The finest fiction of 2017 were gifts of light and grace amid war and displacement

The compelling stories find lightness and grace in the midst of horror and conflict


War and displacement marked many of this year's finest fiction offerings as the world continues to be wracked by the global migration crisis and the threat of terrorism.

Many novels took bold sojourns into history, whether to 1940s New York, a graveyard during the American Civil War, or the various leftist movements in Singapore's past.

But what stands out in the grim currents of today are these books' gift for finding lightness despite gravity and grace in the midst of horror.

Olivia Ho picks the 10 best works of fiction reviewed by The Straits Times in 2017.

1 The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A woman wakes in the dark to a knock on her door. It is her brother, dripping wet and no older than he was the day she watched him die on a fishing boat out of war-torn Vietnam 25 years ago. This short story collection about Vietnamese migrants hits like a punch in the gut.

2 Autumn by Ali Smith

The first in a seasonal quartet, rushed out as the first post-Brexit novel, Autumn traces the unlikely relationship between a 101-year-old in a coma and a young art history lecturer. With subtle grace, it depicts the shades of unrest in a country divided within itself, against a wider meditation on the passage of time.

3 The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

A motley crew of characters are brought together by the discovery of a dark-skinned baby abandoned at a protest site in this novel, which marks Indian author Roy's return to fiction after 20 years. From the military occupation of Kashmir to the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, it is a magnificent, sweeping work about a divided India.

4 The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli

This freshly translated novel is a harrowing depiction of the atrocities the ordinary Iraqi has endured for the past half-century. Ibrahim the Fated survives the horrors of war only to become a gardener in the palace of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in whose opulent gardens he is forced to bury thousands of corpses.

5 State Of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang

From the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 to the detentions without trial of the "Marxist conspiracy" of 1987, Singaporean author Tiang's debut novel takes a sensitive, compelling look at the history of leftist movements in Singapore and Malaysia.

6 Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

This strange, transcendent ghost story, set in a graveyard where the young son of United States president Abraham Lincoln has been entombed, won this year's Man Booker Prize. Featuring a staggering 166 voices, it achieves far more than the sum of its very many parts.

7 Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In an unnamed country on the brink of civil war, a young Muslim couple find a magical door that helps them escape their collapsing society. Pakistani author Hamid's fluid, fantastical take on the global refugee crisis is a layered and ultimately hopeful ode to migration.

8 Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

This immaculately researched historical novel immerses the reader in World War II New York as formidable heroine Anna Kerrigan tangles with gangsters and becomes the first female diver in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

9 The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Illuminating is the word that best sums up this novel about a widow, her daughter and the order of Brooklyn nuns who take them in after a tragedy. Its everyday scenes are so finely painted that one sees the light on surfaces.

10 Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Greek tragedy of Antigone gets an update for the age of terrorism in this blistering exploration of divided loyalties as two British-Pakistani sisters try to cope with their brother suddenly running off to Syria to join the media arm of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline The finest fiction of 2017 were gifts of light and grace amid war and displacement. Subscribe