Literature heightens our empathy, providing glimpses into realities different from our own. Through literature, we can time-travel, mourning worlds as they should be and speculating worlds as they could be. Literature provides both escape and grounding, transporting us to fantasy realms and confronting us with uncomfortable truths.
In a year of continuing and increasing hostility, war and violence, both at home and abroad, the literature of this year has been the answer to our times. With the news increasingly at our fingertips, we are never far from the devastating images of events happening around the world. In response, the literature of this year has scrutinised humanity, exploring the limits and potential of the human mind and body through each author’s simultaneous play with genre, literary form and language.
From literary fiction to historical fiction, romance to crime, poetry to prose, from the heights of critical acclaim to the popularity of the BookTok readership, here is a comprehensive round-up of the best books of 2023, both heartbreaking and hopeful, timely and timeless.
Possibly the most-decorated book of this year has been Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. Winner of The Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and The James Tait Black Prize, Demon Copperhead is a modern retelling of the Dickens classic David Copperfield, adapted to chronicle the dark realities of the opioid crisis in the poverty-stricken towns of America’s Appalachian region. Gifting Demon with a narrative voice which emulates the wit, humour and naivete of Dickens’ eponymous protagonist, Kingsolver masters the balance of the comic and the tragic as we follow Demon’s journey. From his birth to a drug-using single mother in the back of a trailer in Lee County, to his abuse by various foster carers, from his rise as a high school football star to his, and others’, descent into opium addiction, the power and realness of this novel comes from its unwavering bleakness. With a commentary on institutional poverty at its heart, Demon Copperhead is a bildungsroman of a child born without choices, whose battle to survive against the odds is what makes him heroic.
The winner of the Booker Prize had to have a place on this list. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch is situated in a dystopian Ireland which has become a tyrannical, totalitarian police state. Set against the complex politics of a fraught nation where civil liberties have eroded and civil war has broken out, is the deeply human narrative of Eilish Stack, a mother fighting to hold her family together. Lynch writes experimentally to echo the chaos and formlessness of this world he has crafted. Although set in a dystopic future, Lynch’s novel is a crucial read for 2023, encompassing existence beyond borders, persecution, and the upheaval of innocent lives in war-torn countries.
Capitalising on the success of his debut novel Open Water, Caleb Azumah Nelson released Small Worlds, a teenage love story set amidst an exploration of heritage, intergenerational trauma, the limits of communication and that which cannot be communicated. Set over three summers in Stephen’s life as he travels between London and his ancestral home of Ghana, we read of a young man growing into his identity and, through his relationship with his father, uncovering parts of himself he had never known. As an accompaniment to his protagonist’s love of music, Nelson’s lyrical prose dances across the pages and fills in the gaps of Stephen’s inarticulacy as he shifts between the vernaculars of Ghana and Peckham. Ultimately, Stephen must learn how to carve a small space for himself in his world where he can feel free.
Claire Keegan has mastered the ability to infuse pertinence into the seemingly quotidian and insignificant. In So Late in the Day, we are immersed into the mind of Cathal on a bus journey home as he agitates over Sabine, a woman with whom he could have spent his life had he acted differently. Across just sixty-four pages, each word carries weight and is imbued with meaning in her elegant prose as she explores the extents of what men want from women and how far generosity takes us.
Deservedly finding itself on The Booker Prize shortlist, Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting uses the ‘butterfly effect’ theory as the lens through which he explores one well-to-do Irish family in financial, emotional and existential trouble. Written in four-parts which are dedicated to each family member, Murray metamorphoses his writing style in each section to mirror the mentality of its narrator. Sibling rivalry, grief, self-sabotage, and self-denial are the focus for Murray who masterfully weaves each section into one another to implicitly explore the ways in which families can always sense emotional temperature, even if they don’t know where the fire is coming from. Where did it all go wrong for this family? And, if their story has already been written, is there still time to find a happy ending?
Exploring grief, intimacy and the power of language, Greek Lessons by Hank Kang (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won) takes relationships beyond physical and sensitive connection through elevating the power of silence and emotional resonance. A young woman and her Greek language teacher find themselves drawn to one another, as she has lost her voice and he is losing his sight. They learn that they are bound by the pain of loss and possessing a fractured identity; and yet it is their personal and private losses which draw them together and provide them comfort. For Kang, intimacy transcends that which is tangible, and the absences and silences are gaps in which we can find the essence of life.
A Little Luck by Claudia Piñeiro (translated from Spanish by France Riddle) joins Mary Lohan as she returns to the Buenos Aires suburb from where she escaped, guilt-ridden, twenty years ago, after a shocking accident. Everything about her and the place she left behind has changed; however as the past begins the reemerge and collide with the present, it is clear that everything is the same. Piñeiro explores the messy line between bravery and cowardice, the weight of lies, and the ripple effect from a single event, discovering that life is dictated by neither choice nor fate but perhaps simply luck.
Amongst R. F. Kuang’s multiple achievements this year, including the success of her satire of the publishing industry, Yellowface,her historical fantasy, Babel, is the pinnacle. Babel is the Institute of Translation, the centre of power in this alternate version of the Victorian British Empire. Bright children are taken from all corners of the empire and put to work at Babel to find ‘match pairs’: words from two different languages that mean similar things but with a significant gap between them. The functioning of every device in the empire relies on the magical sensations of difference that the gaps between these match pairs create. Whilst hoping to use the act of translation to bring people together, those displaced peoples brought to serve the empire soon face the problem of whether to serve a corrupt institute which has caused the first opium war. Kuang embellishes real history with elements of magic and fantasy and yet confronts readers with the timeless struggle between colonisers and colonised, demonstrating that, as the epigraph, ‘traduttore, traditore’, suggests, ‘an act of translation is always an act of betrayal.’
In Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, the fragility the mortal body is at its centre in a Hunger Games-style fantasy in which it is unclear who you can trust. When Violet Sorrengail is thrust away from the quiet life by her mother and commanding general of Basgiath War College, she joins hundreds of candidates striving to become the elite sect of dragon riders. However, in her small and brittle body, Violet is not safe amongst dragons, and with her connection to leadership, Violet is not safe amongst her peers. As the war in Navarre becomes more deadly, the secrets the leadership are keeping become darker, and the lines between trust and traitorship become increasingly blurred, Violet learns that she must either graduate from college or die.
It wouldn’t be a round-up of this year’s books without mentioning the chart-topping The Last Devil To Die, the fourth instalment in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club crime series. When a dangerous package that has been smuggled across the English coast goes missing, chaos is unleashed and the body count starts to rise. With the killer heading to Cooper’s Chase retirement home, the birthplace of the Thursday Murder Club, will their luck run out? Osman has carefully created this unlikely cast of crime-solving geriatrics who are instantly likeable for their quirks and quiddities. In its first week of publication, this novel broke British records to become the fastest-selling hardback fiction by a British author and achieve the highest single week of sales for any adult fiction since July 2015. Osman’s intelligent writing masters the balance between heart-warming wit and the shocking twists and turns of a classic crime novel. This is the perfect read for a rainy and cold winter night, but its disturbing scenes certainly creep up on you and may leave you struggling to sleep at night…
After sending shockwaves through the literary world with her debut novel, Boy Parts, Eliza Clark’s second novel, Penance, comes as she is named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. This is an explicitly 2023 crime novel since Clark explores the multiple ways in which crime manifests itself in society, particularly scrutinising the phenomenon of ‘true crime’ to break it down into it two facets: ‘truth’ and ‘criminality.’ Nearly a decade after the horrifying murder of a sixteen-year-old, the events of the terrible night are being published for the first time. As Clark’s seemingly reliable narrator, journalist Alec Z. Carelli, manoeuvres through interviews with witnesses and family members, historical research and correspondence with killers, the picture of a town rocked by tragedy is built. But at the centre of this riveting novel is the question: how much of it is true?
Bolu Babalola won BookTok Book of the Year with Honey and Spice which celebrates the African Caribbean identity through her sharp-tongued and secretly soft-hearted protagonist Kiki Banjo. An expert in relationship-evasion as the host of Whitewell University student radio show ‘Brown Sugar’, Kiki’s reputation is threatened when she meets charming and handsome Malakai Korede who she has denounced as ‘The Wasteman of Whitewell.’ Finding herself in danger of falling for the very man she warned her girls about, over the course of this playful novel we build a picture of Kiki beyond her self-assuredness to uncover her vulnerabilities and the wariness which underscores so many young girls’ interactions with men.
Happy Place sees Emily Henry return with another heart-warming romance which plays with the ‘enemies to lovers’ trope and plunges us into the complexities of modern day romance, where it is not simple to draw a line and walk away. When Harriet and Wyn, the perfect couple, split up, they can’t bear to tell their friends and ruin the yearly getaway. When they decide to fake the relationship for one more week, what seems like a flawless plan is shown to be increasingly difficult to pull off.
In recent years, Greek mythological retellings, in which voices of the often-over-looked female figures are re-centralised and empowered, have taken the literary world by storm and this year has been no exception. It is Medusa, the only mortal in the family of gods, who takes the stage in Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind. After Poseidon commits an unforgivable sacrilege, it is Medusa who is punished by being turned into a Gorgon who destroys anything she looks upon. Condemned by society and herself to a life of solitude and exile, this is the story of how a young woman became a monster. And how she was never really a monster at all.
Following the successes of her previous retellings, Jennifer Saint returned this year with Atalanta. Re-imagining the story of Atalanta and her adventure with the Argonauts, this story opens with the disappointment Atalanta brings when a daughter is born to the King of Arcadia. The story that follows is one in which the need for these retellings is highlighted: Atalanta’s quest to carve a place for herself and prove her worth in the legends in a world made for men.
Whilst remaining in a realm which straddles the line between fantasy and reality as she adapt the popularity of the Greek mythological retelling to suit the narrative she wanted to recreate, Sandra Newman’s Julia is a feminist re-imagining in a much more contemporary literary world. A companion novel the George Orwell’s dystopic modern classic 1984, in which the female voice is often absent and the misogyny of the male gaze explicit, Newman’s novel is from the perspective Julia Worthing, an ostensibly model citizen who has learnt how to simultaneously collaborate with and break the rules of Big Brother’s regime. Altering the perspective of the original protagonist, Winston Smith, Newman also pushes against the source text, taking the world of 1984 where Orwell, through Winston, didn’t take it and chronicling the life lived in the female body and mind in Oceana. Through the powerful female relationships Newman creates, she demonstrates that the female experience under a totalitarian state is entirely different from that of the male experience, with the themes of abuse, physical autonomy, and unwanted pregnancy disturbingly relevant to our world.
Practicing literary acrobatics and exemplifying her creative flexibility, Zadie Smith returned this year with The Fraud, her debut in historical fiction. Based on the real historical events of The Tichborne Trials which began in 1873, Smith transports us to William Ainsworth’s literary London and the plantations of Jamaica, before having these two worlds of race and class collide in the courtroom trial of imposture. Written with Smith’s trademark wit, we read of the flux in which post-abolition London found itself in this world of hypocrisy and self-deception, truth and fiction, and the mystery of ‘the other.’
Self-Portrait as Othello is Jason Allen-Paisant’s second collection in which Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist finds himself in the urban landscapes of modern London, Paris and Venice. Allen-Paisant portraits himself as Othello, through whom he refracts a meditation on his intersecting identities as ‘immigrant’ and ‘Black’ and the personal presence, vulnerability and transgressiveness he feels as he exists in the Black male body. Through Allen-Paisant’s work is a structure of feeling that was emerging in the seventeenth century and remains with us today.
Kit Fan has the personal and political collide in his third collection The Ink Cloud Reader, where the threat of mortality and the process of coming to terms with the news of sudden illness is set against a background of the chaos of Hong Kong. Beneath his exploration of our turbulent times and human frailty, Fan celebrates the healing power of ink – of reading and writing. Check out contributor Audrey Wong’s interview with Kit Fan here.
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