Favorite literary fiction of 2016

Continuing my posts of favorite books of the year… up next I decided to talk about literary fiction.

One of the main genres I tend toward is literary fiction, and that has been since my undergrad English lit major days. It’s more of a time investment for various reasons, but the perfect mix of character and prose can be so rewarding. Here are my favorite literary fiction books that I read in 2016 (also they all came out this year, but that was a coincidence). Five of the seven were either nominated for or won a literary prize this year.


  • The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney (Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). I’ve already written a review of this book since I received it as an ARC. I’ve never seen in it a bookstore in my area, which makes me think it hasn’t been that popular in the States, but I really think that should change.
  • Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler (iBooks Best of 2016). I suppose this one could be considered contemporary, but I’m going to call it literary fiction because of the writing style (which I have heard called pretentious, but I enjoyed), and the focus was clearly character over plot. Criticism of this book has called it “just chick-lit”, which really pisses me off. Just because the main character is a woman and this book is clearly invested in her experiences, it’s dismissed as chick-lit? Granted, this criticism came from randos on the internet, but regardless I think this book is either a love it or hate it deal. In this novel, the main character, Tess, moves to NYC to leave behind a small-town life. She gets a job in an upscale, foodie restaurant, falls for a hot-but-damaged bartender, and makes a whole lot of horrible life choices. It was a bit like watching a train wreck, but one where you nod and say “ah, yes… this is going to go poorly for everyone involved, but I understand you 100% and I kinda wish I didn’t.” There are no life lessons in this book, just painful trial and error. This gif (from here) sums it up nicely:


  • The Vegetarian, Han Kang. (Man Booker International Prize, New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016) I was really torn on this one initially and never gave it a rating on Goodreads, but I think that I really liked it. That’s the thing about literary fiction – oftentimes I don’t exactly enjoy myself, but I appreciate the experience. This isn’t so much about vegetarianism as it is about control of bodies based on social and cultural expectations. People react horribly to the main character’s decision to stop eating meat (and then to stop eating almost entirely) and treat her in despicable ways. It’s quite disturbing.
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien. (Man Booker Prize shortlist) This novel follows music students and their teachers during cultural and political revolution in China. I wish I had known more about these events and/or looked up more info as I was reading. It was really beautifully written and, much like wishing I had taken time to learn more as I was reading, I wish I had taken my time to appreciate this book. I was reading it during a read-a-thon, which is often quantity over quality.
    • (A) favorite quote: “Sometimes, I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words. Maybe the words are withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge. Maybe there are knife-edged words waiting to draw blood.”
  • The Wonder, Emma Donoghue. I had never read anything by Donoghue before, but I think I’ll find more after reading this. The Wonder is about a young girl in a remote Irish town who has reportedly not eaten for a few months. Two nurses are hired to watch over the girl night and day in order to provide evidence that the girl is in fact a miracle. Lib is one of the nurses, a skeptic; she is determined to catch the girl and doesn’t trust the other nurse to do it because she is also a nun (religious, therefore invested in the girl being evidence of a miracle).
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill. This book was originally mentioned by someone who commented on one of my posts earlier this fall and while I don’t remember who, I appreciate it! This book was surprisingly funny. It begins with a woman who has attacked a controversial political figure. Her son, an English professor, is contacted by a publisher to write a book maligning her. He agrees, because he hasn’t seen her since he was around 10-11, when she left him and his father unexpectedly. Through his research about her life, he uncovers her involvement in a political protest in the 1960s and her arrest for prostitution at the same time – neither of which are what they seem.
  • The North Water, Ian McGuire. (Man Booker Prize longlist, New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016) I was rooting for this book to do better on the Man Booker list than it did, but it just made New York Times’ list of the top ten books of the year, so it still got a bit more recognition. This novel begins with a doctor who takes a job aboard a whaler. Intense conditions, of course: cold, hunger, disease, danger, etc. However, there is another problem onboard, which is that one of the crew members is completely effed up. I almost stopped reading this book within the first 50 pages because it was brutal. This book (along with The Vegetarian) has been placed on my “trigger warning” list on Goodreads because of pedophilia and rape. But! I still liked it. Remember that thing, where I said sometimes literary fiction is easier to appreciate than enjoy? Applies here, too.

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