2019 was an exceptionally fine year for new fiction. My list of the best fiction of this year was difficult to make, as so many excellent choices are available. In reading other such lists (“The New York Times Book Review”; “The New Yorker”, NPR, Amazon, amongst others), I noted that these lists have few novels in common and diverge wildly in selection; only a few novels criss-crossed on them). Having also just read Hilton Als’ tribute to Joan Didion’s early fiction in the Dec. 9 issue of “The New Yorker”, a writer for whom I share his admiration and praise, I note that fiction isn’t dominated by certain great writers, as was true when Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Iris Murdoch, John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Anita Brookner were still publishing (and no, Jia Tolentino isn’t one of them: comparisons of her writing to Joan Didion’s are just short of ludicrous). Although writing fiction is still very much around, Western Culture in particular seems not to be generating predictably great writers/thinkers. I also noted an increasing interest in non-binary characters; many protagonists in fiction this year are either lesbian or fluid.
But one of the happiest pleasures of reading this year is the advent of a large number of new novels by women of color, particularly African or African-born, whose work certainly dominates my list this year.
With these thoughts in mind, here’s my Best Fiction of 2019 list.
- “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo, of whom I’d never heard before; her novel just co-won the highly prestigious Booker Award for fiction. Evaristo is a relatively young woman of color who lives in London; her long but wildly engaging novel examines the lives of around fifteen women of color living in and around London, and quite a cast of characters they are: exuberant, lively, survivors all, the characters are fascinating in and of themselves, more so as their lives intersect and interact, from the playwright (black/female/lesbian) whose work has just been accepted to The National Theater for production, to her best friend whose life takes a long detour into a lesbian feminist commune in Georgia, to a school teacher who’s come from nothing and returns to her old high school to try “to make a difference”, to the daughter of the playwright, herself an original eccentric free spirit in her own generation, but not to her free spirited daughter, a biological mix of that mother and a gay male friend, who becomes a national arts critic , resenting having to “play” black man. Evaristo can be hilarious at times; her characters occasionally manipulate race and gender for their advantage. Living on the economic fringes and margins of London society, Evaristo writes about their lives in what’s nearly a rap style–it appears almost as poetry–that’s lively and brilliantly rendered and highly rhythmic; the writing bursts off the pages of the novel and keeps the pace zooming forward. The novel’s also a tribute to friendships between and amongst women. “Girl, Woman, Other” may be the most original novel of the year, too; it’s fast-paced, funny and serious concurrently, and didactic, as well. Evaristo’s created a group of women of color with exuberance and passion; the women are strong and empowered and have created lives out of the seeming scraps or leftovers of a dominant culture which hasn’t given a damn about them in a general sense; Evaristo’s novel attempts to rectify such dismissals, and she does so with great power and wit and superb writing.
- “The Old Drift”, by African-born writer Namwali Serpell, is a huge epic of a novel, which takes place in the African country in the process of becoming Zambia. Beginning with three perhaps oddball women (and the men they marry), these three women, of differing colors and different backgrounds, who don’t quite fit into the European culture where they’ve been living, emigrate to Africa, near Victoria Falls, to begin new lives. Serpell’s descriptions of the landscape are breathtaking, and she shows us how colonial peoples come to attempt to dominate those pre-existing native cultures. The author takes us through many different generations, and many different historical periods and crises–the AIDS crisis being one of the most devastating. Most of her characters are resilient, they are often entrepreneurial; Serpell is brilliant in bringing her characters together from time to time in plot devices of exceptional brilliance. The novel, is, in ways, narrated by mosquitoes, those maddening insects that are riddled with diseases that make and break lives and civilizations, and those chapters from these insects’ points of view are astonishingly written ( a mosquito serves as a marker between chapters and at stopping points between same). Babies are born and end up living with formerly estranged relatives; women create hair salons to survive and become subjects for the testing of possible treatments for the AIDS virus). Children learn to go to city dumps to find the detritus of Western cultures (we export electronic junk to African countries, but these savvy children rebirth these parts). Drones are invented and play their ominous role in controlling political demonstrations. At the beginning of the novel, the new (white) settlers dam the great Zambezi River; at the end, it’s blown up by the grandchildren/great-grandchildren of these founding families (that African spirit cannot be subdued). Black men visiting England on educational scholarships end up founding great political movements in Zambia, with white wives of whom they were once proud and now ambivalent. The founding of a country over several generations is, in essence, the grand narrative of “The Old Drift”, a novel so brilliantly written and plotted, so epochal in scale, that “The Old Drift”, whose author is 31 years old, is one of 2019’s greatest novels.
- Kevin Barry’s “Night Boat to Tangier” is full of noir-esque atmosphere, in which two aging men, who’ve been smuggling drugs in and around Ireland and Europe for decades, find themselves in a waiting room in a small town in Spain; one of these men’s daughters has long ago run away, and they are trying to find her, believing that she will appear in this station either on her way to or from Tangier. The men spend most of the evening reviewing their lives together, in a kind of near meditative trance. Their friendship has survived much, including their mutual love for the same woman, to whom one was married and with whom the other has had a brief affair. The world of drug smuggling is admirably delineated, as it includes all kinds of small town hustlers, male and female, and we learn how using heroin destroyed the marriage mentioned above, after which the daughter runs away. Barry is exceptional in his descriptions of people, of rooms, of dingy light in tacky waiting rooms, of the flotsam and jetsum of people en route to and from Tangier, only an hour away from the port city in Spain where the men wait and review their lives. Some black humor surfaces, as the men complain that drug dealing, their main skill, is less in demand, in favor of human trafficking , a skill they lack and find distasteful. Barry’s writing is so near to lyrical poetry, his sense of place astonishingly fine, his understanding of middle-aged male friendship astute and acute: there’s a certain nostalgia pervading their conversations. That the daughter does appear and that she recognizes the two men but flees from them becomes almost secondary to the long night of conversation between these two mostly likeable crooks, who, at this point in their lives, probably need each other more than they need anyone else. Berry’s writing is understated and lyrical, pitch perfect and elegiac. “Night Boat to Tangier” is splendid.
- “Olive, Again”, by Elizabeth Strout, is perfectly, flawlessly written, as the author brings back her Pulitzer-prize winning character “Olive Kittredge” at late middle and old age, in her invented town of Crosby, Maine. The feisty, curmudgeonly Olive has mellowed a bit with time and widowhood; she’s attempting to revive her flagging relationship with her only son , who lives in New York with a new wife who arrives with two children from a former marriage; they have a son together. Olive’s ambivalence about motherhood is superb reading; it’s not just that she wonders if she’s failed in this department, but she wonders about her mixed feelings about being a mother at all. Olive remarries Jack, a retired Harvard professor, in this novel. The dynamics of a late-in-life second marriage between two lonely but proud people are brilliantly and sensitively delineated by Strout, in what may be linked short stories. Both Olive and Jack know to avoid certain sensitive topics from each other’s pasts; when, out at a restaurant, Jack runs into an old girlfriend, it’s fascinating to watch Olive rapidly figure out who she is and to avoid any real discussion of this woman she’s heard about but never before met. Throughout “Olive, Again”, Olive visits people in the town; she’s a former high school math teacher there. She runs into a former student at a marina restaurant, who’s now a famous national poet, and their shared conversation about loneliness ends up in one of the writer’s poems. Olive’s at a baby shower, and ends up delivering a baby in her small car, as another guest gives birth. Olive visits a young dying woman, allowing her to talk about dying and her feelings about same; Olive’s a kind of catalyst for people to open up. And after Jack himself dies, and Olive tries living alone at an advanced age, even hearing the life stories of her hired caregivers, Olive moves to a nursing/retirement home, which she dislikes, but, typically, adjusts. The 86 year old Olive is, of course, left alone there, and Strout’s writing about aging alone is some of the best of 2019. Strout is consistently one of America’s finest fiction writers, and “Olive, Again” proves that once again.
- “The Shadow King”, by Maaza Mengitse, an Ethiopian-born woman, is an epochal sweep of a novel, which is set during the second invasion of Ethiopia, this time under the fascist Italian Mussolini. The warrior Kindane is preparing for this invasion, and finds that his often difficult wife Aster has insisted on fighting with him and his men, as a warrior, not a cook or a logistician. Aster’s servant (slave?) Hirut, who has come to live with this couple because her late mother was a friend of the Kindane family, becomes the main character of this fast-paced narrative. Both Aster and Hirut are filled with long simmering rage; neither has chosen her fate in the highly rigid society in which they find themselves (Aster a bride at 15, Hirut basically a slave). Some of the minor characters in this novel, such as a woman known only as “the cook” (who’d earlier tried to escape with the young Aster); a random soldier who resembles The Emperor Haile Selassie and who becomes “The Shadow King” of the title (and whose visual presence in battle rallies villagers all over the country, while the real Emperor has escaped to England); a native call girl/prostitute who lives with and offers pleasure and comfort to the Italian commander, known as The Butcher of Benghazi; and several of the male soldiers whose loyalty to Kidane is total but lessens because of his treatment/repeated rapes of Hirut; and a Jewish photographer attached to the Italian troops, whose job it is to photograph Ethiopian prisoners before they are forced to leap to their deaths into a mountain valley gorge–and who will lose his Italian citizenship during this war, because he is Jewish– are some of the best in literature this year.When the reader is privy to the battles in which both Hirut and Aster run down a hill with other Ethiopian male troops, we’re watching as these two women self-empower, and the imagery is magnificent. The Ethiopians’ loyalty to their land, of which they know every inch, is beautifully rendered. And although both women are caught and humiliated in ways typical of men with women prisoners (Hirut is the stronger of the two women), the behind-the -scenes machinations and the passing of messages to the Ethiopian troops are fascinating: choices are made wherein temporary comforts are thrown out for loyalty to blood and country. What Mengitse creates is both the immediate empowerment of several women characters, but she also creates the myths of Aster and Hirut, as we read of their exploits; these women will become a part of Ethiopian history and legend; they’re both very real and the stuff of myth concurrently, and that’s the greatness of this novel. As Joan Didion has pointed out, we live by and with narratives, and we have very human needs to do so. This dual narrative that Mengitse creates in “The Shadow King” makes the novel unique this year, and the novel’s powerful and sweeping while also often intimate and full of occasional moments of joy and self-knowledge. In a year in which too many novels are about women’s self-empowerment, “The Shadow King” is the realest deal.
- “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, by Ocean Vuong, is, like Kevin Barry’s “Night Boat to Tangier”, a lyrical, nearly poetic , tribute, in this novel to the author’s real mother. The novel is written as a letter to the mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who’s somehow made it to safety in America. The novel flashes back and forth to her days as a young woman in Vietnam, trapped by the war; we see her in moments where she barely survives the whims of American soldiers– “USA the best”, she learns to tell them). Her life in a small Vietnamese village was no bargain to begin with; her relationship with her son in a cold American city is, at heart, filled with love and concern, but her life her working, typically, in a nail salon is mean and difficult. She wants her son to be very American; we are privy to the bullying and insults he receives in school because he is nonwhite. Images of mother and son and her mother, who also lives with them, sleeping in a row on the floor of their American apartment, are moving and tender and tough. The novel also includes issues concerning both gender and homosexuality, so that the narrator is a multiple Other; his romantic teenaged affair with a farmer’s son is brilliantly rendered, and when he learns about the role of the transgender in Vietnamese society towards the end of the novel, his affirmation of identity on a number of levels emerges as a subplot of this beautifully written, tender tribute to a mother who’s lost virtually everything but her life and her son; her occasional flashes of anger make complete sense. A number of superb books appeared in 2019 about the experiences of the immigrant and the emigrant, and “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” may be the year’s finest of this penetrating and imperative genre of fiction.
- “Trust Exercise”, by Susan Choi, won The National Book Award for 2019, and is a clever and brilliant novel. The novel revolves around the lives of two high school students, studying theater at a performing arts high school somewhere in The South. Most of the students there appear to have been washouts from other high schools, and the two students in question, one male and one female, have a passionate sexual affair but quickly cease to communicate, for typical enough adolescent reasons, while their eccentric, gay theater teacher tries to at least teach them to communicate with one another through theater techniques, including one called “The Trust Exercise”. A variety of secondary characters abound in this lively novel, including some theater students from England, who arrive on a kind of exchange trip. The first part of the novel, describing these interactions, is, perhaps, the least interesting. But when a thirty-year old version of the female student ends up writing a novel about these high school days, and remeets one of the “characters” in the novel, “Trust Exercise” becomes fascinating and brilliantly structured.Choi thus raises all kind of issues about what’s real, what’s the “real” version of events delineated in the “novel” within this novel. The interactions between two of the high school girls and their English friends is often hilarious and fraught with the kinds of theatrical doings of high school theater students; Choi’s particularly astute in describing the kinds of “in” crowds that theater attracts. The author continues to shift who the narrator is throughout the novel, so the reader gets multiple possible perspectives, while she queries the nature of theater and of fiction and of “reality” through these shifting narratives and perspectives. There’s some quite good revenge, too, when some of these now adults return to their home town for a theatrical production; the male high school student has become a director/producer of seemingly avant-garde plays back in the old home town, where he’s surrounded by groupies who adore him, and where he’s become a drunk, but an “in” drunk. Choi’s sense of character is astute, her ability to offer differing perspectives on the same events brilliant. This novel is one of the most cleverly structured of 2019.
- Ann Patchett, “The Dutch House”, is one of the most fascinating and disturbing novels of the year. The novel centers around the lives of two children, a girl and a boy, whose mother has vanished under mysterious circumstances after her husband has insisted on buying a huge mansion of a house, The Dutch House of the title, a house filled with luxuries left from the Dutch family who’d originally built it and whose portraits still grace its walls. Their father has decided to remarry a woman who is clearly both a golddigger and mean. Her dislike of his children is evident from the beginning of her appearances, and, after they marry, she is ceaselessly unkind to both (she has small children from a former marriage). When the husband, who’s created a real estate empire, drops dead, this stepmother literally throws his children out of the house , having made certain that they’ll also have no money other than from one educational trust their father has left for them (and for her children as well). They are literally on their own, although the mother’s household staff remains fiercely loyal to them. The girl, who’s the older of the two children, has been raising her brother since their mother’s departure, and continues to do so after their eviction. The bonding between the two children is astonishing, and the daughter, who’s old by ten, makes sure that her brother uses the money in this one remaining trust to go all the way through medical school, although he never intends to become a doctor. These two will spend much time sitting in her car in front of The Dutch House, both reminiscing and also rather spying on their stepmother; these sections can be excrutiatingly painful to read; they are sometimes funny, but the pain of having been thrown out by a truly evil stepmother without any money or support is very difficult reading, but it may make these children strong and independent, if forever emotionally maimed (the daughter never marries, and never lives far from The Dutch House; the brother’s marriage is wrecked, partly, by his fierce loyalty to his sister; sister and his wife do not get along. Suffice it to say that the return of the mother provides a shocking ending, which some will find vexing, and others redemptive: the mother’s become a kind of Catholic saint–or martyr?–and whether her reemergence is helpful or harmful is something each reader will have to decide him/herself. “The Dutch House” is a tough novel, if occasionally very tender; the bond between the two siblings is stronger than any other relationship either will have or seems to be capable of. Patchett’s written a complex and thoughtful novel, one that stays with the reader long after it’s finished.
- “The Parisian”, by Isabella Hammad, is a poignant look at a Palestinian man from Nablus, whose father is a fabric merchant with stores in both the very small town of Nablus, and one in Cairo as well. With The Ottoman Turks still in The Middle East trying to take over The Holy Land, rich merchants such as the father here sent their sons to France, in this case allegedly to study to become a doctor. The son, who is the narrator of the novel, falls in love with both two French cities and the daughter of the house in which he’s lodging as a student, until he realizes that the father of the French house has been studying him, rather like an animal, to determine, basically, how “human” this Other from Nablus is. So our protagonist leaves this house but not France; he delays returning home as long as he is able to, in the meantime becoming something of a dandy, a flaneur, a boulevardier, who’s fallen deeply in love with France. But his father eventually insists that he return to Nablus, to take over the family business and find a “suitable” local wife, settle down. Alas, our narrator is never quite able to do so, although he does marry and sire four children of his own; he fails at being a merchant, continues to wear the clothes of a Parisian man, drops French phrases when he can; having met other Arab radicals in Paris, he is unable to maintain any interest in the political radicalism of his times, as Palestinians are trying to get the yoke of Ottoman Turkey off their backs, just as waves of Jewish settlers are arriving in Palestine before the founding of The State of Israel. His heart’s not in it, and he will spend time in a mental hospital in Nablus, as well, suffering from a depression that never quite lifts as he goes about a life he sees as ordinary, dull, provincial. “The Parisian” appears to be based upon the life of Isabella Hammad’s own father, and it’s a bittersweet, gentle/sad novel about identity and loss, about the magic of Paris and its possibilities for this very romantic young man who never quite finds his place back at home. The novel’s tone is pitch perfect , its characters rich and beautifully delineated.
- “The Nickel Boys” is Colin Whithead’s superb follow-up to the much-praised “Underground Railroad”. Whitehead, possibly America’s preeminent African-American novelist, has again found a piece of history that he fictionalizes in “The Nickel Boys”, Southern boys trapped in a “home” for alleged juvenile delinquents somewhere in Florida, which is a real place whose gross misdeeds have recently come to light when bodies of murdered boys were found behind this infamous “school”. The main narrator is a studious and hard-working young teenaged boy, raised with strict discipline by his grandmother, who’s been much influenced by the brand new preaching and wisdom of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Having hitchhiked to Tallahassee to begin college level classes while still in high school, he’s caught by racist white cops as a passenger in a stolen car and thrown into this hellhole of a “school”. Whitehead has a way of writing with a rather light touch, so that the daily horrors he describes have that much more of an impact. The black boys have a much worse time in this school than the white boys do; they are, of course, segregated, and the reader rapidly discovers the corruption amongst the administrators of said school in cahoots with area businessmen; the agricultural products grown at the school farm are literally given to area businessmen–using jailed/slave labor in American prisons was a long tradition in both North and South, historically. Our naive/innocent narrator meets up with another far more cynical prisoner in this school; he believes that by documenting the corruption he sees that, living by King’s words, the truth will out and set him free. But he’s wrong, and after being caught he’s imprisoned in a part of the school long known for the torture therein and the probability of imminent murder. The two boys escape, though our narrator is killed in the attempt, but his friend makes it to New York and starts an entirely new life, borrowing the narrator’s identity, and his return to an anniversary of this school is moving and scary and brilliantly rendered. Whitehead is a superb storyteller and writer, and by inventing just two main characters for this novel, he personalizes historical horrors admirably, as his novels both bear witness to and attempt some redemption of real historical wrongs/horrors.
- “City of Girls” is Elizabeth Gilbert’s slightly underpraised 2019 novel, and it’s a magnificent tribute to a variety of women in New York City right before, during and after World War II, when New York itself was changing from one kind of city, of neighborhood ethnics and villages within the city to the capitalist empire it has become. A high school graduate in Upstate New York from an affluent family there has started and quit college, and her family, not knowing what to do with her, sends her to New York to live with her aunt, who owns and runs a neighborhood theater, catering to the men living in this newly immigrant neighborhood. Quite a cast of characters is either involved with this theater , or live in the top floors of the building; our narrator, the girl in question, has real skills at sewing, and rapidly becomes in charge of costumes, which includes finding scraps of fabrics from a local warehouse owned by a Jewish immigrant family and their daughter; those two oddballs become good friends, and the girl’s aunt and her “friend” who actually runs the business of the theater combine with some of the best secondary characters in any fiction this year to create a strange kind of family, which includes the wonderfully delineated showgirl Celia Ray, my favorite secondary character in any fiction this year. Celia shows our narrator the ropes of night club New York and its parasitic men; Walter Winchell, the famous gossip columnist of the time, who headquarted in the old Morocco Club–many of these places did indeed exist at this historical period in New York–makes a series of token appearances. (Celia’s in charge of making sure our narrator loses her vexing virginity in a hurry, in one of the funniest scenes this year). Twists and turns of plot, a variety of characters, enter this novel, which also has a very serious side; a kind of proto-feminism is implied throughout, as our narrator finds her way in life in New York, on her own, having had this remarkable “family” which has brought out not only her creativity but also her independence. “City of Girls” is a novel of female self-empowerment with the help of a cast of other women; it’s funny and serious and brilliantly crafted, as well as being a New York period piece concurrently. The novel rejects the tropes of what “suitable” women of the time could or couldn’t do, rejecting the trope of marriage as the be-all/end-all of a woman’s life. And the novel’s conclusion is most heartening, and validating and vindicating concurrently. “City of Girls” is a great read.
- “Bowlaway”, by Elizabeth McCracken, was probably the first great novel of 2019. It’s a kind of combination fairy tale/magic realism novel, wherein a woman named Bertha appears out of nowhere in the town cemetery; she’s found by an African-American doctor in this small town in Massachusetts, and her arrival changes the town completely. She’s brought with her the rudimentaries of bowling, and she establishes the town’s first bowling alley, insisting on hiring some of the town’s “losers”, whose loyalty to her remains total. She also insists on allowing women to bowl, and her strong personality is able to overturn some of the town’s conventional wisdoms (she also marries the black doctor, has a child with him, and they build a very modern house in the deal). Various of her workers will reside in the apartment above the bowling alley, and long after her bizarre death in Boston, this bowling alley will continue to provide a center of social activity within the town. The transformative power of this one independent woman alters much in this town, and as her (alleged) ex-husband comes to claim the business and various heirs come along as well, the line that Bertha starts will resonate for generations; the family is eccentric, but often very moving emotionally. McCracken walks a very fine line in how she writes; the novel never veers too far into the eccentric, and her tone remains on a tightrope between realism and magic realism throughout; the writing itself is magnificent; the novel’s unlike any other this year.
Best short fiction:
“Maggie Brown and Other Stories” by Peter Orner
“Sing To It”, stories by Amy Hempel
“Driving in Cars with Homeless Men”, by Kate Wisel, possibly 2019’s most gifted new writer
“Instructions for a Funeral” by David Means
Other highly recommended fiction from 2019:
“Divide Me by Zero”, by Laura Vapnyar
“The Flight Portfolio” by Julie Orringer
“The Man Who Saw Everything” by Deborah Levy
“Find Me” by Andre Aciman
“Copperhead” by Alexi Zentner
“All This Could be Yours” by Jami Attenberg
“Inland” by Tea Obrecht
“America Was Hard to Find” by Kathleen Alcott
“The Grammarians” by Kathleen Schine
“The Revisioners” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
“The Godmother” by Hannalore Cayre
“The Sacrament” by Olaf Olaffson
Most overrated/disappointing fiction of 2019:
“The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner
“Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
“Union Street” and Other Stories” by Zadie Smith
“Lost and Wanted” by Nell Freudenberger