Jonny Diamond, editor of LitHub lists The Sympathizer as one of Literary Hub‘s best novel of the decade.
Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.
So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels, the best short story collections, the best poetry collections, the best memoirs, the best essay collections, the best (other) nonfiction, and the best translated novels of the decade. We have now reached the eighth and most difficult list in our series: the very best novels written and published in English between 2010 and 2019.
You may be shocked to learn that we had a hard time deciding on 10. So, being captains of our own destiny, we decided we were allowed to pick 20 . . . plus almost that many dissents. We did not allow reissues, otherwise you had better believe this list would include The Last Samurai, Speedboat, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, among a robust host of others. We also, for this list, discounted novels in translation, as they got their very own list last week, and including them would have necessitated a list twice as long. (My beloved Sweet Days of Discipline, certainly in the top ten novels I personally read this decade, is doubly ineligible, but luckily I also write these introductions.)
Now, for the last time: the following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.
As a novel, The Sympathizer is a roiling, darkly comic, propulsive literary thriller set in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, as a North Vietnamese mole keeps watch on the exiled South Vietnamese government in Southern California—it is compulsive reading, arresting in its language, unforgettable in its imagery. But it is more than that. By simply writing the words “Vietnam War” I am able to conjure an entire American mythology, the 40-year cultural byproduct of so much not-quite propaganda/not-quite art: long-haired protesters in the streets, Rustbelt grunts wading through steaming jungles, a flock of juddering choppers against an enormous foreign sun, broken men returning to a country that does not want them… This is the “American” version of the war, a story we’ve told “ourselves” that, while not particularly flattering, is as narrow and myopic as any campfire epic.
So let’s try this: The Sympathizer is an American novel about an American War, a devastating and needless conflict that created hundreds of thousands of refugees, new Americans (we were all new here, at some point) who found a home in the empire that displaced them, and who’ve made it better. Our cultural account of the American war in Vietnam has never been fully “ours” because it has neglected and actively excluded the perspectives of these refugees and their descendants. The Sympathizer is a vital work of art that begins to redress that imbalance. –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief
Read about the other best novels picks here.