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14 January 2023

The best fiction books to read in 2023

The year’s publishing highlights, including new novels by Salman Rushdie, Diana Evans and Eleanor Catton.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The violent attack on Salman Rushdie in August 2022 affirmed the enduring importance of fiction: we need novels in order to challenge, to empathise, to think freely. The publication of Rushdie’s 13th novel Victory City (Jonathan Cape, February), a magical realist feminist tale that spans 250 years, demonstrates the vital role the imagination plays in working ourselves out of a troubled world.

Politics runs throughout the year’s fiction. Diana Evans follows her bestselling Ordinary People with A House for Alice (Chatto & Windus, April), set in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. The poet Em Strang draws on a decade working in Scottish prisons in Quinn (Oneworld, March), which explores male violence, while caregiving and housing precarity are major themes in The Long Form by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo, April). In Shalash the Iraqi (translated by Luke Leafgren, And Other Stories, May), an anonymous Iraqi citizen satirises the US-UK occupation of their home country. Sandra Newman retells George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from a feminist perspective in Julia (Granta, October), while Emily Wilson follows her 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey – the first into English by a woman – with The Iliad (WW Norton, September).

The effects of war and immigration preoccupy Isabel Allende in The Wind Knows My Name (Bloomsbury, June). The 80-year-old novelist is not the only prolific author with a new book this year: Elif Shafak returns with a 13th (as yet untitled) novel (Viking, August), as does Sebastian Faulks with a 16th (also as yet untitled) book (Hutchinson Heinemann, September) set in a London fertility clinic, while 15 short stories by the pioneering Margaret Atwood are collected in Old Babes in the Wood (Chatto & Windus, March).

Others return in 2023 having been away much longer. Ten years after The Luminaries won the Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton reappears with Birnam Wood (Granta, March), a thriller about a guerrilla gardening group. Lorrie Moore publishes I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (Faber, June), a tragic-comic ghost story. More than 20 years since his previous novel, the British author and cultural critic Michael Bracewell explores the modern condition via an ordinary office worker in Unfinished Business (White Rabbit, January).

[See also: The best poetry books of 2022]

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A coterie of young novelists reemerge with follow-ups to their acclaimed debuts: Caleb Azumah Nelson with Small Worlds (Viking, May), about a father-son relationship; Brandon Taylor with The Late Americans (Jonathan Cape, June), which follows a group of friends and lovers during a year of major self-discovery; Naoise Dolan with The Happy Couple (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May), which centres around five attendees of a wedding; Guy Gunaratne with Mister, Mister (Tinder Press, May), the “confession” of an internet sensation who flees conflict in Syria and ends up in a UK detention centre.

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Two winners of the Goldsmiths Prize for “mould-breaking” fiction have new books in 2023. Corey Fah Does Social Mobility (Hamish Hamilton, July), is Isabel Waidner’s radical follow-up to Sterling Karat Gold, while Mike McCormack’s This Plague of Souls (Canongate, November) is the story of an imprisoned man in Ireland who returns to a deserted family home. Another great chronicler of Irish domestic life, Anne Enright, tracks three generations of one family in The Wren, The Wren (Jonathan Cape, September). In Old God’s Time (Faber, March), Sebastian Barry tells of a former policeman who retires to a home overlooking the Irish Sea.

Many of this year’s debuts are by authors who have had success in other forms: Rosewater (Dialogue, April), a queer love story about intergenerational trauma from Liv Little, founder of gal-dem magazine; The New Life (Chatto & Windus, January), set in the 1890s, among those who argued for the legalisation of homosexuality, by Tom Crewe, an editor at the London Review of Books; Deep Down (Fleet, March), about two siblings grieving their father, by the journalist and video game writer Imogen West-Knights; and Nothing Special (Bloomsbury, March), a coming-of-age novel set in Andy Warhol’s New York City, from the short story writer Nicole Flattery.

Other major literary titles on the horizon include August Blue (Hamish Hamilton, May), in which Deborah Levy follows two women who chase their doubles across Europe; The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton, September), Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, and Shy (Faber, April) by Max Porter, about a teenage boy who escapes a home for “very disturbed young men”. Han Kang, who won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016 with The Vegetarian, releases Greek Lessons (translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Hamish Hamilton, April), which tells of a young woman who has lost her voice and her teacher who is losing his sight. Tomás Nevinson, the final novel by Javier Marías, who died in 2022, is a suspenseful thriller set in the 1990s (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Hamish Hamilton, March). And the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead returns to 1970s New York City with Crook Manifesto (Fleet, July), the sequel to Harlem Shuffle.

Publishers continue to champion neglected authors, including Natalia Ginzburg whose 1957 novella Valentino, translated by Avril Bardoni, is coming from Daunt Books in May and Mário de Andrade whose 1928 epic Macunaíma: The Hero Without Character, translated by Katrina Dodson, launches Fitzcarraldo’s classics list in April. Buchi Emecheta’s 1972 debut In the Ditch, following a single mother’s experience of the welfare state, was first published as a column in this magazine: it returns as a Penguin Classic in August. In 2023, “rediscovering” is not only a trend but a moral pursuit.

[See also: 4 new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege