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Age of Vice

Deepti Kapoor (Riverhead)

The year’s great Dickensian novel takes place in 2001 Delhi, where a young man from the lowest caste works as a driver for the flashy son of a crime boss. Kapoor employs a wide and perceptive lens for the story, which involves a fatal car crash and its repercussions. It’s a violent and bitter pill, but an absolutely addictive one.


August Blue

Deborah Levy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

After Elsa Anderson, a plaintive London pianist and former child prodigy, spectacularly tanks a Rachmaninov piece on stage, she’s reduced to giving private lessons to the rich and privileged. From there, Elsa has a series of encounters with her double, which bring her murky backstory into the light in Levy’s extraordinary and subtle narrative.



Andrés Neuman, trans. from the Spanish by Robin Myers (Open Letter)

This gritty and surreal tale of two garbagemen in Buenos Aires, originally published in 1999, was a favorite of Roberto Bolaño’s, for reasons made clear by the hypnotic prose and surprising twists. As one of the men deals with insomnia, he remembers a tortured love affair he had as a teen growing up in Patagonia, which troubles him now as he carries on a liaison with his route partner’s wife.


Beyond the Door of No Return

David Diop, trans. from the French by Sam Taylor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Michael Adanson watched himself die under his daughter’s gaze,” begins Diop’s phantasmagorical novel of a dead Frenchman’s daughter who learns about her father’s adventures in 18th-century Senegal from his manuscript. The artful and layered narrative, a finalist for the National Book Award in translation, shows Diop at the top of his game.



Shannon Sanders (Graywolf)

Sanders’s revelatory debut collection offers a warts-and-all portrait of a Black extended family, set mainly in Washington, D.C., with stories retold and expanded upon from various family members’ perspectives. Each character feels deeply human as they navigate what it means to be “company” at one another’s homes and parties, and whether to expect a warm embrace or cold scrutiny.


A Cowardly Woman No More

Ellen Cooney (Coffee House)

An office novel and a fairy tale meet at a banquet hall in rural Massachusetts, with magical and mysterious results. Corporate analyst Trisha, having been passed over for a promotion, has been dreading her firm’s annual luncheon. As Trisha wanders the venue’s corridors and has strange encounters with people from her past, Cooney puts her inner life on glimmering display.



Maylis de Kerangal, trans. from the French by Jessica Moore (Archipelago)

De Kerangal’s hypnotic strangers-on-a-train narrative involves a young, disgruntled Russian army conscript and a bored Frenchwoman in Siberia, where she relocated with her toxic lover. As the two scheme to break free from their lives while traveling east on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the reader feels the characters’ crushing oppression and desire for freedom as much as they do.


The Fraud

Zadie Smith (Penguin Press)

Speaking of Dickens, Smith unceremoniously kills him off in this spectacular and beguiling story about a sensational trial in Victorian London. He’s just a minor character, after all, in a tale of an alleged imposter who’s laid claim to a fortune and an aspiring novelist following the case. For Smith, it’s an inspired and successful reinvention as a historical novelist.


Greek Lessons

Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won (Hogarth)

The author of the smash-hit novel The Vegetarian departs from psychological horror with a story that is subtler but no less powerful. At its center are a grieving woman who’s stopped speaking and the connection she forges with a Greek language teacher who’s losing his sight. The results are exquisite.


I Have Some Questions for You

Rebecca Makkai (Viking)

Somehow, Makkai has managed to pull off a novel that’s simultaneously about the unsettling popularity of true crime, racial inequities in the criminal justice system, post-#MeToo gender politics, 1990s pop nostalgia, and boarding schools, all without ever feeling exploitive or opportunistic. It’s gripping, laugh-out-loud funny, and, most of all, completely honest.


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

James McBride (Riverhead)

Several critics have called McBride’s latest the year’s Great American Novel, and it’s easy to agree. His scope is broad and intriguing—a 1972 discovery of human bones in Pottstown, Pa., frames the narrative, which is mostly set in 1925—and his canvas is richly detailed and colorfully peopled. It’s also an excellent reminder of his fine skill for writing about jazz.


Let Us Descend

Jesmyn Ward (Scribner)

A kinetic interplay between the spirit world and the horrors of the antebellum South drives this visceral story of a young enslaved woman struggling to survive on a sugar plantation, after being separated from her mother and the woman she loves. For Ward’s protagonist, the call of comforting spirits is as palpable as the abuses are painfully real.


North Woods

Daniel Mason (Random House)

Mason’s ambitious, unconventional, and impossible-to-put-down narrative revolves around a colonial farmhouse in western Massachusetts, where the various characters settle from the mid-17th century to the present day. Each section describes the appeal of the land on the new residents and their backstories, while bringing their historical moment to vivid life.


The People Who Report More Stress: Stories

Alejandro Varela (Astra House)

Varela’s superb collection explores the stressors in his Latinx characters’ lives. In one entry, a couple deals with gentrification in Brooklyn and passive-aggressive behavior from the white parents of their child’s classmate. Another couple fences stolen goods to raise money for their kids’ private school tuition. The author’s knack for drama and well-timed insights make these slices of life sing and sting.


Small Worlds

Caleb Azumah Nelson (Grove)

A tight-knit church and a freewheeling night club scene in Southeast London set the stage for Nelson’s searching bildungsroman about a young British Ghanaian man torn between filial duty and his passion for music. Perhaps better than any other writer this year, Nelson captures what it feels like to form an identity.


Terrace Story

Hilary Leichter (Ecco)

Leichter proved herself a master of off-kilter fiction with her indie hit Temporary. This one’s about a woman with the power to alter space with her mind—her friend’s cramped closet becomes a sprawling outdoor terrace—and the bargains made by people to reach their aspirations. It’s even more inventive and moving than Leichter’s debut.


This Is Salvaged

Vauhini Vara (Norton)

Vara pinpoints the guile of children in her striking and mordantly funny collection. In one story, two 14-year-olds pretend to be old enough to work as phone sex operators. Another follows a spiteful eight-year-old who watches her stepmother paddle a kayak toward an alligator without offering a warning.


This Other Eden

Paul Harding (Norton)

The majestic third outing from Harding, a well-deserved finalist for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, traces the history of an isolated and diverse community on an early 20th-century Maine island and its disruption by an outsider. The author’s psychological insights and shimmering descriptions are in full effect.



Teju Cole (Random House)

The critic and photographer’s first novel since his Sebaldian debut Open City takes autofiction to the next level. Nested in this brilliant series of a Harvard professor’s meditations on art, colonialism, and education is a story of friendship and grief that zooms out into a polyphonic portrait of contemporary Lagos.


The Unsettled

Ayana Mathis (Knopf)

Black radical politics in 1980s Philadelphia and a dwindling historically Black town in Alabama frame Mathis’s sprawling epic about attempts to build communities outside of white society. Mathis keenly establishes a sense of place, and the drama builds to an unforgettable climax.


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