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Notable Novels of Fall 2023

recommended by Cal Flyn

Outside it's autumnal and the nights are drawing in. All the better for admiring the bright lights of publishing's starriest season, when the shiniest baubles are released in time for the Christmas rush. Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn rounds up the most notable new novels of Fall 2023, including eagerly-awaited books from Zadie Smith and Jesmyn Ward, plus the buzziest new releases in literary fiction and novels-in-translation  

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What are the notable novels of Fall 2023?

Almost too many to count. This is the time of year when books by the biggest names tend to be released, in time to build up momentum for the commercial extravaganza that is Christmas. That’s not to say it’s all celebrity memoirs and decorative gift books—it’s a time when some of the best-regarded literary powerhouses are published too.

One of the biggest books of the season, for example, is Zadie Smith’s new novel, The Fraud. It’s a work of historical fiction—her first—set in Victorian England, and exploring art-that-imitates-life, abolitionism, and a scandalous case of identity theft that gripped the nation. It was an instant New York Times bestseller and has garnered some brilliant reviews in the three weeks it has been out so far. (The Observer said it was “almost flawless… her funniest novel yet.”) What I’ve most enjoyed about the publicity around its publication has been Smith’s own essay in The New Yorker in which she reflects wryly on English literary nostalgia (“any writer who lives in England for any length of time will sooner or later find herself writing a historical novel, whether she wants to or not”)—and now her own place in that movement, having folded and produced such a novel herself. When, finally, she put fingers to keyboard, she had one self-imposed rule: “My pride rested now on one principle: no Dickens.” Alas, in Victorian Britain, Charles Dickens is unavoidable, and it soon transpires that the author was tangled in the real-life events that inspired the novel. No point in resisting: “I let him pervade my pages, in the same way he stalks through nineteenth-century London.”

What else is out this season from established literary writers?

Look out for two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s fourth novel, Let Us Descend, billed as a “a reimagining of American slavery” in which a young enslaved woman communicates with spirits of another realm. In a preview, Publishers Weekly called it “wrenching and beautifully told.” (Released October 24.)

Lauren Groff (Matrix, Fates & Furies) returns with a historical novel set in 17th-century colonial America. The Vaster Wilds follows a servant girl who has escaped from starving Jamestown and must now survive “the great and terrible wilderness”; seen through the eyes of this pious young woman, the landscape takes on a mystical air of unreality, like a religious trial. A Book of Job in the New World.

I’m particularly excited about The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut, a Chilean writer whose first book When We Cease to Understand the World was so powerfully written it made me want to go for a lie down after only a few paragraphs. (A good thing, in my opinion, although I appreciate it’s not for everyone.) That book, written in Spanish and translated by Adrian Nathan West, was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021The Maniac is Labatut’s first novel in English, and as with that earlier book, it exists in a conceptual hinterland somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, plaiting the two together in a deeply disconcerting manner that reflects Labatut’s preoccupation with scientists whose brilliance and obsession lead them to the very edges of sanity. This new book explores the birth of artificial intelligence and the terrifying, godlike powers it might represent. Unmissable.

And—can I really include this in a round-up of ‘novels’? I’m going to, sorry—Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad is an eagerly awaited follow-up to her 2017 translation of The Odyssey (described by The Guardian as “a cultural landmark”). Wilson, a previous Five Books interviewee, has written interestingly elsewhere about her fresh and contemporary approach to the epic; here she is in the Washington Post, for example, explaining five artistic decisions she made in selecting vocabulary. I also enjoyed this profile of the translator in The New Yorker—you might too.

How about contemporary fiction in translation—any notable novels newly available in English in fall 2023?

Of course. Look out for the new book from Jon FosseA Shining, which will be released 31 October in the US and 1 November in the UK. It’s a surreal, dreamlike sequence set in the Norwegian woods, in which the narrator’s car becomes stuck in a rut on a remote track. Like his remarkable Septology, which floored me last year, the English translation is by the US writer Damian Searls—who learned Norwegian specifically to translate Fosse. (If you’re interested in the art of translation, there’s some interesting discussion of Searls’s rendering of Fosse’s texts in this 2021 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Another Norwegian literary sensation, Karl Ove Knausgård, will publish The Wolves of Eternitya sequel to Morning StarIt’s an expansive work of speculative fiction with a metaphysical element; “like some 19th-century Russian novel,” notes Sven Birkerts in The New York Times, The Wolves of Eternity “wrestles with the great contraries: the materialist view and the religious, the world as cosmic accident versus embodiment of some radiant intention. Is this world shot through with meaning or not? Has there ever been a better time to ask?” There’s an extract available over on Lithub, if you want a taster. Translation by Martin Aitken.

David Diop, author of the extraordinary (and extraordinarily brutal) 2021 International Booker Prize winner At Night All Blood is Black, returns with a new novel: Beyond the Door of No Return, translated from the French by Sam Taylor. It’s a nested, metafictional tale: in Paris, 1806, woman pieces together the notebooks of her late father, revealing his experiences in 17th-century Senegal and a strange tale of obsession, love, and adventure. Lithub has an extract of this too.

And I am very excited about Olga Ravn’s My Work, translated from the Danish by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell. It’s her second novel to be translated into English; her strange, beautiful little novel The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century was a weird and haunting work of science fiction that got under my skin. Like The Employees, the chronology of My Work is scrambled. It’s ostensibly constructed of the pages of a notebook written by the narrator while in some kind of fugue state during the early days of motherhood: “In the notebooks, one event might follow another which took place years before, as if she suddenly gained access to a different layer of time”. It takes many forms—poetry, diary entries, half-written letters—reflecting the narrator’s own unravelling mental state: “She wanted to write a normal book because she wanted to speak to normal people, mothers who were too tired for complicated poetry.” But no matter how much she tried, Ravn writes, “she kept on writing strange texts that jumped all over.” It should be of interest to mothers, specifically, and also more generally to all those interested in experimental narratives.

Any other highlights among the fall 2023 novels that you haven’t mentioned yet?

Too many. Let me run through a few more quickly. There’s a lot of buzz around C. Pam Zhang’s Land of Milk and Honey, in which a private chef living in a dystopian near-future takes a job at a decadent mountaintop colony for the world’s elite. The Washington Post said it was “tense, unnerving and creepy… an extremely atmospheric novel about the interplay of environmental destruction and class.” Tim O’Brien, the author of the perennial Five Books favourite The Things They Carried, returns with his first novel in more than twenty years: America Fantastica, a satire of Trump’s America, in which a bank robbery turns into a cross-country odyssey through the land of fake news.

The young British novelist A. K. Blakemore follows her cult hit debut The Manningtree Witches with another hard-edged historical novel, The Glutton. This new book is set during the French Revolution and is inspired by a man with an insatiable (perhaps even cannibalistic) appetite reported in an 18th-century paper. “Blood drips from every page as she creates a banquet of gorgeously crafted, unexpected images,” reports the Evening Standard. “You’ll find yourself turning them over in your mind for days.” At once horrible and hallucinatory, The Glutton should appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh. Out now in the UK, and on 31 October in the States.

And let me shoehorn in a last few name checks before I go. I’m currently enjoying The Dimensions of a Cave by Greg Jackson, who I recently spoke to about ‘metaphysical thrillers’ in an interview that will be published on Five Books shortly. It centres on a reporter whose investigation into a strange new interrogation method has been hushed up—one in which virtual reality calls us into question the very idea of reality. Joseph Conrad meets Bob Woodward. Plus there’s Samantha Harvey’s (The Western Wind) small but perfectly formed Orbital—a novel set in a space station as a typhoon approaches landfall below, which brings all the lyricism and wonder of nature writing to a low Earth orbit. (“Hazy pale green shimmering sea, hazy tangerine land. This is Africa chiming with light. You can almost hear it, this light, from inside the craft.”)

Ed Park’s Same Bed Different Dreams offers a counterfactual history of Korea in which the Korean Provisional Government (established 1919 and dissolved after the Second World War) still exists and is fighting for the unification of North and South. Lots of literary editors have flagged this as one to watch. And the Nigerian crime writer Femi Kayode returns with another superior ‘whydunnit’, Gaslight, a sequel to his highly acclaimed mystery The Light Seekers.

Finally, you should know about new publications from evergreen favourites Richard Osman (The Last Devil to Die, the fourth novel in his cosy Thursday Murder Club series), J. K. Rowling (The Running Grave, written under her crime fiction pseudonym Robert Galbraith), and Stephen King (Holly, the first solo outing for autistic private eye Holly Gibney). Happy reading.

Part of our best books of 2023 series

September 29, 2023

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist, and the deputy editor of Five Books. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, her nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places, was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Ondaatje Prize, and the British Academy Book Prize. She writes regular round-ups of the most notable new fiction, which can be found here. Her Five Books interviews with other authors are here.

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist, and the deputy editor of Five Books. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, her nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places, was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Ondaatje Prize, and the British Academy Book Prize. She writes regular round-ups of the most notable new fiction, which can be found here. Her Five Books interviews with other authors are here.