Best fiction of 2019

Exceptional US novels, extraordinary translations and even two Booker winners ... Guardian fiction editor Justine Jordan on the celebrated and overlooked books of the year

It has been a year of doubles: two Nobel laureates, two Booker winners, even two Ian McEwan novels (his Kafka-lite satire The Cockroach was yet more fallout from Brexit). Having promised to look beyond Europe after skipping the award in 2018, the Nobel committee honoured two Europeans: the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and, more controversially, Austrian Milošević-supporter Peter Handke. Closer to home, the UK’s general air of indecision infected the Booker prize, which split the award in two, thus missing the chance to crown Bernardine Evaristo outright as the first ever black female winner for her innovative and life-affirming Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), interlinked stories of black British women which brim with heart and humour.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Evaristo shared the prize with the year’s biggest book by far: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments (Chatto), which combines Aunt Lydia’s sly perspective on the theocratic regime – its brutal birth and her ambiguous role at the heart of it – with more action-adventure strands about the two young women seeking to bring it down. Fan-pleaser, literary curio, a fascinating example of the interplay between written fiction and TV: the book is all three, with Atwood’s musings on power and the patterns of history as incisive as ever.

If history felt like a hall of mirrors in 2019, and current affairs a car crash, then Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) – the riddling story of one man, two time zones and two car accidents – was the novel to read. In the late 80s, Saul goes to East Berlin to study; in the recent past, he faces up to the rest of his life. Skewering different forms of totalitarianism – from the state, to the family, to the strictures of the male gaze – Levy explodes conventional narrative to explore the individual’s place and culpability within history. It’s one of the most unusual and rewarding novels of this or any year.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

The timelines of history are similarly unstable in Sandra Newman’s high-concept The Heavens (Granta), in which a woman leads a double existence, waking up sometimes as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in Renaissance England and sometimes in a 21st-century New York that is getting progressively worse. Can her actions really be influencing world events hundreds of years later? How far do we make our own reality? This is a dazzling exploration of creativity and madness in the poignant, panic-tinged end times.

The power of myth-making drives Mark Haddon’s best novel yet. The Porpoise (Chatto) begins as a propulsive thriller about abuse among the super-rich and segues into a classical-world adventure that reinvents the story of Pericles in prose of a hallucinatory vividness. Fantasy also mingles with reality in Max Porter’s light-footed second novel Lanny (Faber), as contemporary communal chatter and a spirit voice from deep time rise and fall together to tell the story of an extraordinary boy in an ordinary English village.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

James Meek wound the clock back to 14th-century England for a feat of scholarship and storytelling combined. Written in gleeful approximations of priestly, courtly and peasant medieval English, To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate) follows a motley group of travellers in the shadow of the Black Death. Its portrait of individual dramas unfolding against the prospect of apocalypse speaks to current fears of climate crisis and Brexit alike.

Robert Harris also conjured a quasi-medieval world for a page-turning, thought-provoking speculation on the fragility of civilisation, The Second Sleep (Hutchinson). It’s 1468, and a young priest is investigating ancient artefacts: Harris reveals his setup to be ingeniously, chillingly topical. Ali Smith reached book three of her quickfire Seasonal Quartet, which interprets news headlines through the filters of art and story. Like Haddon, Smith was inspired by Pericles, an apt fable for an era of globalised migration. She uses it in Spring (Hamish Hamilton) as a bedrock for a typically agile story about narrowing horizons and widening inequality, which is also a furious indictment of the UK’s detention of refugees.

The distribution and morality of wealth is an ever more urgent subject. The TV sensation Succession tackled money’s corrupting effect within a family; Sadie Jones did a similarly brilliant job in The Snakes (Chatto), a psychodrama about avarice, abuse and entitlement which is both a cautionary tale and a pitch-black race-to-the-end thriller.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage,

It was an exceptional year for US fiction, with Tayari Jones winning the Women’s prize for An American Marriage (Oneworld), about black middle-class lives undone by structural racism, and Anglo-American Lucy Ellmann taking the Goldsmiths for her 1,000-page denunciation of Trump’s America and the world’s devaluing of motherhood, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar). Rising star Ben Lerner came into his own with the stunningly multilayered The Topeka School (Granta), exploring voice, power and masculinity in the 90s and now. Téa Obrecht’s long-awaited second novel Inland (W&N) is an ingenious reinvention of the western, while Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys (Fleet), lifts the lid on the racist brutality of reform schools in the Jim Crow-era south.

Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (Bloomsbury) is a gloriously immersive family saga about lost inheritance, while in Olive, Again (Viking) Elizabeth Strout continues to find moments of transcendence in the trials of daily life as her obstreperous, much-loved character Olive Kitteridge moves into her 80s. Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (Hamish Hamilton), a dialogue between a mother and the teenage son she has lost to suicide, is spare, profound and devastating.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong’s autobiographical first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape) is a tender exploration of violence, migration and language, while Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (4th Estate), her first novel to be written in English, is an extraordinary achievement. It puts the desperate children crossing the border into the US at the heart of a beautifully composed, complex investigation into family, motherhood and the fragile connections between people.

Debuts to celebrate included Candice Carty-Williams’s witty Queenie (Trapeze), the adventures of a young black woman negotiating dating, family and identity in a gentrifying London, and Sara Collins’s The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a fantastically assured piece of historical gothic about an enslaved girl brought from a Jamaican plantation into the backbiting milieu of London society. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (Wildfire), a dissection of sexual politics in contemporary New York, was a deliciously biting summer hit.

Zadie Smith’s Grand Union

Debuts stood out in the world of short stories, too, notably Wendy Erskine’s clear-eyed tales of Belfast life in Sweet Home and Julia Armfield’s haunting Salt Slow (both Picador). All eyes were on Kristen “Cat Person” Roupenian, whose first collection You Know You Want This (Cape) skewed towards urban gothic rather than dating malaise. Queen of dark short fiction Sarah Hall brought us more expertly turned tales of sex, death and danger in Sudden Traveller (Faber), while Zadie Smith’s first collection, Grand Union (Hamish Hamilton), is a restlessly wide-ranging anthology covering two decades. In Deborah Eisenberg’s wryly subversive Your Duck Is My Duck (Europa), we had the first collection in 12 years from a US master of the form.

One of the year’s gems in translation was Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth (Verso), translated by Charlotte Barslund. A story of abuse, inheritance and the battle for the truth among a privileged Norwegian family, it grips like a vice while interrogating national as well as individual self-conception. Other standouts included Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work (Faber), translated by Leri Price, a road trip set against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, and Pajtim Statovci’s Crossing (Pushkin), translated by David Hackston, which explores migration, gender and self-invention through the shifting character of a young Albanian. For the first time, the Man Booker International prize went to a writer in Arabic. Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (Sandstone), translated by Marilyn Booth, is a generation-spanning family saga exposing the legacy of slavery in Oman.

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy (Penguin Modern Classics), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, was a welcome rediscovery: the fearless reconstruction of a difficult creative and romantic life as a woman in 20th-century Denmark. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (Harvill Secker), his prequel to Life and Fate translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, was an extraordinary feat of scholarship. We have had to wait a quarter of a century for Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Harvill Secker), translated by Stephen Snyder, the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces and islanders must submit to enforced ignorance and diminished horizons. In an era beset by fears over news manipulation and Anthropocene extinction, this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.

• Save up to 30% on the books of the year at


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Best crime and thrillers of 2019
Middle-aged women took charge, Jackson Brodie returned and new novels from John le Carré, Tana French and Don Winslow: Laura Wilson picks the best of a bumper year

Laura Wilson

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best sports books of 2019
In a year of great sporting events, Emma John picks the standouts books – including a memoir on pigeon racing and a searing polemic on racism in football

Emma John

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best politics books of 2019
A furious attack on private schools, a primer for a Corbyn government and a scathing assessment of Theresa May ... Gaby Hinsliff on the best books to come out of a busy year in politics

Gaby Hinsliff

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2019
Dystopian islands made of tech trash, a climate emergency zombie plague and the end of the internet: Adam Roberts on the most brilliant SF and fantasy of the year

Adam Roberts

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best science, nature and ideas books of 2019
With Naomi Klein, Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez tackling issues like the climate emergency, AI, gender bias and tech giants, Ian Sample picks the outstanding books of the year

Ian Sample

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best cookbooks and food writing of 2019
Chefs plumped for vegan and fuss-free meals and Dishoom finally revealed their secrets ... Meera Sodha picks the most mouthwatering books of the year

Meera Sodha

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best biography and memoirs of 2019
A history of Jack the Ripper’s victims, memoirs about trauma and class, and an intimate study of the sex lives of three women ... Aida Edemariam on this year’s standouts

Aida Edemariam

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best poetry of 2019
In a year of political uncertainty, acclaimed collections have tackled racism, authoritarianism and masculinity with great grace and beauty. Sandeep Parmar shares her favourites

Sandeep Parmar

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best children's books of 2019: from picture books to young adult
Imogen Russell Williams picks beautiful illustrations, fun books to read aloud and new YA from Malorie Blackman and Philip Pullman

Imogen Russell Williams

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Best comics and graphic novels of 2019
Chris Ware and Seth returned while Alan Moore bowed out ... James Smart picks the standout comics of the year

James Smart

30, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM