My best novels of the year

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2023

I tend to read a novel a week (53 this year). Academic friends sometimes appear amazed by that, but if I don’t read 20 or 30 pages at night, I’m not going to sleep. Add 10 pages here or there during the week, and it’s four a month. Here were my 10 favourites during 2023:

James Cahill, Tiepolo Blue
Hernan Diaz, Trust
Michelle De Kretser, Scary Monsters
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
Rupert Thomson, Barcelona Dreaming
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream
Daniel Woodrell, The Death of Sweet Mister
Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
Laurent Mauvignier, The Birthday Party

(I’m including contemporary novels only – I read excellent novels by Sam Selvon, Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, etc, but it feels more appropriate for some reason to separate them out). Are there common themes to these novels? Not really, but it is striking that a number of them deal with themes of breakdown: personality breakdown (Tiepolo Blue, arguably Trust, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free), ecological breakdown (Scary Monsters, Sea of Tranquility). A few of them were split into apparently separate parts – some of them resolved those divisions, some didn’t (Barcelona Dreaming, Trust, Sea of Tranquility). Anyway, no doubt I missed many gems. Tell me about them!



Chris Bertram 12.28.23 at 12:58 pm

My top ten contemporary novels (at least at this moment) were

Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 2 and 3 (counting as 1 and I read vol 1 last year)
Gauz, Debout-payé
Jenny Erpenbeck, Kairos
Gospodinov, Time Shelter
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Pierre Lemaitre, Couleurs de l’incendie
Walter Kempowski, An Ordinary Youth
Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead
Zadie Smith, The Fraud

No overlaps with you Chris though I read Sea of Tranquility last year. Kempowski is not new, and hardly contemporary, and maybe not a novel, but only just appeared in English.

Just to say, most contemporary novels are 320 pages, roughly. So 30 pages a night, even allowing for additions, doesn’t get you through one in a week. My count was down this year, but since I managed 13 novels in French, Alex Ross’s monumental Wagnerism, McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and Ulysses, I’m forgiving myself.


Chris Armstrong 12.28.23 at 3:10 pm

You’re right, Chris, on the maths. But I get through quite a few that are a fair bit shorter than that (e.g., you can read a Maigret novel in no time), and then the numbers get swelled by holiday reading too. Holidays aside, I rarely read during the day. I look forward to being able to one day…


LFC 12.28.23 at 7:57 pm

I don’t read a lot of novels, but in the past year I did read Vibhuti Jain’s Our Best Intentions, V.T. Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (as I’ve mentioned here before), and am currently about halfway through Adulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure, which was his first novel, published in 1987.


Alan White 12.29.23 at 3:17 am

I also enjoyed Harlem Shuffle this year. I had read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members but this year finished her trilogy with The Shakespeare Requirement and The English Experience. I also read Atwood’s Hag Seed, Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, and just finished Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, which is a wonderful gathering together of many of her Lucy Barton-related books. I’ll be diving into Trust soon too. Through a friend I discovered the delightful Stephanie Plum series written by Janet Evanovich–not deep at all but sometimes LOL enjoyable.


Chris Armstrong 12.29.23 at 9:24 am

Some great stuff there, Alan. I also read and enjoyed The Shakespeare Requirement, though I still have The English Experience to look forward to. I didn’t get on with Hag Seed at all – I’m a fan of Atwood in general, but couldn’t get beyond 50 pages of that one. Lucy By the Sea is beckoning me from the book pile now…


Archie Shempkin 12.31.23 at 5:38 am

Quite a mix this year. The best:

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmerelda
Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam
Paul Harding, Tinkers
Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone
Daniel Drsano, Acting Class


Archie Shempkin 12.31.23 at 5:40 am

Oops, that’s Nick Drnaso


novakant 12.31.23 at 11:28 am

John McGahern: Amongst Women
Thomas Mann: Early Storys
Karl Ove Knausgaard: The Wolves of Eternity (very good, prequel to The Morning Star, part of a planned series of 6, he’s moved away from autofiction)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter Series
E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandmann
Louise Kennedy: Trespasses
Ben Lerner: Leaving the Atocha Station / 10:04 / The Topeka School / (highly recommended, the first two are very autobiographical, and frequently funny, the last one less so and touching on bigger themes, especially language both in the private and public sphere)


novakant 12.31.23 at 11:52 am

Two of the books are of course not novels, sorry, I just read the title of the post.


JW Mason 01.02.24 at 4:30 am

I didn’t read any contemporary fiction this year. (I only even recognize a couple of the author names in the OP.) But fwiw here are some novels that I did read:

Abdelrahman Munif – The Trench
Abdelrahman Munif – Variations of Night and Day
Roberto Bolaño – Night in Chile
Natalia Ginsburg – The Dry Heart
Natalia Ginsburg – Happiness, as Such
Natalia Ginsburg – Voices in the Evening
Annie Ernaux – A Man’s Place

And some others, but those are the good ones.


engels 01.02.24 at 9:17 pm

I think I got through a respectable, but not overly impressive, number of classics during bouts of insomnia. Not going to list them all but I did enjoy The Man Who Was Thursday.

Also made it halfway through Gravity’s Rainbow, which improves on my previous record.


novakant 01.04.24 at 9:48 am

I loved Bolano (“Last Evenings on Earth”) and Ernaux (“The Years”, “A Man’s Place”).

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