The book I’ve recommended most this year – and had the most enthusiastic feedback about, a whopping 656 pages later – is without doubt Paul Murray’s Booker-shortlisted tragicomedy, The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton). This story of an Irish family’s tribulations told from four points of view combines freewheeling hilarity with savage irony, surprise reveals and generations-deep sadness; it offers the immersive pleasures that perhaps only a fat family saga can bring. It lost out on the night to Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, a harrowing portrait of a totalitarian Ireland with an urgent message for a world of rising political violence.
There was another long-awaited return to fiction from 2013’s Booker winner Eleanor Catton. In Birnam Wood (Granta), idealistic guerrilla gardeners in New Zealand run up against a ruthless billionaire. This is a propulsive thriller responding to the climate crisis, apocalyptic thinking and political ideology, and as stylishly written as you’d expect. Zadie Smith also took on a new genre with her first historical novel, The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton), which sets a gently comic portrait of 19th-century literary London, and a real-life trial which stirred up passionate emotions around class and identity, against harrowing testimony from a slave plantation. It expertly links Jamaican and British history, and offers a timely, quizzical reflection of our current age of globalisation and hypocrisy. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole’s Tremor (Faber) is deeply engaged with the horrors of colonialism, using autofiction for a subtle and up-to-the-minute study of how ideas around art, value and trauma are inflected by historical knowledge.
Sebastian Barry’s beautiful, nightmarish Old God’s Time (Faber) also digs back into the past, to show how trauma remains an open wound. A retired Irish policeman’s apparently calm life is torpedoed by historical experiences of abuse within the Catholic church: this raw and hugely moving novel is shot through with the force of familial love and mourning. There was more brilliant Irish writing about family in Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor (Faber), unbearably tense yet blackly comic dispatches from the early days of motherhood, and Anne Enright’s The Wren, the Wren (Jonathan Cape). This supple portrait of mothers and daughters, exploring the hangover of the patriarchal past in the shape of the famous poet who wrote about and abandoned them, may be her best book yet.
Deborah Levy delves into the deepest patterns of family connection and self-invention in August Blue (Hamish Hamilton), the riddling, elegant tale of a globe-trotting concert pianist whose subconscious is catching up with her. Formal ambition is elsewhere on display in Benjamin Myers’s Goldsmiths winner Cuddy (Bloomsbury), a visionary epic which covers a millennium of English history and employs poetry and prose, playscript and pastiche to trace the story of St Cuthbert, the building of Durham Cathedral and the contemporary northern landscape. Justin Torres won the National Book award in the US for the dreamlike and innovative Blackouts (Granta), which chops up historical texts and uses images and absence to construct a shadow history of queer desire and erasure. And I loved Kate Briggs’s debut fiction The Long Form (Fitzcarraldo), a quietly radical reinvention of the domestic novel in which a woman and her baby spend their day reading, thinking, feeding, napping – being. It’s full to the brim with fertile ideas about time, literature, care, and how we live within the form of our days.
Other notable debuts include Jacqueline Crooks’s hypnotic journey into the dub reggae scene, Fire Rush (Cape), charting a young Black woman’s experience of music, danger and racist policing in the 1980s. Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin (4th Estate) follows young Vietnamese refugees to Thatcher’s Britain with great heart and delicacy. Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane (Picador), the slim story of a girl dedicating herself to squash after her mother’s death, blossoms in the spaces between words and the silences between characters: a masterclass in restraint. For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie (Bloomsbury) is another tiny marvel, tenderly illuminating the inner lives of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.
Two first novels drew on the crime genre: Kala by Colin Walsh (Atlantic), a tale of bright-burning teenage friendship and slow-fade adult disappointment in a small Irish town, is a page-turner to rival Tana French. And No One Dies Yet by Kobby Ben Ben (Europa) places a trio of gay Americans looking for their ancestral roots in Ghana against a string of murders, for a playful and daringly executed expose of history, diaspora and the exploitation of African voices.
Short stories to look out for include Camilla Grudova’s impressively weird vignettes in The Coiled Serpent (Atlantic), Laura Jean McKay’s sharp speculations in Gunflower (Scribe), and another virtuoso collection from Tessa Hadley, whose After the Funeral (Cape) identifies moments of psychological change to thrilling effect. Magogodi oaMphela Makhene’s Innards (Atlantic), chronicles of Soweto under and after apartheid, forcefully uncovers a corrosive history.
It was a great year for historical novels of all stripes. AK Blakemore’s followup to The Manningtree Witches, The Glutton (Granta), takes a tall story from the annals of revolutionary France – a man who ate everything, from buttons to babies – and spins an irresistible picaresque of social upheaval and individual appetite. This is a book joyously in love with language, in all its possibilities. Lauren Groff’s The Vaster Wilds (Hutchinson Heinemann) follows an English servant girl on the run from a plague-hit early American colony: it’s both a gripping survival story, and a subtle allegory for the 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 spins a magical realist saga of medieval India in Victory City (Cape), his first fiction to be published since the attack against him in 2022. Meanwhile Tom Crewe’s The New Life (Chatto), about gay pioneers in 1890s London, has extraordinary physical presence, exploring bodies as well as minds; and Adam Mars-Jones writes 1970s England meticulously back into existence in the latest instalment of his witty and humane series about one man’s life and thoughts, Caret (Faber).
Contemporary Britain is the focus of Diana Evans’s lyrical and excoriating A House for Alice (Chatto), which sets one woman’s desire to return to the Nigeria of her youth against the backdrop of the Grenfell tragedy. Eliza Clark’s Penance (Faber), about the murder of a teenager by her peers, and the true-crime vultures who follow in its wake, is a disturbing and fiendishly clever portrait of Brexit Britain and online communities: how the longing for identity can be weaponised and twisted into dangerous new shapes.
In Julia (Granta), her companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sandra Newman revisits a vision of England’s future that has receded into the past. By mirroring Orwell’s plot from the female perspective, she burrows deeper into the structures and effects of totalitarianism in an ingenious novel that thoughtfully complicates the original.
An unmissable rediscovery from 1973, Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke (Daunt), turns a cold eye on the family dysfunction of the English upper class. Through scalpel-sharp prose and bitter comedy it lays bare the darkest human impulses, but if you’d prefer sunnier Christmas reading, turn instead to Samantha Harvey’s Orbital (Cape). In the tale of six astronauts circling the Earth, Harvey beautifully evokes the wonder and fragility of our planet and its inhabitants. An uplifting book, in every sense.
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