Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Leïla Slimani … the best fiction for 2018

Books by Rupert Thomson, Aminatta Forna and a clutch of brilliant debuts are among the novels to look out for this year

It feels like 2018 has more than its share of debut novels to get excited about. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker) by Imogen Hermes Gowar nails the 18th century as convincingly as Francis Spufford in Golden Hill, but with supernatural elements that bring to mind Susannah Clarke and Sarah Perry. More fantastical still is Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (Bloomsbury), out in February. Set on an uncanny island called Neverness, the interlocking stories build into a novel that is that rare thing: genuinely unique. It’s part-myth, part-allegory, wholly wonderful.

Peach (Bloomsbury Circus) by Emma Glass is a short and brutal tale of sexual assault and its resulting traumas that carries clear echoes of Eimear McBride. It’s a harrowing story but the language is scintillating, the emotional heft remarkable. Equally powerful is Asymmetry (Granta) by Lisa Halliday, a book of two halves that reflect and expand on one another. It’s a story of west and east, of art and politics, all told in prose that is polished to a gorgeous lustre.

Michael Donkor’s first novel, Hold (4th Estate), follows three girls whose lives are strung between Ghana and Brixton. It’s both moving and funny, a big-hearted book that will stay with you. Gaël Faye’s Small Country (Hogarth) has been a huge bestseller in France. Written by an investment banker turned rap star, it’s told from the perspective of Gaby, a child growing up in Burundi with a French father and a Rwandan mother. Finally, and most thrillingly of all, there’s the first novel from the peerless Olivia Laing. If Crudo (Picador), a love story set in the febrile summer of 2017, is half as good as her nonfiction, we’re in for a treat.

Away from debuts, there’s a huge buzz building around Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby (Faber). This brutal chiller has the same compulsive readability as Emma Donoghue’s Room and won the Prix Goncourt last year. It’s translated by Sam Taylor. There’s also Resistance by the Brazilian Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn and published by Charco Press, a superb new independent publisher of Latin American novels in translation. Resistance has won a host of prizes in the Lusophone world and is set against the 70s backdrop of dirty war-era Buenos Aires.

Never Anyone But You (Little, Brown) is Rupert Thomson’s 11th novel and may be the one that finally wins the prizes and plaudits that this dazzlingly gifted writer deserves. David Bowie was a big Thomson fan and you get a feeling he’d have loved this atmospheric tale of an affair between two young women in 1920s and 30s Paris. Also set in the city of lights, Sebastian Faulks’s Paris Echo (Hutchinson) is published in September and uses the city’s troubled past, both under the Nazis and with its former colonies, as a way of meditating upon history and culture.

Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Aminatta Forna’s latest novel, Happiness (Bloomsbury), tells the story of Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, and Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes. It’s a powerfully affecting examination of the immigrant experience and turns upon the disappearance of a child on London’s dark and unforgiving streets. Moving north, Philip Hensher’s sweeping The Friendly Ones (HarperCollins) asks us to consider questions of identity and history as they’re presented in the lives of two very different Sheffield families. The Good Immigrant editor Nikesh Shukla has done extraordinary things rewriting the rules of the staid and culturally homogenous publishing industry. His third novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny (Atlantic), is the generous and poignant tale of three generations of a Kenyan/Indian family in Keighley, West Yorkshire.

Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, The Western Wind (Jonathan Cape), starts off with a drowned man in a river. Set in the 1400s but never feeling dusty or distant, this astonishing book is at once a rollicking mystery and a profound meditation on faith and existence. The Song of Achilles won Madeleine Miller the 2012 Orange prize. Her follow-up, Circe (Bloomsbury), which is out in April, gives us the life story of the island witch from The Odyssey. It’s every bit as luminous and compelling as its predecessor.

A few more books to put on your wish lists: James Smythe has been writing quietly masterful novels for years now. His newest one, I Still Dream (HarperCollins), is the best fictional treatment of the possibilities and horrors of artificial intelligence that I’ve read. Painter to the King (Granta) by Amy Sackville is a rich and vivid reimagining of the life of Velázquez, told in gloriously stylish prose. There are also new novels from Blake Morrison, whose The Executor (Chatto & Windus)is a dark and compelling tale of what we leave behind us when we die; and Jim Crace, whose The Melody (Macmillan) is strange, unsettling, brilliant – everything you’d expect from one of our most original and inventive novelists.

In June, Rachel Cusk delivers Kudos (Faber), the final book in her autofictive Outline trilogy. These novels are deadpan, honest, painful and strangely touching. Brian Catling also concludes his Vorrh trilogy with The Cloven (Hodder). If you like your fantasy novels challenging and visionary, Catling is your man.

Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje
Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. Photograph: Barbara Zanon/Getty Images

The words “new Michael Ondaatje novel” are enough to get me in a sticky lather. Warlight (Jonathan Cape) is out in May and follows the fates of two young orphans in London immediately after the war. Sarah Perry follows up the astonishing success of The Essex Serpent with Melmoth (Serpent’s Tail). Released in October, it draws upon Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer to weave a spectacular tale that moves exhilaratingly through space and time. Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time remains one of the most atmospheric and memorable novels of recent years. Her follow-up, All Among the Barley (Bloomsbury), is set in East Anglia in 1934. Seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl, it is a powerful exploration of rural lives, nationalism and nostalgia. Finally, there’s The Only Story (Jonathan Cape) by Julian Barnes, a tender and heartbreaking novel of a young man’s love for an older woman – to my mind some distance better than his Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending.


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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