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  • Kelly Polasek

Best of the Decade: Novels

What follows is by no means a definitive list of the best novels of the past decade—as a student of literature, there is nothing I can say with more certainty than that I have not read everything and have no authority to label literary works the “best” of any sample. However, I’ve taken stock of what I’ve read since 2010 and what stands out most in my memory. The resulting 17 books—you didn’t think I’d be able to narrow it down to one book per year, did you?—are skewed somewhat based on my area of study (American war literature, which turned up a lot of U.S. authors and some war stories) and on my personal literary tastes (I tend to gravitate toward women writers and dystopian storylines). Please get in touch with glaring omissions that I can add to my “To Read” list!


The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson

I received this fantasy tome as a wedding present and brought it with me to read on my honeymoon. The author is well-known for completing Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, but this novel, the first in a series (The Stormlight Archives) that I have not continued reading (maybe next decade!) is equal parts impressive and enjoyable in its own right. What sticks out most in my memory is the worldbuilding: not only does Sanderson bring to life a world of many nations, each with their own social structures, but he also renders characters’ use of magical powers like “surgebinding” easy to imagine without turning to fantasy staples like spell-casting as shortcuts (a quality it shares with 2015 entry The Fifth Season—spoiler alert).


Sand Queen, Helen Benedict

Benedict is a journalism professor at Columbia University, and her research and nonfiction writing on U.S. women soldiers serving in Iraq clearly inspires the fictional narrative of Sand Queen. Narration shifts between Kate, a 19-year-old guard at a military prison in Iraq, and Naema, an Iraqi medic whose father and young brother are detained at the prison. I try to keep up with the growing canon of fiction coming out of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this novel stands out because of its focus on two women, period, and particularly women other than the by-now-familiar U.S. civilians waiting for or enduring a brother or husband’s redeployment. Benedict drives home the systemic danger women face in the military—Kate's tough, confident roommate is repeatedly assaulted by a fellow servicemember and Kate experiences harassment from the detainees she oversees—yet doesn’t shy away from the ways in which Kate becomes an “agent-victim” of violence and self-destruction as a result of her military experience.


All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

+ The Round House, Louise Erdrich

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two adolescents in World War II Europe, took me fifty pages or so to get into (I digress, but maybe the best book I read this year, Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975), similarly took me two readings of the first chapter to really take hold, and then I was absolutely immersed). Doerr’s novel moves back and forth in time and between narrators Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who moves in with her shell-shocked WWI veteran uncle when her father is arrested by the Germans, and Werner, a German orphan who is recruited by the Nazis because of his aptitude with radios. As is characteristic of many great novels, this one contains passages that ruminate beautifully on art and humanity. Most striking in my view is the novel’s characterization of war and resistance: Werner acts “less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful” while Marie-Laure's uncle is eventually persuaded into aiding the French Resistance by this exchange:

’I don’t want to make trouble, Madame.’

‘Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?’

‘Doing nothing is doing nothing.’

‘Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.’

I took a senior seminar on literature by Louise Erdrich as an undergraduate at the dawn of the decade and have continued to pick up her new books whenever they come out. The Round House is my favorite of the decade, although it did not make for a particularly pleasant reading experience, as the plot concerns the aftermath of the violent rape of a Native woman on reservation land, as narrated by the woman’s young son. Erdrich’s lyrical writing style and illumination of the tensions between the U.S. and tribal legal systems are reasons enough on their own for reading this novel, but they come together to produce the coming-of-age story of a young man reckoning with how pervasive toxic misogyny is in the world and within himself.


The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri + Army of Lovers, Juliana Spahr & David Buuck

As with Louise Erdrich, I’m a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s entire body of work. I listened to The Lowland as an audiobook while commuting to and from an office job, and I recall looking forward to the time in the car that bookended (see what I did there?) my days in a florescent-lit plastic cubicle. This novel tells the sprawling story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, whose lives take divergent paths yet remain entangled even after one is killed for his involvement in a (violent) revolutionary movement in Calcutta. Events span half a century, two continents, and themes of family, love, and political commitment. I remember being especially gripped by both brothers’ descriptions of the police chase that ends in Udayan’s death.

I am not sure that Army of Lovers qualifies as a novel, but I wanted to put this weird book on my list because I’ve come back to it more than once since I first read it early in my graduate studies. Co-authored by Bay Area poets Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, it consists of five sections: the first and last take as protagonists Bay Area poets Demented Panda and Koki, the second and fourth share the title “The Side Effect” and are the most affecting to me, and smack in the middle is a barely-revised update of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” where instead of love, we’re talking about poetry. War, art, and protest are the shared subjects of “The Side Effect” sections, while Koki and Demented Panda are vehicles for Occupy-related questions about political poetry, collaboration, and collectivity. Also, there is a literal tsunami of shit.


Citizen, Claudia Rankine

Citizen is another text I am hesitant to classify as a novel, in part because its subtitle is “An American Lyric” and it was nominated as both poetry and criticism for the National Book Award, but also because in it, Rankine combines visual art and prose poems to produce something more than the sum of its parts (the book also contains scripts of "situation videos” that can be viewed on the web). This effect of multi-modality parallels the book’s dramatization of the ways in which gendered and racialized stereotypes and assumptions work together to create impacts on women of color that are greater than either type of discrimination considered in isolation. Citizen has stuck with me both in the cadence of single lines (“You are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”) and as a statement of the felt experience of anti-Black racism in 21st century America.


The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen + The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

To read The Sympathizer is to recognize an instant classic. Featuring an unnamed narrator in the tradition of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, most of the novel takes the form of a confession letter. The narrator is a Communist spy working for the North Vietnamese Army in the mid-1970s (the book opens with lengthy, action-packed description of evacuation to the U.S. amidst the fall of Saigon); he’s tasked with learning all that he can about American culture, which sets the stage for cutting satire. Meditations on what it means to be a refugee, to pursue the American Dream, to be loyal or revolutionary culminate in an interrogation (literally, the narrator is talking while tortured) of the meaning of freedom.

The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy, which I (alongside the entire sci-fi community, as evidenced by Jemisin’s historic sweep of the Hugo Awards) recommend in its entirety, for the record. The novels take place thousands of years (or more) in the future, on a planet whose geography is so removed from our own that it may not even be the same one and which is, moreover, anthropomorphized as Father Earth and actively trying to kill huge amounts of the population. In a recent interview in ASAP/Journal, Jemisin connected the conceit of her fiction to her lived reality:

When you recognize the fact that we live in a society that is willing to roll out the damn army when a peaceful protest of people is taking place, when you begin to understand the scope of forces arrayed against a concept like Black equality, when you begin to realize how much, how many years of effort and energy are engaged in keeping my ancestors and me from having a decent life, it starts to feel like the Earth is out to get you.

I read the series at home on maternity leave and, while it’s intense subject matter—specifically some elements reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved were especially disturbing to encounter as a new mother—The Fifth Season & co. were some of my most rewarding and fun reads of the decade.


The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead Runner up: The Power, Naomi Alderman Honorable mention: Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters

The Underground Railroad is simultaneously 1) the gripping story of Cora’s escape from chattel slavery and attempt to make a life for herself within the confines of white supremacy that shift as she crosses state lines and 2) an homage to the African American literary canon, from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs straight on through the end of the 20th century. Fifty pages in, I was nervous that I would never again be allowed to choose a title for my book club, so gruesome were Whitehead’s descriptions of plantation life (and death). Upon finishing the novel, however, the power of such delivery of the stakes of Cora’s decision to escape had paid off in a way that made me think of Steve McQueen’s unwavering direction in Twelve Years a Slave (2013).

Briefly, The Power was another book I recommended to my book club, and reception was split. I found the premise—young women around the world discover a new organ near their collarbones that allows for the distribution of an electric shock at will, disrupting the (physical) power imbalance at the core of the patriarchy—thought-provoking, thanks especially to Alderman’s insistence on raising troubling questions about the desire for violent mastery at the core of power. Would be interesting to read alongside Benedict’s Sand Queen.

Finally, Underground Airlines is an alternative history written with all the satisfying twists and turns of a good mystery novel (Winters got his start writing mysteries, but I haven’t read them to see how they compare). What if the Civil War had been prevented by political compromises in the form of Constitutional Amendments that simultaneously limited and enshrined chattel slavery in the Deep South? And what if the U.S. Marshall Service “employed” runaway slaves as slave catchers?


Exit West, Hamid + American War, Omar El-Akkad Honorable mention, nonfiction: The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein

Exit West is a short and deeply moving novel about connection, diaspora, terrorism, and the migrant/refugee crisis of this decade. It contains some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve come across in literature in a long time. Like The Underground Railroad, which is realistic fiction except for the fact that the titular railroad is an actual subterranean web of tracks, Exit West contains a single element of magical realism: randomly-appearing doors that somehow connect far-flung corners of the globe and allow for mass migration without the real-life mortal danger of crossing deserts or seas.

American War asks what counts as war in American history and, along with The Fifth Season, what if humanity’s extinction was a hopeful prospect? Set in the U.S. in 2074, when a Second Civil War is raging as a result of the climate crisis, the novel spans the entire life of Sarat Chestnut. We accompany Sarat through her childhood in a refugee camp to years at a military detention center plainly modeled after Guantanamo Bay, which El-Akkad reported on as a journalist. Through an amalgamation of familiar tropes from literature ranging from the US Civil War to the “war on terror,” American War brings the U.S.’s history of state-sponsored oppression of the racialized other at home and abroad into view at the same time.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster is decidedly *not* a novel, but I’m adding it to the list because I just want more people to read it! It’s the biography of Sandra Pankhurst, owner of a small Australian company specializing in the cleanup of homes of hoarders and the recently, suddenly deceased. Sandra is a transgender woman who was at other points of her life a victim of child abuse, a husband and father, a wife, a sex worker, and more. I started this book without any expectations and was floored by Krasnostein and Pankhurst’s insights into trauma, loneliness, and care.


Red Clocks, Leni Zumas

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I thought about setting this book down early on because the female narrators—the Wife, the Biographer, the Daughter, and the Mender—were all so unlikable. Zumas’s characters inhabit a dystopian future where abortion and in vitro fertilization are illegal due to fetus’s rights, adoption is limited by the “Every Child Needs Two” law, and women are imprisoned for crossing the Pink Wall to Canada for procedures. I am so glad I kept going, because I would have missed a powerful feminist story about being true to oneself even when the world tells you you’re being selfish. When the Daughter faces this strain of internalized misogyny, the novel responds, “But she has a self. Why not use it?”


The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

This novel tells a fictional version of the trials and tribulations of the real-life publication of Soviet author Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. What makes this subject intriguing is the novel’s back-and-forth narration from the perspective of Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, who is sent to the gulag for refusing to reveal details about anti-Soviet sentiment in Zhivago, and a group of CIA secretaries, some of whom work second, covert shifts as part of the international intelligence mission to bring Pasternak’s words to the world. Literature as revolutionary? I think you may be sensing a theme.

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