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How pleasure came in from the cold

The year’s best novels tore down the divide between literary and genre fiction – and proved that political needn’t mean po-faced

By Cal REVELY-CALDER Cal Revely-Calder is the literary editor of The Telegraph

Popularity is not a guarantee of quality. Last year’s fiction offered ample proof of that: as Claire Allfree wrote here in November 2022, the big novelists, from Ian McEwan to Jonathan Coe, had let us down, and a generation of less heralded writers had seen the chance – thank goodness – to shoulder past.

In 2023, the trend did not abate. Zadie Smith hasn’t written a bad book yet, but The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton, £20), her first work of historical fiction and the biggest novel of the year, was a disappointment. Set largely in Victorian England, and pivoting on the (real-life) saga of a mysterious man who said he was the vanished aristocrat Roger Tichborne, it sketches a picture of Britain’s imperial pomp through a female abolitionist’s eyes. I defer to our critic Erica Wagner, who found the novel “richly enjoyable”, but I thought Smith swerved too quickly between psychological depth and satirical snark.

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City (Jonathan Cape, £22) was also avowedly feminist. Throughout his entertaining tale of a magical 14th- to 16th-century empire, the only constant is the mistreatment and endurance of the goddess who gave it life. Rushdie’s sheer love of fiction is irrepressible, though he could have done with a calmer editor. Yet the novel dates from what now seems like another era, completed before the attack on its author in August 2022 – and next year’s memoir of that event, Knife, is a different prospect in every way.

Ignore the obvious disasters – Sebastian Faulks’s The Seventh Son (Hutchinson Heinemann, £22) is better undiscussed – and you’re left with two big A-list successes, both overdue. Birnam Wood (Granta, £20), Eleanor Catton’s first novel since winning the Booker Prize 10 years ago, trampled the division between “literary” and “genre” fiction. Part eco-thriller, part satire on millennial angst, it pitches a group of New Zealand activists against the machinations of a billionaire; her climax in particular is swift, showy fun. In a different temper, The Shards (Swift Press, £10.99) was Bret Easton Ellis’s finest novel in a quarter-century. This autofictional tale of schoolday parties, gussied up with a serial killer, is richly drawn and full of sly self-reference. Trim the odd flabby patch and it’s as good as his breakout 1980s work.

That need for a trim, however, was another theme of the year. If only the major publishers would ditch their Instagram-friendly merchandise and invest instead in blue pencils and expertise. It’s no coincidence that short-story collections often came out on top. JM Coetzee’s The Pole and Other Stories (Harvill Secker, £20), if you believe the whispers, may be his final work: if so, its blend of languor and heartache was a fittingly warm farewell. With So Late in the Day (£8.99), meanwhile, Faber gambled that a single 64-page tale of a lonely man could hold a book by itself: thanks to Claire Keegan’s crystalline prose, they were right. And in The Coiled Serpent (Atlantic Books, £14.99), Camilla Grudova vented what she told us this month was her loathing for “standard” fiction, in an excellent second collection of exultantly gross-out tales.

What of the concerns? The fiction world, in general, seems tired of “cancel culture”, but among the exceptions was The Late Americans (Jonathan Cape, £18.99). In his second novel, Brandon Taylor tracked a circle of friends and lovers in Iowa City, and dissected, with savvy comedy, what our reviewer Nikhil Krishnan called the “selfdeceiving mutual admiration” of university seminars. Catherine Lacey’s fourth, Biography of X (Granta, £18.99), framed as a haphazard portrait of a postwar artist, offered both a satire on the selfregard of the artistic and literary worlds, and a rumination on America’s recent conservative turn.

Still, those who think fiction today is crushed under ideology were proven wrong in 2023. Instead, politics came in sidelong, with more cunning than belligerence. Sarah Bernstein’s Study for Obedience (Granta, £12.99), the best novel I read all year, follows a woman, apparently Jewish, moving to a rural village, where, for all her wish to serve her new community, she meets sinister prejudice. No part of it furnishes a straightforward moral: it turns threat into an ambience, rather than a chain of thumping events.

Maya Binyam’s Hangman (Pushkin One, £16.99) was similarly elegant, revealing, stage by stage, the harrowing backstory to its protagonist’s eerie – and drily comic – journey across sub-Saharan Africa. And Lauren Aimee Curtis’s magnificent Strangers at the Port (W&N, £16.99) flicks through the narrations of three characters, framing and reframing a community’s exodus from a dying Mediterranean isle. What unites all the novels above is attention to literary form: politics happens obliquely, not in capital letters on a placard.

Several novelists succeeded on a more interior scale. Soldier Sailor (Faber, £16.99), Claire Kilroy’s tale of a woman struggling with new motherhood, became the talk of the town; her insistent rhythms sweep you along just as anxiety can, or love. Megan Nolan’s Ordinary Human Failings (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) was another standout, the grubby tale of a tabloid reporter in 1990s London who takes the family of an alleged child killer and plies them with booze in order to flush their secrets out. On a grander canvas, but with no loss of intimacy, came Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr Michael Hofmann; Granta, £16.99), about an age-gap romance in the dying years of East Germany. Even as lust and hope curdle into regret and abuse, its protagonists remain too recognisable.

Among the subgenres to continue thriving was the “feminist retelling”. Those shelves have often leant towards the classical – Madeline Miller’s Circe, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy – but this year’s highlight retold a tale no older than many of those who are reading this. Sandra Newman’s Julia (Granta, £18.99) takes Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and recasts it through Winston’s lover’s eyes. “I wanted to know more,” Newman told us disarmingly this autumn, “about her time writing pornography for the Party.”

Between the novels and the short stories came several books that smeared the chalk line between those forms. Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You (Fourth Estate, £14.99), which follows the queasily comic tribulations of a young Jamaican man, can be viewed as a single novel or a chain of linked stories. Since Escoffery’s material is the flaky connections of familial strife, it was clever to make that his formal crux. The same could be said of Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch (Daunt Books, £9.99), a pithy presentation of reallife interviews with a Midwestern horsetrainer. In calling her book “a novel”, Scanlan makes you look with a beadier eye at the craft of storytelling itself – manoeuvres she describes as “the liberties of fiction”.

Scanlan’s success points to another rule of 2023: look past the big beasts and imprints if you want some truly unusual triumphs. Daunt Books, Scanlan’s publisher, spent valuable time in the archives and hunting abroad. One highlight, of the former type, was Lord Jim at Home (£9.99), by Dinah Brooke, a one-time enfant terrible of British fiction, who vanished from the scene in the late 1970s. A black comedy of manners, it has “the unhinged realism of a fairground mirror”, according to Claire Allfree, whom we sent to interview Brooke, now 88, about her extraordinary life.

Elsewhere, Faber’s “Editions” line impressed, reanimating books from Sven Holm’s Termush (tr Sylvia Clayton, £9.99), a 1967 tale of a luxury resort bunkered against an apocalypse, to Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion (£9.99), a 1947 story of two vicious children who bond over their mother’s waning love. Galley Beggar Press, meanwhile, was on the post-Orwell beat, offering Adam Biles’s Beasts of England (£10.99), a chaotic sequel that brings Manor Farm into the postBrexit and “post-truth” age. Its square political bites were fitting in the year Martin Amis passed away.

An author published in Britain by Fitzcarraldo Editions again won the Nobel Prize: the Norwegian dramatist and novelist Jon Fosse. His latest, A Shining (tr Damion Searls; £8.99), appeared soon after, and its vision of strange apparitions in a night-bound forest proved to be magisterially, intensely spiritual. As with the late Cormac McCarthy, who also died this year – and had been, for my money, the greatest living novelist – Fosse is a writer unlike almost any other. If you’ve never read him, do. Fitzcarraldo also continued to translate Annie Ernaux, Fosse’s predecessor as Nobel laureate: her slim autofictional books – this year, The Young Man (£6.99) and Shame (£9.99) – were praised by Sally Rooney, in a chat we published in the summer, as “attempts to intervene in the passage of time”.

But the gem has been Verso, our closest thing to a mainstream radical publisher. It’s building one of Britain’s most interesting fiction lists: two highlights were Hit Parade of Tears (tr several; £11.99), a collection of fascinatingly skewy stories by the late writer and model

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Izumi Suzuki, and Bluebeard’s Castle (£12.99), by the film director Anna Biller, a stylised retelling of the old fable that mixes selfreference and gaudy excess. Its heroine, Judith, a gothic-romance novelist, shacks up in a crumbling castle with a brooding husband; the sex, death and pricy cognac are of a wildly enjoyable piece.

Biller’s novel wasn’t alone in that. A whole seam of fiction prioritised pleasure and campy fun. Leading the pack was Jilly Cooper, whose Tackle! (Bantam, £22) saw Rupert Campbell-Black swap the polo fields for the Premier League. Luxuriating in libido on our behalf, Cleo Watson declared it “splendidly exaggerated”, and she would know: a former Downing Street adviser, her own erotic novel, Whips (Corsair, £20), appeared this summer. A riot of Westminster bed-hopping, full of oddly familiar characters, it seemed tailor-made to be read – with interest or terror – by everyone in British politics.

Finally, the gongs. This year’s Booker is announced tomorrow night: the shortlist was strong, without concessions to A-list status or transient buzz. I’d give it to Bernstein, but The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), Paul Murray’s well-liked tale of an Irish family in crisis, is “Booker bait” if ever I saw it. Elsewhere, the Goldsmiths Prize went to Cuddy (Bloomsbury Circus, £20) by Benjamin Myers, a dizzyingly inventive retelling of St Cuthbert’s life. The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction was given to Tom Crewe’s debut The New Life (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), about two gay men trying to overturn prejudice in the dying Victorian years; while the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was won by Lucy Caldwell’s These Days (Faber, £8.99), the story of four days in Belfast during the Blitz.

The latter appeared last year, yet its harrowing richness, its fidelity to historical trauma, came to mind when reading Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song (Oneworld, £16.99), a shallow tale of a war-torn near-future Ireland. So here’s one last heartening trend: in the past few years, we’ve had too many dystopian novels, but it seems that they’re on the wane. Fiction should offer more than real life with the names changed and the politics simplified. After all, the novels of the year, in various ways, give us exactly what fiction should – something sly or strange that you couldn’t possibly expect.

In 2023, those who think fiction is being crushed by ideology were proven wrong

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