2023 Book recommendations Part II – Novels

by Maria on December 15, 2023

Rightso! Novels. My three runaway favourite novels this year, which I recommend to you wholeheartedly, are Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors and, friend of this parish, Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. Cahokia Jazz I want to write something dedicated about, and imminently, so let me tell you about the first two now.

Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic Leave the World Behind came out in 2020, and a Netflix adaptation has just been released. Read the novel first. From what I’ve seen of the trailer (and it looks great), the film takes place during a more explicit and amped up catastrophe, making it a very different kind of beast. The novel is more subtle and mysterious about an unfolding disaster which, at first, only insidiously impinges on what starts as a class and race-based comedy of manners, with a high social capital white New York couple taking their perfect family to a perfect vacation house outside of New York, only to be disturbed one night by the house’s Black owners seeking refuge from the city. One of my sisters gave the book to me as we returned home from a holiday, and I read it straight through on a horribly delayed flight, barely even registering the usual Ryanair shenanigans and the misery of freezing, drunk-filled Liverpool Street night buses, I was so rapt. Ironic, really, how a book about an (at first) insidious apocalypse gets you through the falling down bits of broken Britain in the dead of winter.

Anyway! Leave the World Behind is told through the viewpoints of its six characters. The four adults are mostly concerned with figuring out what’s going on as the communications infrastructure collapses, and soon after, it seems, political and economic institutions. Its characters are clueless and we mostly learn as they do, with the exception of occasional and devastating asides from an omniscient narrator who tells us, say, the awful fate of the nice man who takes in their dry-cleaning, who they’ll never see or probably think about again. But where this novel becomes truly exceptional is how it distinguishes the reactions of the children from the adults, and indicates how or if they will survive. Without giving too much away – and this is mostly my sister Elly’s reckoning – one of the children is young enough to be, essentially, uncivilised, and that’s how we suspect she’ll survive as civilisation falls away. The most remarkable images of the book – pink flamingos landing in a swimming pool, and hundreds of deer on the move, then standing silently to regard the soon to be gone humans – are recreated in the film, along with the dramatic addition of an oil tanker beaching itself like a sick or confused whale. But in the novel, the creatures and the youngest human seem to have a shared animal nature which will endure when the worldly concerns of class, culture and perhaps even race fall away. Often, and credibly, in post-apocalyptic fiction, people become deeply tied to the place they were when everything changed. Emily St John Mandel’s airport community in Station Eleven is a compelling example of the urge to cling onto the past, be it creature comforts like indoor plumbing, or patriarchal power structures. Leave the World Behind, well, it does what it says on the tin, and also makes, I think, a quieter point about migration. Like the deer, grazing here and there, or perhaps the pre-Mesopotamians in James C. Scott’s work of agrarian anarchy, Against the Grain, who plant untended crops and go away, then return to harvest them in a few months’ time, humans have always moved. It’s how we survive.

I’d heard from many sources how great Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors was, and finally permitted myself a copy after I defended my dissertation in September. The Saint of Bright Doors was such a fascinating, enthralling, coolly beguiling experience. It’s set in a semi-recognisable country South East Asia, but where magic is twisted into a complex social structure which is minutely over-determined by the state(s), and where history has folded on itself once, to mass forgetting, and might do so again. As so many have said (Molly Templeton’s essay on Tor.com is superb), The Saint of Bright Doors is teaming with ideas and inferences about everything from the one-way mirror of citizen legibility to the state, race, cast and class, how religion and radicalisation function via social media amplification, fathers, mothers, queerness, and, above all, the intentionally fuzzy boundaries of the carceral state.

At a moment when the two million people of Gaza’s already open prison have been herded into an ever tinier space, all the better to bomb them – and the UK, US, Germany and, shockingly, Ukraine all actively support their ongoing massacre – Chandrasekera’s evocation of an interminable prison that some people live whole lives inside, while others don’t even register as a prison, hits hard. The protagonist, Fetter, is the son of two significant religious figures, each at war with the other. His informal job, in the refugee-magnet city of Luriat, is to help new arrivals navigate an identity system that minutely determines their position. The trivial politicking of the powerful and the citizen’s determination to ignore massacres, incarceration, abuse and suffering ring all too true. Molly Templeton perceptively observes that Fetter adopts another identity for much of the novel, rendering him illegible to the state, in a country where legibility is destiny. That is the only way he can act to sidestep the rigid determinism of power and his parents’ will. The Saint of Bright Doors operates at a very slight distance. Its language is plain, its protagonist often non-committal, but its ideas are rich. It’s both elegant and teaming. I read it carefully and slowly and, to be honest, not always sure I was enjoying it. But when I finished the last page (the dénouement is superb.) I had that all too rare feeling of being bereft now that it was done. I still think about it often, in wonder and gratitude. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.

My next engrossing read was Diana Evans’ A House for Alice, about the extended family of an elderly Nigerian woman, Alice, who came to Britain in the fifties. Now definitively released from her marriage, Alice wants to leave her three adult daughters to their wholly British lives and return to Benin City in Nigeria where a cousin is building her a house. The novel moves between Alice’s daughters, their partners and children, and, briefly, her husband, in a London where the apocalypse has already happened for the poor souls consumed in the Grenfell fire. It’s about Black middle class life in the capital, touching on many different worlds, from the dogged activism of a Doreen Lawrence-like character, to music, performance poetry, teenage life and more. It’s in the grand old tradition of the big nineteenth century novel, asking for a full cast of characters; how do we learn and grow as individuals, fulfil our obligations to family and survive in a social and political environment that is, even at its most benign, completely indifferent to our survival? A House for Alice was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing and, yes, it is a political novel; not because its characters are fomenting a revolution or even trying to survive one, but simply because it is about being Black in a country whose political leaders would be quite pleased if everyone they consider insufficiently British just ‘went home’. It’s a weird moment, isn’t it, where just writing about ordinary people’s lives, and remembering the names of brown kids who burned, is a political act?

I especially enjoyed a character called Nicola, the second wife of a man who used to be Alice’s son-in-law. Nicola is her marital predecessor’s opposite; un-intellectual, a singer, interested in looks, status, and pleasure, determined to succeed long after the entertainment world has written her off. Nicola is oil and water to me, but Evans makes her a character who rightly demands the respect she’s entitled to from her husband, and I completely got why they worked as a couple, even when they didn’t. I immediately bought Diana Evans’ previous novel about this family, set ten years before this one, Ordinary People, but found, just a couple of chapters in, that I couldn’t yet read about the dissolution of the relationship that makes Nicola’s marriage possible. Ordinary People opens at a party to celebrate the Obama inauguration. In more ways than one, it’s a moment that’s now too bittersweet to admit easy return.

Katja Oskap’s Marzahn, Mon Amour, translated from German by Jo Heinrich, is a memoir and social history of an unloved, Soviet era concrete jungle in east Berlin. It’s told by a writer who retrained as a podiatrist, and each chapter is about one of her clients. Marzahn, Mon Amour was published in 2022 by Peirene Press, who I used to subscribe to. They focused on bringing short, contemporary European works into English. Their White Hunger by Olli Alikainen was a brief, impressionistic account of people fleeing famine in late nineteenth century Finland. It had an emotional density so great, relative to its length, that it seemed to confound the laws of literary physics. I still have a stack of Peirenes to get through. Sadly, in these post-Brexit times, the publisher no longer brings unknown European fiction to the UK, but focuses more broadly on ‘world fiction’. An admirable goal in principle, but a short-sighted pity to stop up the literary flow (dribble) from the continent to this blighted isle. Marzahn, Mon Amour was an era-ending hit for the old Peirene, and it’s clear why. It’s affectionate and clear-sighted about the people of Marzahn and the respective usefulness of podiatrists and writers. It’s quite gruffly Germanic and feels very European in that sense of not being obliged to explicitly fill in emotional or motivational gaps. Those little spaces of context and intention left for the reader to join up feel a bit like horticultural grit added to thick London clay so other plants can grow. When Marzahn, Mon Amour shares a moment of joy or sorrow, you really, really feel it. Quite lovely.

I also got on the Jacqueline Harpman I who have never known men, bandwagon. (Translated by Ros Schwartz.) Wow. It’s a mid-nineties science fiction novel which feels a close relative of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, in its obliqueness and focus on gender, but is written by a Belgian woman who fled the Nazis. I who have never known men opens in a large cage in a bunker that holds thirty-nine women and the protagonist, a girl who cannot remember life before. A bit like Leave the World Behind, it’s the person with no attachment to ‘how things were and still should be’ (if only the women could remember how they came to be here), who eventually manages some forward motion. She begins by counting her heartbeats to establish an objective measure o time, and eventually proves the silent soldiers who keep them locked in and fed are not, in fact, operating the lights on a twenty-four hour cycle. The implication of this are, well, planetary. When the soldiers run away leaving a door open, the women try to break free of the prison. It’s an open question as to whether they succeed. I who have never known men is a sad but unsentimental tale of survival, discovery, and self-sufficiency. Genuinely odd.

Gathering speed now, Emma Donoghue’s first novel, Stir Fry, is about a young woman who goes to University College Dublin in almost exactly the same years I did. I read it because I like how first novels show the driving concerns and the craft-learning cracks that authors smooth over as they go along. This seems especially true of those who got their start in earlier decades, when publishers took a longer view of authors’ careers and didn’t externalise all the learning and editing costs onto them to fix before they even submitted. Stir Fry is fascinating and illuminating of the raw and unfinished version of Emma Donoghue, but also a wholly welcome trip down memory lane. It brought back being a student in the day of noticeboards, not mobile phones, how Dublin buses looked and smelled (not bad, just … singular), the crippling shyness along with possibility to become a completely new person, the time warp of going home to the provinces each weekend. The protagonist misreads the lesbian couple in her house-share and ultimately comes to learn she contains multitudes she hadn’t even imagined.

Then two books on living through revolution; Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, about a British nanny in an upper middle class Russian family about to be blown apart by 1917, and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. I’ll leave the Mantel to the side – I’m not sure I will finish it. It does something I don’t think would be ‘allowed’ now, chopping between different figures in the French Revolution and leaving key intervening life events unmentioned, to the point where it’s difficult to fathom who they are and why they do what they do. (I suppose there’s a place for anglo-literalism, after all.) And at over eight hundred pages. I like the day to day sense that no one really knows what’s going on, even those trying to grasp mass unrest and liberal-ish institutional reform by the horns and ride them all the way to a revolution. Charlotte Hobson’s book feels deeply researched and felt – and perhaps an ordeal to have produced – but fast-moving, emotionally credible, sometimes mysterious and always pressing forward. Her protagonist is fully believable even as she transforms from a Charlotte Bronte type – the steel-spined blue-stocking abroad who’ll blast through social convention for love – to someone buffeted but also freed by the forces of history. The Vanishing Futurist is about that wild, utopian moment in a revolution when it seems like everything can change, that our basic way of living can be rewritten, and how free love always seems to settle quickly into sexual exploitation.

This was also a year of forgetting (my second dose of covid in 2022 has not helped my brain). I forgot I’d read Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, and bought it again, then read it again in thorough enjoyment but also worried for my memory. This was a year in which I finished my PhD (hurray!), whose nonfiction component was about the discontinuities of past and present selves, so it was fitting, if alarming, to carry within me a perfectly silent nested self who’d already read Sea of Tranquility, but hadn’t thought to pipe up the second time in two years that I brought a copy to the counter. Also, apparently, in September I re-read Mansfield Park, something I’d completely forgotten until I read my book diary for this post, even though I wrote about it in my October newsletter.Yikes. This time round I was horrified by the pincer movement Fanny is trapped in by the combined bullying of her lover, uncle and cousin, when she first repels Henry Crawford’s proposal. On previous readings in my thirties I remember feeling torn about whether Fanny should redeem Crawford. Twenty years later, he doesn’t remotely seem someone who could have made her happy. Then again, neither does Edmund. At least Fanny has a decent brother.

Very very finally, speaking of decent brothers! The first book I finished this year was a carefully meted out re-read of a most beautiful first edition of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, given to me by Henry on a significant birthday in 2022. When I first read Angela Carter in my twenties, I remember zipping through for What Happens. I’m still interested in that, but now found myself delighted and sometimes even giddy at the people, scenes, textures, voices, the Very Very Muchness of it all. My God, she really was something.

What were your novels (or other books) of 2023? And any revealing re-reads / reassessments of your younger self’s impressions?



laurent sauve 12.15.23 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for the book reviews, it is always a pleasure to discover new authors.


Seekonk 12.15.23 at 7:55 pm

It’s not a novel or particularly short (350 pp), but I recommend Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, which arose from her experience, at first amusing then increasingly exasperating, of constantly being mistaken for conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf. Klein explores the online era: brands, alter ego, second selves, presence, likes, follows, mentions, the attention economy. “There is an intimate relationship between our overinflated selves and our under-cared-for planet.” She’s hopeful, finding promise in the unconventional union organizing at Amazon and Starbucks. Her prose is lively and accessible, informed by her regular interactions with the social media denizens who are her University of British Columbia students.

(Thank you for alerting me to Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. I really appreciated his Red Plenty.)


Doug K 12.15.23 at 9:24 pm

thanks Maria, I love to read your book reviews..
” I like how first novels show the driving concerns and the craft-learning cracks that authors smooth over as they go along. ”
exactly so.. I read the Dalziel and Pascoe series start to finish this year, re-read the Maturin/Aubrey series every few years, it’s an extra dimension to watch how the novelist grows and changes.

Reginald Hill was a novelist I’d not read until this year, now have read most of his novels, all well crafted and told.

Katherine Arden, Bear and Nightingale, medieval Russian folk creatures and Christian Eastern Orthodoxy and a hero’s tale from another angle. Solidly researched and well told. Eastern Orthodoxy has a lot of space for mysticism which fits in well with those Russian solitudes.

Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory.
It started out as your basic scifi military fantasy then went sideways into much more interesting and complex stories. In particular the time travel seemed to me emotionally realistic and I loved that it didn’t get bogged down in the usual tedious paradoxes.
It’s hard to read scifi with other habitable planets though. That’s a future I used to believe in, and I’m sad to have lost it. Now we have a different future with our own planet heading into a dystopian story..


Chris Bertram 12.16.23 at 4:10 pm

I’ve read a respectable number of novels this year, but very few recent ones (Balzac and Céline). Of the recent ones I did get to, I wrote about Gospodinov’s Time Shelter here on CT and I’ve just finished Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. Both recommended. Smith is witty, well-observed and consistently interesting. I also read Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead which I was somewhat hesitant to do because of all the fanfare, but its retelling of Dickens for the opioid crisis in Appalachia was actually very good. Kempowski’s An Ordinary Youth also recommended, as is anything by Pierre Lemaitre (I’ve read the interwar trilogy in French, and I’m planning the postwar tetraology (?) for next year). I also loved reading Despentes Vernon Subutex, but what I’ve seen of the English translation I didn’t much like.


John Q 12.17.23 at 9:44 am

I just finished Cahokia Jazz: I bought it as soon as I knew about it, as I would anything by Francis Spufford. I’ll wait for your review before saying anything more.

And that’s about the only new novel I managed for 2023. Hopefully my semi-retirement will give me more time.

Comments on this entry are closed.