RD 10 Best books of the year

12 min read

RD 10 Best books of the year
It's been a year of great books, but which were our favourites? We take a look back at the best books of 2023 by authors including Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie

The Fraud by Zadie Smith

In a recent New Yorker article, Zadie Smith talked about the seeming inevitability of every English author writing a historical novel. She resisted for years, she said, despite having a quiet obsession with a particular Victorian court case, on the basis that if a novel “could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, well, then, that novel is not quite doing its job.” 
After mulling over this idea for eleven years, Smith has finally given in, and to great effect. The Fraud tells the story of London housekeeper Mrs Eliza Touchet, and her increasing obsession with the "Tichborne Trial", in which a man long thought dead has supposedly returned to claim his fortune. Whether this man is indeed Mr Tichborne or a butcher from Wapping is almost by the by, because at the centre of the trial is the Tichborne claimant’s key witness Mr Andrew Bogle. A former slave, and long-time servant to the Tichborne family, it’s with him that Mrs Touchet’s undivided focus lies.
As with many period novels, we begin in aristocratic London. But halfway through, we’re transported to Jamaica to pursue Mr Bogle’s unendingly tragic story. Whereas other stories in this setting might give a nod, at most, to the horrific conditions of the sugar plantations, it’s rare for us to see it beside those callously enjoying the benefits on the other side of the world, and in such miserable focus.
Smith may have done the thing she swore she’d never do, but contrary to her past thoughts on historical fiction, she tells this old story through a nuanced, contemporary lens.
(Miriam Sallon, books contributor)

Victory City by Salman Rushdie

If there was a competition for the best pastiche of the opening words of a Salman Rushdie novel, a pretty good entry might be: “On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga”. By coincidence, these are also the opening words of Victory City, a book Rushdie finished shortly before last summer’s tragic stabbing
From there, he goes on to retell the events laid out in Pampa’s poem—and to prove all over again that nobody else writes novels quite like this, where history and magic realism are perfectly intertwined. 
Bisnaga, for example, was a real Indian city that between the 14th and 16th centuries became one of the grandest in the world. On the other hand, it seems a safe bet that it didn’t come into existence, as it does here, when a goddess-inspired prophetess told two cowherds to scatter seeds on the ground. Or that once these instantly grew into an urban wonder, she whispered to the newly fledged inhabitants the stories of their lives and families, and of the city’s past.
Either way, soon afterwards, one of the cowherds crowns himself king and Bisnaga’s cycle of greatness and decline begins. Among much else, Rushdie gives us talking monkeys, people transformed into birds and Pampa’s own ability to live for centuries without much ageing. But we also get plenty of recognisable politics as the city flourishes when at its most tolerant and falls apart whenever a ruler decides that religion means only that “we are good, they are bad”. Meanwhile, for all the strangeness of the magic bits, Rushdie is as impressive as ever at such traditional literary satisfactions as beautiful pacing and vivid, unforgettable characters. 
(James Walton, books contributor)

The Year of the Locust  by Terry  Hayes

It’s been ten years since I Am Pilgrim, the 912-page action-crammed tome, hit the shelves, and fans still haven’t gotten over it. Some claim it redefined the spy-thriller genre, and the Guardian said it “makes moussaka of its rivals”. Terry Hayes could easily have retired on the glory, never to write another word. There’s even a film coming out, with rumours that Leonard Dicaprio will play the lead. 
But Hayes clearly wasn’t satisfied, and once again he’s delivered a whiplashing, wild-ride adventure, this time at a modest 672 pages that takes us, not just around the world, but into a terrifying future. 
He packs a crazy amount in, probably enough material for three novels. I know it’s bad form to give spoilers but I don’t think you’ll be any the wiser if I tell you we start at a hanging in Iran and end up 24 years in the future in sewage tunnels fighting orcs. 
For the most part, this is a classic CIA spy thriller with all the heart-thumping trimmings. Ridley Kane is a Denied Access Area spy, sent on one mission after the next in places basically impossible to enter, to try and prevent a global terrorist spectacular. It’s Homeland on speed, an immaculately (or at least convincingly) researched, classic US-centric tale of goodies and baddies. 
But it doesn’t stop there. While the main thrust of the plot doesn’t change—high-stakes, high tension drama—three quarters of the way through, Hayes strays confidently into the speculative, dabbling with time-travel and a dystopian evolution of the human race. So now it’s Homeland meets The Last of Us and then some. 
Some might say Hayes should stick to what he does best, or at least pick a lane, but I’d say he's a master at getting your blood racing, and if that means reaching outside his usual crayon box for an orc or two, then more power to him. 
(Miriam Sallon, books contributor)

Old Babes in the Wood: Stories by Margaret Atwood

On the face of it, Margaret Atwood’s Old Babes in the Wood should be a distinctly gloomy read. In several stories, Atwood—now 83—ponders the indignities of ageing, with the characters realising their growing frailty, the pointlessness of vanity about how they look and the increasing tendency of their friends to die. Above all, there’s a sense of finding themselves in an unfamiliar and weirdly priggish new world, where almost everything they thought they knew seems to no longer apply.  
At the same time, however, Atwood is always aware of the comedy involved in becoming elderly. At times, indeed, the characters appear to relish their transformation into “old biddies”: freed from the whole business of sex (“You don’t have to hold your stomach in anymore”) and allowed to behave as eccentrically as they like. They’re also amused, as well somewhat dismayed, by the over-earnestness of 21st-century young women, before amusedly remembering their own youthful over-earnestness.  
The collection is bookended by seven clearly autobiographical tales written after the death from dementia in 2019 of Atwood’s partner of nearly 50 years, Graeme Gibson. Again, though, these are by no means simply grim. While Atwood spares us none of the pain and bewilderment of widowhood, she writes infectiously of the fun the couple had back when they were oblivious of what lay in store. (“Obliviousness had served them well,” she ruefully notes.)  
Along the way, we also get a few wild flights of fantasy where realism is left far behind. But something we never get—unusually for a short story collection—is anything resembling a dud. Instead, there’s just page after page proving that, however much the book might acknowledge physical decline, Atwood’s lavish literary talents remain wholly undiminished. 
(James Walton, books contributor) 

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Maybe it’s just because I’m a bloke—although I like to think it isn’t—but one type of novel I’ve begun to find a bit tiresome is the type whose essential message is that women are great. Not (of course!) that this is a message I disagree with. The trouble is that such novels generally feel not just predictable but strangely needy, as if they’re almost begging for reassurance.
It was, then, with some dismay that I read on the jacket that the new novel by Anne Enright—one of Ireland’s best living authors—is “a testament to the glorious resilience of women”. Surely she too hadn’t gone for something so banal? Well, as luck would have it, I needn’t have worried, because the book itself is far richer and more interesting than that.
The first section is narrated by Nell, who’s drifting through Dublin and her early twenties in a haze of booze, unsatisfying jobs and dodgy flats. We then move to a section about Carmel’s early life that goes quite a long way to explaining how both women have ended up as they have—which on the whole is seeking male approval while wishing they didn’t. At the heart of this dilemma is Carmel’s late father Phil, a successful poet whose fame and charisma apparently allowed him to get away with doing whatever the heck he liked. 
Enright traces the resulting damage with clear-eyed skill and the odd touch of anger, but mainly with a rueful wisdom that’s accepting of Carmel and Nell’s frailties, but never so sentimental as to make either of them entirely blameless—or to underplay the damage they cause in their turn.  
(James Walton, books contributor)

Normal Rules Don’t Apply by Kate Atkinson

With some writers there might be quite a contrast between a new slim volume of short stories and an earlier, highly twisty 500-page novel. In Kate Atkinson’s case, though, Normal Rules Don’t Apply has something significant in common with the bestselling, award-winning Life after Life (also adapted into a BBC drama series). There, normal rules didn’t apply either, as Atkinson gave us dozens of possible lives as they might have been led by her heroine. Here, if anything, she takes the process further, by serving up a multiverse of possible worlds. 
In the first story, a mysterious “void” starts covering the Earth for five minutes a day, killing anybody not indoors. In the second, Franklin, a TV producer and gambler, seems to be living in an entirely realistic modern Britain—until, that is, a horse speaks to him. In the third, a woman faces something even odder: the fact that she’s dead.  
If you wanted to give yourself a challenge, you could treat the whole thing as a kind of riddle to be decoded—and probably enjoy doing it. On the other hand, you could just relish the individual stories for their mixture of strangeness and the often very funny observations about recognisable everyday life against which the strangeness is set. There are also any number of memorable characters—from a bona fide goddess to a couple not unlike Harry and Meghan—whom Atkinson conjures up in only a few sentences. 
Most striking of all, though, is the abiding sense of infectious, slightly bonkers fun. Atkinson is clearly having a great time letting her imagination run wild—and my firm guess is that her readers will too.
(James Walton, books contributor)

Julia by Sandra Newman

The trend for feminist re-writes has long been upon us: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta to name a very few. 
While a brilliant idea in its inception, there’s now a sense of jumping on the bandwagon, looking for new ways to sell old stories. But in the case of Julia, Sandra Newman resolves a problem that has beleaguered the seminal 1984 since its publication.
Orwell created a terrifying totalitarian nightmare, but it is very much a man’s dystopia. Julia might be considered the lead supporting role but she is, as Noah Berlatsky wrote, nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl, a tool for Winston Smith to self-actualise. 
Newman doesn’t discredit Winston's story, rather she enriches it, lending a female experience so that the two novels might be presented as one series, from the perspective, first of earnest Winston, and then of savvy and cynical Julia. 
Julia’s relationship with Big Brother is decidedly more complicated than that of Orwell’s Winston: She is not simply waking up to the injustices of the party, rather she has always known that the party is unjust, she just thinks the best way out is in; with more power would come more freedom. Despite initially feeling more distorted—even the good guys are bad guys—this somehow also creates more room for hope than Orwell allowed and, stranger still, more humour. 
The two narratives don’t just run in tandem; Newman does well to lattice her story with some of Orwell’s unexplained details: Why is Julia’s arm in a sling when she and Winston first make contact, and why does Winston’s blindly devout neighbour shout “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep? It’s as if Orwell were hoping someone would take these hints to follow up with a sequel. 
There’s no doubt that Orwell’s ideas were revelatory, and Newman is certainly standing on the shoulders of an eminent giant. But in lending a new perspective, she creates a more complex and, arguably, more disturbing image.
(Miriam Sallon, books contributor)

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

For most of us, violent racial conflict in 20th century America probably conjures up images of the Deep South. Yet as Dennis Lehane’s new novel makes horrifyingly clear, the problem was far more widespread than that. 
Small Mercies is set in working-class Irish Boston in 1974: the year the city finally decided to desegregate the education system by busing some white kids to traditionally all-black schools and vice versa.
In theory, this might sound like a progressive move. But for the community that Lehane writes about so immersively (he grew up in it himself), it’s a tyrannical imposition by middle-class liberals whose own children won’t suddenly be plunged into an environment where they’re unlikely to receive a warm welcome. There’s also the fact that the Irish regard black people with a level of hostility which Lehane never remotely plays down.
The book begins with main character Mary Pat Fennessey agreeing to help publicise an anti-busing rally. The single mother of a teenage daughter, Mary Pat is fully aware of how constricted life is in this part of town, where Irish mobsters rule. The trouble is that she can’t see any way out of it. Things then take a turn for the substantially worse when her daughter disappears at the same time as a young black man is found murdered nearby. So are the two events linked? And if they are, what can a 42-year-old woman do about it? The answer, it transpires is quite a lot and not enough.
Lehane is now well established as one of America’s finest crime writers, who superbly blends uncompromising social history with uncompromising tales of what people driven to the limit will do. But perhaps best of all is his creation of character. As ever, Small Mercies is densely populated with a wide-ranging collection of unforgettable people—none more so than Mary Pat, whose often alarming behaviour somehow doesn’t stop us rooting for her. 
Oh yes, and Lehane’s classic tough-guy prose is still in great shape too. One baddie, for example, dies when he “drops to the ground, his body nothing but a bag for non-functioning organs, his soul already halfway to hell”.
(James Walton, books contributor)

The Other Side of Mrs Wood by Lucy Barker

In essence, the plot of Lucy Barker’s debut novel is a pretty standard one. A businesswoman has been at the top of her profession for years. But then along comes a younger, more ruthless rival who, by satisfying the public’s insatiable desire for the next new thing, is soon poaching her customers. And so as one rises, the other falls.  
The twist here, though, is that the businesswomen are 19th-century mediums battling it out in the surprisingly cut-throat world of spiritualism among London’s fashionable classes.  
The first is Violet Wood, who’s achieved the rare feat of operating as a medium for 15 years without being exposed as a fraud. Nor has anyone ever discovered that her background is by no means as respectable as she claims. But now, approaching 40, she’s starting to wonder if her monthly Grand Séances are becoming a bit old hat—not least when she hears one attendee stifling a yawn. Meanwhile, her ferociously ambitious protégé Emmie Finch is about to raise the stakes by manifesting her spirit guide in physical form, and not just through voice alone… 
As somebody with a Master’s in Victorian studies, Barker clearly knows this world well, writing about it with infectious relish and a great eye for arresting detail. She also lets us on the tricks of the trade, such as how to make a séance table rock (with a little pulley attached to the medium’s foot, since you ask)—but acknowledges, too, the genuine solace that spiritualism provided. Best of all, she populates the world in question with a large cast of characters who, rather unexpectedly in the circumstances, prove highly relatable. 
(James Walton, books contributor)

Hangman by Maya Binyam

Maya Binyam’s debut novel Hangman is hard to define. It doesn’t seem to slot neatly into any genre and the distinctive style won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it tells a memorable story of a man (about whom we are given few details) as he returns home to an unnamed country in sub-Saharan Africa after 26 years in America. Everything is very vague—all the travel arrangements were made for him but we aren’t told who by, an unknown person is picking him up at the airport and taking him somewhere. It seems he doesn’t know much himself, although he does know that he is trying to find his dying brother. To do this he must navigate bureaucrats, taxi drivers and strangers whose lives are strangely tied to his own.
At times, Binyam veers into the absurd and surreal, with the narrative taking on a dreamlike quality. The novel’s strongest moments lie in interactions between characters, revealing thoughtful observations about exile, cultural identity and the nature of diaspora.
(Alice Gawthrop, Junior Editor)
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