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22 December 2023

The 20 best books of 2023

Our choice of the year’s essential fiction and non-fiction.

By New Statesman

Non-fiction

A Memoir of My Former Self by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel, the beloved Wolf Hall author and double Booker Prize winner, died in 2022. The essays, reviews and lectures in this posthumous collection display Mantel’s extraordinary range and depth as well as the eclecticism of her interests: her topics include Jane Austen, GoodFellas, and what it means to be childless and a woman in the public eye. While some of these pieces are of their time, read together they have a quality of timelessness and prescience.
John Murray Press, 400pp, £25. Buy the book

What is a Doctor? A GP’s Prescription for the Future by Dr Phil Whitaker

This book, by the New Statesman’s medical editor, is a powerful account of what has happened to the bedrock of the NHS, the GP system. Through a series of subtle and graphic stories that illustrate the complexity of the doctor-patient relationship, Whitaker, a practising GP with 30 years’ experience, explains how political meddling and misguided cost-cutting have seriously damaged the NHS. The solution, he argues, is a return to the “family doctor” who knows their patients. A recent study in Norway showed that patients who have been cared for by the same doctor for many years have a 25 per cent reduced mortality rate compared to those who have not. 
Canongate, 320pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan

Tania Branigan, a Guardian correspondent who was based in China from 2008 to 2015, examines the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which Mao Zedong launched in 1966, for those who lived through it and perpetrated its atrocities. She tracks down former Red Guards – many of them children who denounced their parents – and the era’s many victims. In doing so Branigan asks how the scars of the country’s violent past run through its society and politics today, and finds that in Xi Jinping’s China there has been no large-scale reckoning with this tyrannous history.
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £20. Buy the book

A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-1965 by David Kynaston

The latest instalment of the social historian David Kynaston’s epic chronicle of postwar Britain begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and ends with the death of Churchill in January 1965. In between, Henry Cooper floors Cassius Clay days after Profumo resigns, and the Beatles’ second UK album is released on the day JFK is killed in Dallas. In Britain, the Tories are besieged by scandal, and, after 13 years of Conservative rule, the Labour opposition is 20 points ahead in the polls as an election approaches. The country is gripped by a hectic politics not dissimilar to our own; A Northern Wind holds up a mirror to today.
Bloomsbury, 704pp, £30. Buy the book

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Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World by Leah Broad

Doreen Carwithen, Dorothy Howell, Rebecca Clarke and Ethel Smyth are the four women who make up Quartet, a lively group biography of British women composers who, across the late-19th and 20th centuries, made significant contributions to the classical world that cultural history has duly forgotten. All four composers were pioneers – yet across three generations little changed. Carwithen was born 64 years after Smyth and suffered much the same sexism from programmers and critics. Quartet resists heralding its complicated subjects as moral heroes, but makes a forceful case for re-establishing these four women as composers of note.
Faber & Faber, 480pp, £20. Buy the book

Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future by Ed Conway

For his masterful exploration of the materials that underpin civilisation, Ed Conway visited the salt mines beneath the North Sea and the Chilean town being swallowed up by the world’s demand for copper. As a journalist – Conway is the economics editor of Sky News – he conveys a vivid sense of these places, and in doing so he explores one of the great lies of the modern world. Despite our digital lives, it is rocks and minerals that power the global economy. The author argues that ignoring this reality will lead us into peril: it is in the material world that climate change is taking place, and only there that we can halt it.
WH Allen, 512pp, £22. Buy the book

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other by John Preston and Elton John

When Elton John became chairman of Watford Football Club in 1976, they were one of the worst professional teams in England. After appointing the meticulous manager Graham Taylor a year later, Watford managed three dazzling promotions in six years, finishing as the second-best club in England by 1983. In Watford Forever, John Preston, the author of A Very English Scandal, captures that remarkable rise. He puts John and Taylor’s unlikely friendship – one was a dandyish “fancy pants” rock ’n’ roller, the other a diligent coach and fan of Vera Lynn – at its centre.
Viking, 304pp, £22. Buy the book

An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals by Polly Toynbee

An Uneasy Inheritance is an irresistible, self-aware British class comedy. It reads rather like an Evelyn Waugh novel, and features abortions, lovers, Catholics, a naked Boris Johnson and savage self-deprecation – it is not, in other words, the memoir you might expect from the left-wing journalist Polly Toynbee. Behind the mask of this careful, prim, grave social democrat is an anarchic, quasi-aristocratic family background – and generations of class guilt. Toynbee is brutally knowing about herself, about the left in Britain, and about the air of absurdity that descends on wealthy people who try to improve the lives of the poor.
Atlantic, 448pp, £22. Buy the book

Johnson at 10: The Inside Story by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell

When considering the political career of Boris Johnson, it can be tempting to focus on his dishonesty and lack of principles. What may be less obvious to those not close to Whitehall is just how inept he was at performing some of the basic functions of being prime minister. In this book, which is based on interviews with more than 200 witnesses to Johnson in office, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell have done a service to us all in setting out this reality in unsparing detail. Their conclusion? Johnson was impossibly ill-equipped to perform adequately the role of junior minister for paper clips, let alone prime minister.
Atlantic, 624pp, £25. Buy the book

Matrescence: On the Metamorphosis of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood by Lucy Jones

It is the most profound change most women will go through, yet the process of becoming a mother is so overlooked that the anthropological term for it – matrescence – is not in most dictionaries. Here Lucy Jones explores this transformation, taking lessons from the black lace-weaver spider and vampire bats, and drawing on her own experiences of labour and breast-feeding to acknowledge the many things – joy, tedium, pain, liberation – matrescence brings. Blending science, memoir and politics, this book will bring solace to those still grappling with maternal ambivalence and fear.
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25. Buy the book

The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power by Robert D Kaplan

Robert Kaplan, a veteran correspondent who had reported from the Balkans, Yemen, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, supported the Iraq War in the belief that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny could only benefit the country. His later regret for his promotion of the war “wrecked” him, and motivated him to write this treatise on tragedy. In this spare and poignant volume, he harvests insights from ancient Greek drama, Shakespeare, Melville and other writers who have explored intractable human dilemmas to ask: what are the sources of tragedy in politics, and why has it been so insistently denied?
Yale University Press, 152pp, £20. Buy the book

[See also: To catch a catfish]

Fiction

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Following her acclaimed 2017 translation of the Odyssey, the classicist Emily Wilson has applied her wonderfully unfussy style to Homer’s epic of the Trojan War, revealing a work that both dramatises and critiques the Greeks’ obsessive world of masculine honour. Wilson’s pacy, memorable translation resonates in our own time of crisis, and reminds us that the Olympian gods and the would-be superhumans who want to emulate them are not yet dead.
WW Norton, 720pp, £30. Buy the book

Cuddy by Benjamin Myers

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, which runs in association with the New Statesman, is a genre-blending, millennia-straddling history centring on one figure: Cuddy. St Cuthbert, to use his full name, is the unofficial patron saint of the north of England. Benjamin Myers’s polyphonic novel tells of the saint’s influence down the centuries, first on his loyal monastic followers, and then on buildings and how we perceive our religious culture in the modern day. Cuddy is a bold story about faith and nationhood that upends preconceptions of the “historical novel”.
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £20. Buy the book

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan

In brief, clean, compulsive vignettes, the American author Kathryn Scanlan tells the life story of Sonia, a horse trainer. The novel is based on transcribed conversations that Scanlan had with a real-life trainer, and here Sonia’s voice is distinct, her no-nonsense attitude a product of her lifestyle. Filtered through Scanlan, who writes as though with a scalpel, every mark precise and deep, it accrues an intellectual power too. Although Kick the Latch was nominated for the William Hill Sports Book Award, you need not be interested in racing or animals to find it engaging: this is a story about hard work, a life lived outside, in the early mornings and on the road, and about being a woman in what is still a man’s world.
Daunt Books, 165pp, £9.99. Buy the book

Lawrence Osborne has been writing novels since 1989, but it is in the past decade that he has earned his unofficial title of heir to Graham Greene, for his vivid, unsettling thrillers. Osborne’s settings range from the Greek island of Hydra to Bangkok (where he lives) and his strange, unsentimental plots dismantle Westerners’ assumptions about the world. His short stories, collected here for the first time, deal with life in Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover, accidental witnesses to a killing in Oman, and a tsunami survivor in the Andaman Islands. This is stylish, subversive fiction from a writer at the top of his game. 
Hogarth, 352pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

Old God’s Time begins in familiar Sebastian Barry territory: a retired policeman sits by the Irish Sea and casts a poetic eye back over his life. But this is no comfort read: the reopening of an old case leads Tom Kettle down shadowy roads, his narrative filtered through a shifting, traumatised memory as we begin to understand the profound pain sustained by his “buckled heart”. Barry’s skilful novel is at once a story of Ireland’s reckoning with the horrors of institutional abuse, and a moving portrait of a damaged man who miraculously retains a capacity for love and joy.
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan

In her second novel, the New Statesman contributor Megan Nolan deftly confronts the dual complexities of inter-generational trauma and true-crime obsession. When Tom Hargreaves, a reporter, hears that a toddler’s body has been found on a housing estate and that ten-year-old Lucy Green is suspected of being responsible, he embeds himself in the Green family, desperate for a scoop. As the narrative moves between Ireland – from where the Greens originate – in the 1970s and London in the 1990s, instead of depravity Tom finds a household bruised by life’s treatment of them, existing in a state of “ordinary unhappiness”. Nolan’s novel is dark in subject, yet retains a tender faith in a person’s, or a family’s, capacity for change.
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Music is a constant in this second, emotionally astute novel from the south London author. It’s 2010 and Stephen is just a few days away from leaving sixth form. He dreams of going to music school with Del, a childhood friend with whom he’s in love – though she doesn’t yet know it. Over the coming years, as Stephen and his friends navigate early adulthood and the specific difficulties of being young black men, J Dilla and Fela Kuti act as their soundtrack. Nelson is a rhythmic writer, and his repeated motifs – variations on phrases about what we remember and what we forget, about dancing to solve problems – give this novel a song-like structure.
Viking, 240pp, £14.99. Buy the book

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein

This novel was originally published in Italian in the 1950s and reappeared this year in a new English translation by Ann Goldstein, best known for bringing Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet into English. Alba de Céspedes’s tale comprises a series of diary entries by Valeria Cossati, who secretly writes of her deep dissatisfaction with her life in postwar Rome. The particulars of Valeria’s turmoil are undeniably of her time, but the familiarity of her struggles against a patriarchal world make this book feel strikingly contemporary. 
Pushkin Press, 256pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan

The New Statesman’s poetry pick for 2023 is the second collection from the Hong Kong-born, Oxford-based Mary Jean Chan. Thoughtful clear-sightedness abounds in Bright Fear, which continues the exploration of queerness and post-colonial language in Chan’s debut book, now in the context of the anti-Asian racism that accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic. In its centrepiece, “Ars Poetica”, Chan tenderly depicts the complex relationship they have with their mother and homeland, and the sanctuary they find in verse. It is exhilarating to read a poet so sure of their intent. “I am asked why my poems are so clear,” Chan writes. “I’ll confess:/it’s what happens when you want to be understood.”
Faber & Faber, 72pp, £10.99. Buy the book

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[See also: The best film and TV of 2023]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special