2014 was a ridiculously good year for books. Some of our best living writers produced new works this year, which is always cause for crazed celebration; indie publishers turned out NYT Bestsellers like it was no big deal whatsoever; first-time novelists kept splashing onto the scene, already glittering with awards and New Yorker profiles like they'd just won the lottery. And female writers were particularly on their game this year, whether they were writing about girlhood or dead-end jobs or post-apocalyptic hijinx. Ladies, what was in the water?
Those who bemoan the taste of the reading public should be happy to hear that quality short story collections are still selling like hotcakes (Bark, The UnAmericans, and so on) and that readers aren't afraid of experimental prose (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Dept. of Speculation, Leaving the Sea). Books with sensitive, nuanced treatments of gender, race, and death were also prominent, both on this list and in our best nonfiction list.
One of the things I find most fascinating about this list is how similar many of the titles are. There are multiple How to... titles, which always makes for a snappy-sounding book. We've got The UnAmericans and The Book of Unknown Americans, speaking perhaps to larger cultural fear or guilt? Titles with "girl" or "woman" in the title were everywhere this year, and not just on this list. I also noticed fewer snappy one-word titles and more long, vaguer titles without particularly colorful words in them; e.g., Nobody is Ever Missing, Everything I Never Told You, or books not included on this list like To Rise Again at a Decent Hour or We Are Not Ourselves.
From dead daughters to depressed waitresses, from an Ethiopian boy in the Midwest to a sad American woman in New Zealand, these books (listed in no particular order!) raked in some of the year's best prizes, moved more than one reader to tears, scared us, haunted us, and took us — like all good fiction does — somewhere we never would have reached on our own.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Coffee House)
This debut novel snagged the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, and it pairs a nontraditional, fractured form (no character names, dialogue sans quotation marks all mixed up in the same paragraph) with a raw examination of teenage girlhood's painful interiors. Sure, there are noticeable echoes of Joyce, but it's also an utterly unique animal.
Quote: “I picked up sticks out of my hair. Dirt up off my tongue. I felt the loving smears go in. The loving blood. I felt water rushing in my brain. I dead the heart. I am for you alone.”
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney's)
In the great pantheon of Hard Life Questions, here's one of the hardest: Should a person get to decide when they die? Toews tackles the question head-on in this novel, which swirls around the life of a woman who badly wants to die and the sister who doesn't want her to go. As in the best dark writing, a vein of humor runs alongside the plot, providing a much-needed spark of tragicomic contrast.
Quote: “Sadness is what holds our bones in place.”
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (Knopf)
This novel weaves together two narrative voices — that of an Ethiopian boy living in the Midwest and that of the white social worker assigned to him. The nameless male narrator had thirteen names on the African continent; now, by choice, he has none. As the male narrator becomes lovers with his social worker and makes a strange new friend, Mengestu uses a hazy sense of time and identity to contrast with emotions and dangers that are painfully real.
Quote: “I had lost too much of the heart and all the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore.”
Bark by Lorrie Moore (Knopf)
Saying Lorrie Moore knows how to write is like saying Beyoncé knows how to be queen of the world. Moore is a truly killer writer, the clever mistress of short-form fiction whose work always manages to pair dark humor with quirky sorrow until readers' heads are spinning. She haunts us, but we laugh during the haunting. It's been sixteen years since Moore last released a short story collection, and this slim book is worth the wait.
Quote: “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: to choose the best unhappiness. An unwise move, good God, you could squander everything.”
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster)
Women have long been shut out of the art world, and in this novel, one female artist fights back by having her work shown under powerful male names. But one of the men betrays her. The novel is written as a collection of texts; it's an intimate, provocative, puzzling exploration of the New York art scene and the ways that gender and masks are inexorably intertwined.
Quote: “Emotionally charged objects stay alive in memory.”
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House)
This ambitious novel — long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize — can only be described as Mitchell-esque. Like his other mega-opus, Cloud Atlas, this is a book in six interconnected sections that can't and won't stop for breath. Most reviewers seemed to agree that the novel was a little much, but that didn't stop anyone from praising its genius. Ain't no doubt about it — the man can write, and write, and write.
Quote: “There's a link between bigotry and bad spelling.”
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez (Knopf)
A family comes to America from Mexico, dreaming of a better life. It's a beginning we've heard before, but the story blooms and deepens, becoming an immigration narrative that transcends the predictable. The American building that houses the family is full of other immigrants, all with their particular American dreams, and their voices come together in gorgeous, self-possessed prose.
Quote: “Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.”
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)
This novel is a slippery version of the Snow White fairytale, one that explores not just beauty and rivalry but race, too. Oyeyemi wanted to “loosen the walls and try to figure out a new way to tell the story of the wicked queen"; here, her wicked queen is an African-American girl named Boy who can “pass” for white but whose darker-skinned daughter cannot. It's a fraught and intriguing treatment of a fairy tale that's all about beauty as embodied in “skin as white as snow.”
Quote: “For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.”
Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lydia Davis is often called a “writer's writer's writer,” and the designation would be obnoxious if she weren't so weird and funny and inexplicable and, well, writer-y. Her latest collection is not designed for the lover of sweeping narrative prose or for anyone craving neat character arcs and tidy endings. These very brief pieces will intrigue those obsessed with quirk and close observation — in short, writers.
Quote: “Sometimes I did exactly what I wanted to do all day — I lay on the sofa and read a book, or I typed up an old diary — and then the most terrifying sort of despair would descend on me: the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.”
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Knopf)
This is a book about a woman who tries to be both a mother and an artist. This particular struggle has an age-old sadness attached to it, but Offill's prose is shimmering, poetic, and very raw, and the story will pull your heart out. For all its formal experimentation and vagueries about names, the novel is extremely readable and incredibly moving.
Quote: "Three things no one has ever said about me:
You make it look so easy.
You are very mysterious.
You need to take yourself more seriously."
Euphoria by Lily King (Atlantic)
A love triangle between anthropologists?! Tell me more. This novel scooped up the Kirkus Prize for Fiction as well as the New England Book Award for Fiction, and follows three Western anthropologists who are studying the people of New Guinea, squelching their feelings for each other, reveling in discovery and ambition, and bitten by jealousy.
Quote: “What I’d become more interested in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilization, right and wrong.”
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Penguin)
This debut novel about a Chinese-American family whose oldest daughter has drowned topped Amazon's 100 Best Books of 2014. It's a story about family pressures and racial tensions where every thread points indirectly at the murder. It's not a murder-mystery-thriller, but it's something that's almost more compelling: a slow, secret-filled tragedy.
Quote: “But she’d felt as if she’d found a locked door in a familiar room: Lydia, still small enough to cradle, had secrets. Marilyn might feed her and bathe her and coax her legs into pajama pants, but already parts of her life were curtained off.”
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Pantheon)
This novel about the art world, short-listed for the Booker prize, is simultaneously warm and experimental. The novel was printed in two different batches — half begin with the story of a 16-year-old girl named George, while the other half begin with the story of a 15th-century painter named Francescho del Cossa — so a reader's experience of it is partially dependent on chance. Both characters initially appear to be male, but turn out to be women, and the themes — loss, grief, eyes, gender, disguise — bind the narratives together in surprising ways.
Quote: “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.”
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (Harper)
A girl trying to build herself an alter ego is always a fascinating subject. Moran's heroine chooses to mold her “new” identity after Dolly, Oscar Wilde's niece — and discovers, as most girls discover, that turning into someone else is a lot harder than it looks. This is a semiautographical novel about growing up poor, being overweight, bad sex, and teenage reinvention, and it's dirty and hilarious and blustering and bittersweet.
Quote: “What you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and coordinates, to tell you where you’re going.”
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus (Knopf)
The short stories in this book are perhaps best consumed one at a time, like some powerful vitamin, so that their effects can seep individually into your bones. These stories move between genres, from realism to weirder stuff, but the real star here is the language, which is daring, associative, tender, and honest.
Quote: “When men cough or talk into their own hands, they are praying to their own bones, hoping to change their minds about something.”
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
With Lila, Marilynne Robinson completes the subtle, heartbreaking trilogy she began with 2004's Gilead. Lila has been a mysterious character throughout the trilogy, and now that we finally get her story, it's sadder — but also more full of grace — than we could have imagined. Robinson is such a masterful writer that to write about her books feels like a travesty. Let's just say this one is beautiful.
Quote: “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself within us.”
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce (Doubleday)
This is one of the more under-the-radar novels on this list, if a novel about a disassociated waitress trying to numb herself with all sorts of painful life choices set in the brutal, fast-paced, drug-filled arena of a high-end Texas steakhouse can really be called “under the radar.” It's a debut that crackles and hurts.
Quote: “In the mirror, I had no iris. I was all hole, falling in.”
Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
If the heroine of this novel isn't actually missing, she's certainly flirting with the idea. She flies off to New Zealand, intending to find the farm of a poet, and floats along on a wave of ennui, feeling like she's a “human non sequitur” and masking her dangerous choices with vulnerability. This is a novel that focuses almost painfully on female interiority and living with the terrifying oddities of your own brain.
Quote: “I loved the he that he was to me. I loved him and he is dead and I want a black moment for that man. Give me a black moment for that.”
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead)
Lee is a writer with massive range, and this is the first time he's wandered over to the dystopian section of the bookstore. In the futuristic world of this novel, what's shocking is that the main character chooses to leave her fairly pleasant, perfume-scented life for the unknown wilds of uninhabited America. As in many dystopians, she discovers...things. The writing is elegant and soothingly — discomfortingly? — poetic.
Quote: “For sometimes you can't help but crave some ruin in what you love.”
Redeployment by Phil Klay
War is a messy subject, and it's easier for those back home to simply turn away. In this short story collection, which won the National Book Award for Fiction, Klay — a former U.S. Marine — makes us remember Iraq. His soldier-characters are heartbreakingly ambivalent about the whole mess, and the collection explores one of the saddest ironies of war: The fact that your country, the one you're fighting for, will never really understand you when you return home.
Quote: "We shot dogs. Not by accident."
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
A troupe of actors at the end of the world? Now there's a story. Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel, a finalist for the National Book Award, weaves together multiple threads to explore our wasteland of a future. The book also functions as, in Mandel's words, “a love letter to the world we find ourselves in."
Quote: “First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (Europa)
This is the third book in the Neapolitan series by the mysterious Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym. The books follow a lifelong friendship between beautiful, brave Lila and and Elena, who always worried that her friend would become someone before her. Now, what Lila has become is an unhappy adult, while Elena is what she always wanted to be: a novelist. Still, she's unhappy. Her hometown rejects her work. And her brilliant friend has gone missing...
Quote: “My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (W. W. Norton)
Antopol snagged a spot on the National Book Award longlist for this fantastic collection, which delves into the ways in which people from all over are shaped by both personal and public history. This is the fifth short story collection on our list, proving that people — American and un- — are still interested in stories that can be consumed in one sitting.
Quote: "I don't understand you. All your life you've been like this, pulling someone into a corner at every party, asking so many questions it's no wonder you've always had a difficult time making friends."
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove)
This novel's title stings, and the eponymous woman inside is just as sad: 72-year-old Aaliya lives alone in Beirut, without children or husband or father. She's odd, she's aging, she's brilliant, and she's dealing with it all by herself. The book, a finalist for the National Book Award, rides the waves of its protagonist's brilliant mind — though not much happens in the exterior plot, the interior is rich, bookish, and sad.
Quote: "Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Grove Atlantic)
Gay's debut novel is a fairy tale that opens with a kidnapping. Mireille, the daughter of a Haitian construction magnate, is plucked from her family in broad daylight, and endures brutality after brutality as the negotiations between her kidnappers and her father stretch on. After her release, she flees Haiti to take a traumatized road-trip through the U.S. in an attempt to find some sort of safety again. Gay chose to give the novel a happy-ish ending, reminding us both how much fairy tales contribute to our personal histories, and how much they gloss over.
Quote: "They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself."