Great books stay with you, so it is a good sign that I read two of my 10 best of 2023 – Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of this Book and Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time – in January. Both made a big impression on me and rewarded rereading recently.
Barry’s novel is one of three from Ireland on my list, and any of that trio would have made a better Booker Prize winner than their compatriot Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, which was the weakest work on a strong shortlist. Barbara Kingsolver won the year’s other big award for fiction, The Women’s Prize, with Demon Coppperhead, and there were long-awaited new novels from Zadie Smith and Teju Cole.
Inevitably, I have made reluctant omissions from my 10. These include J M Coetzee’s The Pole and Other Stories, Thomas Morris’ second story collection Open Up and Sarah Bernstein’s second novel Study for Obedience. Bernstein and Morris were both on Granta’s once-in-a-decade Best British Novelists Under 40 list, which came out in April.
This year was marked by the death of several towering literary figures: Martin Amis, A S Byatt, and Milan Kundera among them. At 73, Amis was the youngest of them and his death left readers reeling at the knowledge that we will never again open a new novel and recognise instantly the fizz of his sentences.
It was all the sweeter then in 2023 to see the emergence of fresh talents, including two debut novelists featured here, who showed the future is bright and diverse.
10. Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
American writer Jhumpa Lahiri fell in love with the Italian language years ago and has been writing in it and translating her work back into English for almost a decade. Despite her affection for her adopted country, the best stories in her new collection, which are all set in or around Rome, concern migrants and refugees who come up against deep-rooted racism there. Lahiri gets under the skin of Italian society with the eye of an outsider and chronicles the way single moments can echo through entire lives with devastating effects.
9. Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman
This biography of Jim Ede, the founder of the Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge and an early champion of major artists such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, is also the story of an important strand of British art in the 20th century. Ede believed that the presence of paintings and sculptures in our everyday lives was crucial to happiness. He was as passionate about helping people improve the arrangement of furniture and lighting in their homes as he was about getting the work of European modernists into the Tate. Kettle’s Yard is a monument to his principles and Freeman’s elegant book embodies the deep pleasures of biography.
Jonathan Cape £30 | Read our review here
8. The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken
This short, piercing novel about family, loss and literature has been making me smile all year. An American author in her 50s, who shares a wicked sense of humour and background with the author, visits London alone and wanders its streets and galleries, making merciless observations and reflecting on her relationship with her late mother, whose death has left her “bereaved and haunted”. Plenty of writers blur the boundary between fiction and autobiography, but McCracken does it here with irresistible style and wit in the year’s most quotable novel. “Her greatest regrets in life,” she remarks of her mother, “were things she didn’t buy.” I want a version of that on my gravestone.
Vintage £9.99 | Read our review here
7. Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry
The retired “old policeman with a buckled heart” in Sebastian Barry’s ninth novel is drawn into an investigation of historic sexual abuse in Ireland’s Catholic Church, which intersects with his own childhood. We don’t always know whether he experienced or imagined events as he wanders through later life in a slipstream between reality and dreams that Barry renders brilliantly. It feels strange to recommend a book that contains harrowing scenes that you will wish to scrub from your mind, but read Barry’s novel you must, in part because it reckons with an important subject, but really because it is the work of a novelist at the peak of his powers.
Faber £18.99 | Read our review here
6. The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
This is probably the most conventionally satisfying novel of 2023 in that it sweeps you up in the story of a provincial Irish family from the start, and across its 650-odd pages, rarely flags. It is so engrossing that you will always want to be reading it and after you have finished it the characters – a man who is running his family business into the ground, his disillusioned wife, teenage daughter and troubled young son – stay with you. Murray is ostensibly a comic novelist, but he’s dealing in laughter in the dark by the end of this novel, which tackles economic uncertainty, climate crisis and the secrets that can define a family without some of its members realising.
Hamish Hamilton £18.99 | Read our review here
5. If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
This collection of eight overlapping stories is set mostly in Miami and follows Trelawny, and his extended Jamaican family, as he moves through childhood, college in the Midwest and the confusions of young adulthood. Escoffery captures the indignities of poverty and the complexity of race. At times, it reads like an autobiographical essay, while at others the stories interweave with the patterning of a novel, which is part of the reason it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is written in surging prose, which makes for propulsive reading and belies the fact that Escoffery spent 10 years honing it to razor-sharp completion.
4th Estate £14.99 | Read our review here
4. Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
This first novel tells the story of how 11-year-old Gopi finds solace on the squash courts of a north London leisure centre after the death of her mother. It is a subtle book with a young narrator who is emotionally attuned to the adults around her and the different ways that they communicate. It reaches a thrilling climax on court but it is the poetic descriptions of Gopi spending hours “ghosting” (practicing squash shots without the ball) that take on symbolic status for both her life and the act of writing. A surprising and beautifully controlled debut from a writer of unmistakable talent.
3. Blackouts by Justin Torres
Justin Torres’s second novel combines fiction, queer history and erasure poetry to tell the story of a drifting twentysomething gay man who visits his older mentor on his deathbed at a mysterious desert sanctuary known as “the Palace”. The pair recount experiences, and in the process, discover more about Jan Gay, a real lesbian sexologist whose ground-breaking research was hijacked in the 1950s by doctors who regarded homosexuality as an illness. Disturbing, erotic and affecting, Torres uncovers a hidden past and ties together his novel’s disparate strands with a skilfulness that makes it a work of artistic and political value.
Granta £14.99 | Read our review here
2. Stay True by Hua Hsu
This memoir by the New Yorker journalist may have gone under the radar when it was published in the UK, but it won a Pulitzer Prize in the US. It is an emotional journey through the East Asian American immigrant experience (Hsu’s parents moved to the US from Taiwan), the importance of music and fashion in coming of age and, finally, Hsu’s grief after the murder of his best friend while they were undergraduates at Berkley. It is a quiet, occasionally hilarious, ultimately devastating book – a 1990s time capsule, meditation on memory and identity, and a grief memoir in fewer than 200 pages. It is the most moving and memorable piece of autobiography I read this year.
Picador £10.99 | Read our review here
1. Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy
A new mother pushes her son’s pram around the parks and supermarkets of her unnamed Irish city, mourning her social life and resenting her husband (“Parenting is gender segregation,” she rages) in an opening that is almost unbearably claustrophobic. When she runs into a former friend, and now stay-at-home dad, her world opens up and she is soon conscious of the days passing too fleetingly. Not a word is wasted in Kilroy’s first novel in a decade, which cuts to the heart of it subjects – motherhood, time, language – finding drama and intensity in the everyday. When the child wanders off in Ikea, the search for him is as gripping as a chase in an action movie. A mesmerising achievement.
Faber £14.99 |Read our review here