The best fiction of 2023
The book that I have recommended the most this year, which has received the most enthusiastic feedback, is Paul Murray’s Booker-shortlisted tragicomedy, The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton). This novel, spanning 656 pages, follows an Irish family’s struggles through the perspectives of four different characters. It combines hilarious moments with sharp irony, unexpected revelations, and a deep sense of generational sadness. It offers the immersive experience that only a lengthy family saga can provide. Although it did not win the award, it was beaten by Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, a gripping depiction of a totalitarian Ireland with a timely message about the growing threat of political violence in the world.
Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Booker prize, returned to fiction with much anticipation. In her novel Birnam Wood (Granta), she depicts a group of idealistic guerrilla gardeners in New Zealand who face off against a ruthless billionaire. This gripping thriller addresses the urgent issue of climate change, while also exploring themes of apocalyptic thinking and political ideology. Zadie Smith also ventured into new territory with her first historical novel, The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton). Set in 19th-century literary London, the novel offers a humorous portrayal of the time period and centers around a real-life trial that sparked intense debates about class and identity. The story also weaves in harrowing accounts from a slave plantation, expertly connecting Jamaican and British history. It serves as a thought-provoking commentary on our current era of globalization and hypocrisy. Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American author, delves into the horrors of colonialism in his novel Tremor (Faber). Through the use of autofiction, he presents a subtle and timely exploration of how our understanding of art, value, and trauma is shaped by historical knowledge.
Sebastian Barry’s novel, Old God’s Time, explores the lingering effects of trauma in a retired Irish policeman’s life. His calm existence is disrupted by past experiences of abuse within the Catholic church. The novel is a raw and emotional portrayal of familial love and grief. Other standout works from Irish authors include Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor, a tense and darkly humorous account of early motherhood, and Anne Enright’s The Wren, the Wren, which delves into the complexities of mother-daughter relationships and the impact of a patriarchal past. This may be Enright’s finest work to date.
Deborah Levy explores the fundamental bonds of family and the shaping of one’s identity in her novel August Blue (published by Hamish Hamilton). The story follows a world-traveling concert pianist whose subconscious is beginning to catch up with her. Benjamin Myers’ award-winning work Cuddy (published by Bloomsbury) showcases formal ambition, taking readers on a visionary journey through a millennium of English history. Through a combination of poetry, prose, playscript, and pastiche, the novel tells the tale of St Cuthbert, the construction of Durham Cathedral, and the present-day northern landscape. Justin Torres’ Blackouts (published by Granta) won the National Book Award in the US for its dreamlike and innovative approach. Through the use of historical texts, images, and absence, Torres constructs a shadow history of queer desire and erasure. Kate Briggs’ debut fiction The Long Form (published by Fitzcarraldo) is a quietly groundbreaking take on the domestic novel. The story follows a woman and her baby as they spend their day reading, thinking, feeding, and napping. It is full of thought-provoking ideas about time, literature, care, and how we navigate our daily lives.
Notable debuts to note are Jacqueline Crooks’s captivating exploration of the dub reggae scene in Fire Rush (Cape), which follows a young Black woman’s encounters with music, danger, and racist policing during the 1980s. Cecile Pin’s Wandering Souls (4th Estate) tells the moving story of young Vietnamese refugees in Thatcher’s Britain with an abundance of heart and delicacy. Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane (Picador) is a concise tale of a girl who turns to squash after her mother’s passing, quietly blossoming through the pauses between words and characters – a lesson in restraint. Victoria MacKenzie’s For Thy Great Pain HaveMercy on My Little Pain (Bloomsbury) is another small wonder, tenderly revealing the inner thoughts of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.
The first two books were influenced by the crime genre: Kala, written by Colin Walsh and published by Atlantic, tells the story of a close friendship between teenagers that eventually fades as they become adults in a small town in Ireland. It is a gripping read that can be compared to the works of Tana French. No One Dies Yet, written by Kobby Ben Ben and published by Europa, follows three gay Americans as they search for their family roots in Ghana, while also dealing with a series of murders. This book cleverly explores themes of history, diaspora, and the exploitation of African voices.
Some noteworthy short stories to keep an eye out for are Camilla Grudova’s strange and captivating vignettes in The Coiled Serpent published by Atlantic, Laura Jean McKay’s thought-provoking speculations in Gunflower published by Scribe, and another impressive collection from Tessa Hadley titled After the Funeral published by Cape which delves into moments of psychological transformation with thrilling results. Additionally, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene’s Innards, published by Atlantic, powerfully uncovers the destructive impact of apartheid on Soweto and its aftermath.
The past year saw an abundance of diverse historical novels. AK Blakemore’s second book, The Glutton (Granta), builds upon the success of The Manningtree Witches. It weaves a fantastical tale from the history of revolutionary France, centering around a man with an insatiable appetite for everything from buttons to babies. The novel is a captivating journey through social upheaval and individual desires. Blakemore’s love for language is evident in the book, showcasing its limitless potential. Meanwhile, Lauren Groff’s The Vaster Wilds (Hutchinson Heinemann) follows the story of a young English servant who flees a plague-ridden American colony. It is both a gripping survival tale and a thought-provoking allegory for the future centuries to come.
Two energetic and hugely enjoyable books shook up the historical novel. Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz (Faber) portrays a noirish murder investigation in an alternative 1920s America, in which Native Americans play equal part; and The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman (Bloomsbury) is a gleeful romp through the playhouses and back alleys of a twisted version of Elizabethan London.
Salman Rushdie tells a fantastical story set in medieval India in his novel Victory City (Cape). This is his first work of fiction to be released since the 2022 attack against him. Meanwhile, Tom Crewe’s The New Life (Chatto) delves into the lives of pioneering gay individuals in 1890s London, with a strong focus on the physical as well as mental aspects. Additionally, Adam Mars-Jones intricately brings 1970s England back to life in the newest addition to his clever and compassionate series about one man’s journey and musings, Caret (Faber).
Diana Evans’s novel A House for Alice (Chatto) centers on modern-day Britain and its struggles, particularly through the lens of one woman’s longing to return to her native Nigeria. The Grenfell tragedy serves as a powerful backdrop to the story. Eliza Clark’s Penance (Faber) delves into the murder of a teenager by her peers and the disturbing world of online communities and true-crime enthusiasts in the midst of Brexit Britain. It cleverly examines how the search for a sense of identity can be manipulated and perverted into something dangerous.
Sandra Newman’s novel, Julia (Granta), serves as a companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four and reimagines a dystopian future in England that has since become a thing of the past. By retelling Orwell’s story from a female point of view, Newman delves deeper into the workings and consequences of totalitarianism in a clever and thought-provoking novel that adds complexity to the original.
In 1973, Dinah Brooke (Daunt) wrote Lord Jim at Home, a must-read rediscovery that critiques the dysfunctional dynamics of the English upper class. Through precise writing and dark humor, it exposes the worst aspects of human behavior. However, for those looking for a lighter holiday read, Samantha Harvey’s Orbital (Cape) is a great choice. The story follows six astronauts orbiting the Earth and beautifully captures the awe and vulnerability of our planet and its people. It is an inspiring book in every way.