This year a study came out that demonstrated that after reading literary fiction, people scored better on tests measuring empathy. With that in mind, I present you five of my favorite novels and memoirs from 2013. All of them pack an emotional wallop with characters that will linger with you, long after you finish their stories. After a year filled with impasses and increasing polarity, it wouldn’t hurt to see things from another point of view!
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze separate when Ifemelu goes to university in the United States leaving Obinze behind in Nigeria. Stymied by post-9/11 immigration policies, he is unable to join her, and instead journeys to England to live illegally. Reunited years later, the pair must decide whether to begin anew or to return to their current life trajectories. Adichie’s keen observations and precise wit put her in the tradition of Jane Austen’s social and romantic explorations.
The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman
A year after Yehoshuah’s crucifixion, Roman-occupied Judea is in a state of unrest. Four people, Miryam, Iehuda, Caiaphas and Bar-Avo, try to make sense of the past as well as present life under their Roman oppressors. Alderman’s provocative retelling of the life of Christ is filled with vibrant descriptions of temple rites, riots, and assassinations, which bring immediacy to its ancient setting. Throughout the book, both Alderman and her characters wrestle with who Yehoshuah really was; the Messiah, or a roving preacher from a backwater town.
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
Reno leaves the deserts of her hometown to join the New York art world in 1975. There she meets Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle and tire company along with other bohemian characters in his creative sphere. She begins to develop her art and on the way races high speed vehicles to become the fastest woman in the world. After a crushing betrayal, Reno joins a radical group in Italy. Kushner’s writing is a delight, deft and sharp and surprising; she describes Pat Nixon as “a ratted beauty-parlor tough who became first lady.” She layers stories upon stories to create a rich buffet of a book that you won’t be able to put down.
With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta’s memoir of growing up in working class Massachusetts with her mother Kathi is both incredibly vivid and unsettling. As a reader I couldn’t turn away from her path of destruction, beginning with the opening pages as Kathi takes a crowbar to her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s car. Kathi, whose life is a cascading series of high highs and low lows, is one of the most compelling characters to appear in a book this year. Loud, reckless, and chaotic, Kathi is the human equivalent of a V-2 rocket and Ruta neither glamorizes nor demonizes her difficult upbringing.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
After losing four close friends and a brother over four years, Jesmyn Ward tries to make sense of their premature deaths in this devastating memoir. Ward’s narrative moves back and forth in time as she explores life in her rural Mississippi community and the ways that the men in her life try to escape the snares of poverty, racism, and plain bad luck. She writes to bring these men back from the dead and to draw our eyes to lives we would otherwise ignore. As she says, “There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”