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Joanna Cannon on the Best Fiction of 2017

Posted on 8th December 2017 by Martha Greengrass

2017’s been a glorious year for fiction. So much so, that trying to narrow any list down to just a few titles is a dauntingly Herculean task. Thankfully Joanna Cannon, the author of one of our favourite recent novels, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is up for a challenge. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, she offers a selection of the fiction she’s been unable to put down this year.

From sparkling debuts to new words from much-loved authors, 2017 has been an especially rich year for fiction, and choosing my favourite titles has not been the easiest of tasks. However, here are just a few of my best reads over the past twelve months.

I have always loved Sarah Winman’s writing, and I can remember reading When God Was a Rabbit in just a few hours. Tin Man, however, is possibly my favourite of all her novels, and I can imagine listing it on my best novels of all time, not just this year. This is a story of love and relationships, but mainly it’s a story of hope, and stitched into that hope is a print of a Van Gogh painting, and a man who works at a car plant – a tin man. The writing is so clean and clever, and so desperately moving, it will pull the rug from under you at the unlikeliest of moments. When I’ve finished reading a book, I generally return it to the shelf, but Tin Man still sits by my bed, months later, because I can’t bear to let the characters go. 

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The unforgettable and achingly tender new novel from Sarah Winman, author of the international bestseller When God Was A Rabbit and the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller, A Year of Marvellous Ways.

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That sense of attachment is the sign of a truly outstanding novel, and I felt the same way about Turtle, the fourteen year-old girl in Gabriel Tallent’s debut My Absolute Darling. This is a true folie à deux. A shocking, raw, hypnotic story about a father and a daughter. A father written with such pin point accuracy, he will step from the page the minute you begin reading. I have always thought ‘you’d never think this was a debut’ to be a bit of a strange compliment, but truly – the writing in My Absolute Darling is so assured and so convincing, it’s difficult not to resort to saying it. This is a storyline which is, at times, extremely difficult to bear – as it should be - but one written with such control and such elegance, you are bound to the narrative until its incredible ending. 

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Growing up in Mendocino, in the wilderness of the northern California coast, 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her father live a life honed by survival, brutality and sadistic love. As Turtle’s reaches out to a life beyond, their fragile existence is blown apart. My Absolute Darling is is a tour-de-force debut that leaves echoes indelibly imprinted on the imagination.
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Another debut that stopped me in my tracks this year was Sam Guglani’s Histories. This is a novel of linked stories, set in a hospital, and we see the world from different viewpoints: a nurse, a porter, a chaplain, a consultant, all over the period of a week. People very often ask what working in a hospital is like. It’s like this. It’s exactly like this. The writing is so accurate, in the opening chapter where a consultant sits in an empty clinic room, it felt as though someone had handed me a photograph. It did not surprise me at all to learn that Sam Guglani is also a poet. The prose is so beautiful, there were times I had to stop reading just to catch my breath. 

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Olive Kitteridge meets Do No Harm in this revealing and intimate interlinked collection of stories set in a hospital, written by a doctor
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From new voices, to a voice I always turn to if I need to escape for a while. Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time is a wonderful story of a man who never grows old. He has been alive for centuries and, of course, he works as a history teacher. Could that set up be any more perfect? Many times I have recommended Matt Haig’s words to patients, and this is no exception. His books are always beautifully crafted stories, but underneath those stories is a mindfulness and a wisdom you rarely find in fiction. Matt Haig has a way of looking at life which will make you stop and think, and by the time you reach the last page, you will understand the world just that little bit better and feel a little more comfortable being in it. 

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He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. It’s a life he once had, long-since buried but buried secrets have a habit of catching up with you and nobody can outrun their own past.
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Lastly, there is a book that always made me justify reading one more chapter, even though it was two o’clock in the morning. Kate Murray-Browne’s The Upstairs Room has all the ingredients for a perfect thriller. An eerie Victorian house, writing appearing and disappearing on walls, a vanishing child – and knowing all that, it’s one of the few times I’ve begged for an advance copy from the publisher, because I couldn’t wait for it to come out. The story is so immersive, so addictive, it’s the kind of book you continue to read as you are eating, walking around the house, and pretending to hold conversations with other people on the telephone. 

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Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill.
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I think that’s reading at its very best – when an author allows you to escape into someone else’s life and holds you there just with the power of their words. When, because of those words, you become so deeply involved in someone else’s life, you don’t feel you are able to leave. 

Each of these books has given me the joy of that experience in 2017, and I can’t wait to do it all over again next year.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon will publish on 11th January 2018 (Borough Press)

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