THE BEST NOVELS OF LAST YEAR
THAT I SHALL READ THIS YEAR
promises Norman Warwick
When Albert Camus once said that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’, with these eight words he perfectly encapsulated the immense power of the novel. The best fiction teaches us history that we were never taught at school, sees us make new footsteps on new islands, breaks, and mends, our heart – sometimes in the same chapter. It lets us breathe in a past era, step into fantasy worlds and even offers glimpses into dystopian futures, and fainter glimpses perhaps into a utopian heaven. As 2023 marks another exciting year of new books, I realise what I have missed by reading some excellent reviews that intrigue and entice. There is plenty of last year´s reading to catch up on.
Though it’s been another banger of a year in genre fiction—-and, yes, Rebecca Yarros’s fantasy juggernaut Fourth Wing is on more than one of the Best Of lists this year—don’t count the good old-fashioned novel out just yet.
Because 2023 has produced some truly excellent works of fiction, from Gothic fairy tales and pandemic reflections to uncomfortable explorations of institutions like publishing, the prison system, and Big Tech. Stories that run the gamut from historical fiction to horror, with a little something for everyone in between.
Here are our picks for the best fiction novels of 2023.
Day by Michael Cunningham
The first novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham (right) in nearly a decade (since 2014’s The Snow Queen), Day is a quiet, introspective pandemic story that never actually says the word pandemic at all. The novel never puts a name to the terror creeping through our days in 2020 nor does it attempt to explain the origins of the event that rearranged our lives so thoroughly in the year that followed. But we know, and in that, we bear witness.
As its title implies, the events of Day take place on the fifth day of April across three different years: 2019, in the world we still remember as normal; 2020, in the early months of lockdown; and finally 2021, when the arrival of vaccines convinced many the worst had passed. Set the liminal space of the transition from one kind of world to another, the novel wrestles with traumas both physical and literal. Who we are is no longer who we were, afterward, is it? It couldn’t possibly be, not when we’ve wrestled with death and loss and become people who’ve survived the unimaginable. How do we know when we’ve outgrown who we were? Or recalibrate our idea of who we should become, now that we know time is perhaps more finite than we once thought? If you’ve read Cunningham before, you know that he’s not interested in presenting easy answers to any of those questions, but rather exploring why we’re asking them in the first place.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
The latest novel from Babel author R.F. Kuang, Yellowface is additive, shocking, compelling, ridiculous, and extremely fun to read by turns. (You’ll finish it in a single sitting. Two, tops.)
The story of a struggling white author who steals an unfinished manuscript from a deceased Chinese-American classmate from Yale and passes it off as her own, rebranding and remaking her image to sound more culturally interesting in the process, the book with hot-button topics in publishing surrounding race, classism, white privilege, and tokenism. Its unlikeable lead characters will not only leave you wondering who—if anyone—we’re meant to be rooting for, but how potentially complicit we are in upholding publishing’s worse tendencies by reading a book called Yellowface in the first place. What I’m saying is, this book is a whole lot, and whether or not it is a book for you is probably going to have to be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, but it’s absolutely worth all the hype that has surrounded it since its release this past spring
Loot by Tania James
Full of timely reflections on art, history, and Western attitudes toward who is allowed to tell the story of the past, Loot is a complex tale about the creation of a very strange object. “Tipu’s Tiger” is an eighteenth-century automaton from the Kingdom of Mysore, which depicts a great Tiger enthusiastically mauling a British soldier. This is a real thing, and you can still see it today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But how did it get there? Who made it? And why?
Those are just some of the questions at the heart of this novel, which spans multiple decades and continents, features almost half a dozen main characters, and tells a story that walks a fine line between whimsy and tragedy. And the end result is something that is as beautiful and strange as the object at its center.
The Villa by Rachel Hawkins
Rachel Hawkins’s fiercely feminist thrillers—see also: Reckless Girls and The Wife Upstairs—-are so much fun, but The Villa is far and away her best yet. A wildly creative story that combines a 1970s rock and roll reimagining of the famous summer at Villa Dodati in 1814 that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a competitive modern-day summer writing retreat rife with professional jealousies, and a deft exploration of the uncomfortable truths about the way our society views female artists of all stripes, this is a thriller with something substantial to say.
Lone Women by Victor Lavalle
Victor Lavalle’s genre-defying Lone Women is one part horror story, one part old-school Western, and one part supernatural mystery, an unhinged exploration of isolation, loneliness, family separation, and loss. The story of a Black woman who heads to Montana after an unspeakable horror befalls her parents, she arrives in Big Sky country with baggage of the literal, figurative, and psychological variety in tow, hoping to claim and start over with the property promised by the government to “lone women”.
As a genre, Westerns aren’t usually terribly concerned with the stories of women or marginalized characters, but Lavalle seems determined to change all of that, centering his compelling, disturbingly violent, and tension-drenched narrative around those very voices. The end result is a novel that feels like an instant classic and something completely brand new at the same time. (Is this description as vague as possible? Absolutely. It’s better if Lone Women’s secrets find you in their own time.)