It’s been a spectacular year for literary fiction, so my “best books” list is exclusively made up of novels and short story collections – and I wish I could triple its length, but I’ll keep it at 10.
Clara and the sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Clara and the sun ranks high on this list. As he did in his 2005 novel Never let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro here explores what it means to be human through the perspective of a being seen as merely “human-like”. Ishiguro is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of the fragility and inevitability of death – all of this, even as he deepens our awareness of the temporary magic of being alive in the first place.
Earth Cuckoo Cloud
by Anthony Doerr
Of all our contemporary literary fiction writers, Anthony Doerr is the one whose novels seem to be the most heartfelt response to the overriding request “Tell me a story.” The last of Doerr, Earth Cuckoo Cloud, spans eight centuries and depicts how an ancient tale gives light and hope to five young people, each living in dangerous times, with parallels to our own.
by Francis Spufford
The historical novel by Francis Spufford, perpetual light, is a miracle not only of art, but of empathy. It opens with a real incident: the dropping of a V-2 rocket on a Woolworths in London on a Saturday in 1944. What follows is an account that unsentimentally imagines the lives five of the victims, all children, would have could live. perpetual light is a resounding novel about chance, as well as a divine meditation on changeability and loss.
by Lauren Groff
Don’t be fooled by the title, the historical novel by Lauren Groff Matrix is not a dystopian thriller, but rather a radiant novel about the 12andpoetess and mystic of the century Marie de France, whose life we know almost nothing about. No matter. Groff richly imagines Mary’s decades of exile in a royal convent, which she would eventually lead. A novel charged with female ambition, Matrix also dramatizes Mary’s astute political insight that: “most souls on earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves- same”.
by Colson Whitehead
I’m starting to think that every year Colson Whitehead releases a new novel, I should just save it a spot on my “best books” list. Harlem mix is a crime story in the sardonic style of the Chester Himes classic Cotton comes to Harlem, crossed with every film noir ever made about a good man caught in a bad situation. Ray Carney, a family man, sells second-hand furniture in late 1950s and early 1960s New York: you can smell the dust on the blonde wooden console radios he tries to unload as TVs are taking over. When Ray’s cousin lures him into a robbery at the Theresa Hotel – the so-called “Waldorf of Harlem” – Ray’s hard-won respectability threatens to crumble.
by Anthony Veasna So
Afterparties, by the late Anthony Veasna So, has been one of the hottest big books this year and it has exceeded and subverted my expectations. So, who died at the age of 28 before the book was released, was a first-generation queer Cambodian American who wrote clever, creepy, crude, funny, sexually explicit, and compassionate stories about the Cambodian refugee community in Stockton, in California.
by Jocelyne Nicole Johnson
The title novel of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s collection, My Monticello, is set in the near future when a group of mostly African-American characters take a final stand against the forces of racism atop the “little mountain” that gives Thomas Jefferson’s plantation its name. This short story is a rich and eerie riff on American mythology.
by Yoon Choi
The eight stories from Yoon Choi’s collection, Skinship, burst to touch decades of family history shaped, sometimes distorted, by immigration. Choi takes this familiar subject matter and makes his characters’ predicaments vivid and nuanced.
by Elizabeth Strout
In Oh William! Elizabeth Strout returns to her writer persona, Lucy Barton, who, along with her ex-husband, goes on a road trip that takes them deep into the wilderness of their failed marriage and personal past. This summary sounds grim, but if you know Strout, you know she squeezes in the most mundane conversations of epiphanies about love, parenthood, and the countless ways we humans mess up.
We run the tides
by Vendela Vida
Finally, I want to give a final push to a novel that I think hasn’t yet received all the recognition it deserves: Vendela Vida We run the tides. Set in the mid-1980s in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood perched on the edge of the Pacific, the novel follows a team of four 13-year-old girls who are also perched on the edge of things. Haunting, harsh and exquisite, this slice of the novel evokes a world of female adolescence in which, for my part, I wanted to remain lost – and yet I also felt relieved to have passed.