Escapism, comfort-seeking and cautionary tales—what do 2017's bestselling lists tell us about the year we've had?
Most will be grateful to see the back of 2017; 12 months of political shake-ups, sordid revelations, rapid digitalisation and deep uncertainty. How did we survive? The answer could well lie with the bestselling books of the year.
Denial. For some of us, this year was best spent immersed in a fictional world as reality crashed around our ears. Favourite authors caught us as we fell: whether it was running alongside Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s sci-fi thriller Origin, or slipping between the sheets with Christian Grey in E L James’ Darker. But how long could we expect to hide out?
George Saunders stole the show for fiction, snapping up the 2017 Man Booker Prize with his long-awaited debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Set in 1862, the book was inspired by the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, and the days after in which the grief-stricken former president mourned over the 11-year-old in his crypt. It is here that Lincoln’s actions are mused over by a series of babbling spirits stuck in limbo between this world and the next.
But despite being a partial work of fantasy, Saunders scored the most praise for his portrayal of Lincoln; a man dutifully soldiering on under the weight of his emotional pain. The unique storytelling aside (the spirits do the majority of the narration), the book is a poignant study of loss and resilience. While readers were transported away from the present, it was perhaps the ability to take comfort in Lincoln’s relatable character that made it a fan favourite.
Saunders was not alone in delivering fiction disconnected from current affairs but with genuine sentiment at its heart. In Turtles All the Way Down, John Green explored the mental health of a teenage girl, while Rachel Khong’s debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin received rave reviews for a story centred around Alzheimer’s. Written in diary form, the book follows 30-year-old Ruth as she moves in with her parents after her father’s diagnosis of the disease. There, she must deal with his increasingly erratic and childish behaviour, as well as her own recent painful break-up. But the real power of the novel lies within its simplistic honesty.
Khong perfectly encapsulates all that comes with caring for someone suffering from dementia; from the heart-breaking and painful, to the sometimes ridiculous, hilarious, touching and bittersweet. For readers who have experienced the obscure role reversal feeling of looking after a parent, the book is a testament to coping mechanisms and strength in familial love. As some might say: If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
But 2017 has also been about breaking taboos and raising voices to fight causes such as climate change, inequality and extremism—and sometimes art cannot help but imitate the world around us. For many this year, books have been a way of tackling the problems we see head-on.
In January, the year started with a global Women’s March—and now it ends with Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls topping bestseller lists. Hilary Clinton’s What Happened is still a favourite to pick, while Mary Beard’s Women & Power comes in at number four on Waterstones nonfiction chart. It would appear that when a nation stands up to sexism, our bookshelves will inevitably follow suit.
"With Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale making headlines again, no one can say we haven’t been warned about tomorrow"
Similarly, Rupi Kaur’s frank and feminist poetry collection Milk and Honey has continued to dominate charts; despite being published three years prior. This year, the 25-year-old Canadian made bestsellers lists twice, with the release of her second book The Sun and Her Flowers. Divided into five chapters and illustrated by herself, Kaur has continued to be an audacious and brave voice for her generation. Her poems hold a mirror to modern culture, reflecting on topics such as self-hate, body-image, immigration, motherhood and unrequited love—and often in very few words.
Yet while instructional and thought-provoking books proved popular this year, so have cautionary tales. Bestseller Startup by Doree Shafrir poked fun at the looming shadow of the ever increasing digital age. But far from technology being the biggest villain, 2017 has supplied plenty of earth crumbling dystopian novels to keep you up at night; such as The End We Start From.
Megan Hunter’s book describes an eerily realistic environmental crisis in which water levels are quickly rising, leaving London already submerged and thousands of people displaced. A young woman and her newborn baby move from camp to camp as food supplies begin to dwindle and society completely breaks down. Coupled with the ever-popular Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale making headlines again, no one can s ay we haven’t been warned about tomorrow.
As December ends, we will once again turn hopefully to a new year. But at least we can be confident that there’ll always be a good book to help us get through whatever 2018 brings.