My favourite books and films of 2016

List season is upon is. I took part in the Sight & Sound best films of 2016 poll and chose my favourite book of the year for Review 31.

Here are the films I voted for:

  1. I, Daniel Blake (2016) directed by Ken Loach
  2. Lemonade (2016) directed by Beyoncé Knowles Carter & Kahlil Joseph with Jonas Åkerlund, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Tod Tourso
  3. The Hard Stop (2015) directed by George Amponsah
  4. Vertigo Sea (2015) directed by John Akomfrah
  5. American Honey (2016) directed by Andrea Arnold

You can see the results of the poll here.

I chose Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien as my favourite book of 2016. Here’s why:

While reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing I learned that in China, last year is described as being ‘the year above’ and next year ‘the year below’; the day before yesterday is the day ‘in front’ and the day after yesterday is the day ‘behind’. As the novel’s narrator, Marie, explains: ‘This means that future generations are not the generations ahead, but the ones behind. Therefore, to look into the future one must turn around…’

Marie, a Chinese-Canadian mathematician, cannot face the future until she uncovers her family’s past. Over the course of the book, she attempts to piece together the fragmented, interconnected stories of her relatives and her missing friend, Ai-ming, an exile from Beijing. Gradually, the lives of three gifted musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory during the 1960s emerge, and Thien manages to give shape, in words, to the emotions classical music allows them to explore. This novel is as much about creative expression as it is about repression. Though it spans the epochal periods before, during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests, ‘historical’ would be an inadequate way to describe this book. The narrative travels up and down the decades like notes in a bar of music. Then and now are interspersed, reflecting the ‘bent and elastic and repeated’ nature of time.

Thien’s previous novel, 2012’s Dogs at the Perimeter, was a haunting account of the Cambodian genocide; she does not shy away from attempting to put the unsayable down on paper, from telling the stories of people who were silenced. A truly ambitious novelist, she writes about the full spectrum of human experience with extraordinary skill and sensitivity. I’ve chosen Do Not Say We Have Nothing as my favourite work of fiction from 2016, because I know it will stay with me long after this year is over.

You can read other critics’ choices here.

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