Fiction » Best Fiction of 2023

The Notable Novels of Spring 2023

recommended by Cal Flyn

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

out in paperback

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

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Spring is always an excellent time for literary fiction releases, and 2023 is no exception. Here, Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn offers a round-up of the notable new novels of the season, from buzzy debuts to hotly anticipated new releases from internationally acclaimed authors like Eleanor Catton, Han Kang, and Salman Rushdie.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

out in paperback

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

Read
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What are the most notable novels of spring 2023?

This time of year always brings rich pickings in literary fiction, after the more commercial focus of the pre-Christmas season. Spring is usually felt to be a good time to launch debut writers; during quieter months they have a better chance of getting media coverage or even hitting the bestseller lists.

Tell us more. Which are the debut novels that should be on our radar?

One debut I’m very excited about is Imogen West-Knight’s Deep Down, which will be out in March here in the UK. It’s a story of two siblings facing a complicated grieving process for their difficult, semi-estranged father, and manages to be both dark and darkly humorous at once. (You might know West-Knight from her comic writing; I loved her trip report from the Gillian Flynn murder cruise for Slate and her essay on the basic joy of all-inclusive holidays for FT Weekend). I got a hold of a copy before Christmas and tore through it in two days, highly recommended.

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In the US, make sure to look out for Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, which has been out in the UK for a while. Kylie Whitehead recently recommended it to us as one of the five best haunted house books, describing it as a “timely” exploration of the transgender debate contained within a “very visceral, unforgiving straight-up horror novel.” It’s been getting a lot of buzz stateside. There’s also poet Maggie Milner’s first novel about a woman who leaves her boyfriend for a woman, Couplets: A Love Story, which should appeal to fans of literary mavericks like Maggie Nelson and Carmen Maria Machado.

I’m intrigued by Colin Winnette’s Users; it’s a blend of literary fiction and science fiction about a video game designer who begins to receive death threats after creating a controversial virtual reality game. It should appeal to those who loved Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, Ling Ma’s Severance and Dave Egger’s The Circle.

What else is out there—are there any big-name authors with new novels out in spring 2023?

Sure! One of the biggest is Eleanor Catton, with her hotly anticipated third novel Birnam Wood. Catton became the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize in 2013, with the longest-ever novel—The Luminaries, a complex, astrology-infused tale of goldrush-era New Zealand. This new book, which has been pitched (somewhat unexpectedly) as a psychological thriller, follows the members of a guerilla gardening group as they take over an abandoned farm in cautious partnership with a paranoid American billionaire with plans to build his own survivalist bunker. I liked what Francis Spufford had to say about it: “If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this.” Sounds irresistible to me. Birnam Wood will be released at the start of March on both sides of the Atlantic.

There’s also a new book from Salman Rushdie, Victory City, his fifteenth novel. It’s a fantastical epic, which opens in 14th-century India and features a nine-year-old orphan selected by the goddess Parvati to be her human vessel. The Times has described it as “a total pleasure to read, a bright burst of colour in a grey winter season,” full of “lush, romantic language.” (Rushdie, who is still recovering from a brutal knife attack last summer, is reported to be in daily contact with Hanif Kureishi, the acclaimed British writer who suffered a serious spinal injury in December and remains in hospital in Rome.)

Later that month, look out for Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X. I love Lacey’s writing; her last novel Pew was an excellently eerie and ambiguous story from smalltown America (I described it back in summer 2020 as “Rachel Cusk meets Shirley Jackson”), and this looks like it could be her best yet. In it, the widow of a subversive artist digs into the history of her late partner, against a backdrop of an alternate America, in which the South split from the North in the wake of World War II, before coming back together in uneasy reunification. Sometimes it’s easier to look at the tensions of the present day through a speculative prism.

What about later in spring 2023—what novels should I get my preorders in for now?

Also of note: In April, Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the intense boarding school novel Prep, among other things) will publish her latest, Romantic Comedy, in which a female comedy sketch writer falls for an attractive male pop star in what is presumably a knowing nod towards (and gender reversal of) Pete Davidson’s romantic travails. Brandon Taylor will release his second novel, The Late Americans, in May—a follow-up to the Booker-shortlisted Real Life. It follows a year in the life of a loose circle of friends and lovers in Iowa City as they come together and fall apart; Taylor has an acute eye and a sharp pen, and is an excellent chronicler of contemporary American life.

Max Porter, the brilliant British author of experimental novels Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Lanny, and The Death of Francis Bacon, will return with Shy, the story of a troubled teenager escaping from a home for “very disturbed young men.” Porter consistently breaks new and interesting ground in his formally inventive, emotionally vibrant novels. Unmissable. You may also be interested to hear that R. F. Kuang, the author of many extremely popular fantasy novels including Babel and the Poppy War sequences, has made her first foray into literary fiction with Yellowface, which explores questions of cultural appropriation.

Any personal highlights from the spring 2023 crop of novels?

I am always very excited to read anything by Sophie Mackintosh, author of the Booker longlisted The Water Cure and feminist dystopia Blue Ticket. She will shortly release Cursed Bread, a dreamy, fable-like tale of sexual infatuation, mysterious strangers, and deadly intoxication, which is based on the real-life mass-poisoning that took place in Pont Saint-Esprit, France, in 1951. I begged for an advance copy of Cursed Bread the second it was available; it’s sexy, stylish, and unsettling as we have come to expect of Mackintosh’s work.

I’m also keen to read Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree, in which a young Cree woman haunted by her dream world, forcing her to confront the truth about her sister’s untimely death. Crimereads recently picked it out in an interesting article about what they called “an unprecedented era of Native American noir”, as indigenous and First Nations writers grapple with colonialism’s legacy of violence in fiction.

What’s newly out in translation?

You’ll be interested to hear that there’s a new novel from Han Kang, author of the savage, International Booker Prize-winning The VegetarianGreek Lessons is another slim, brooding little novel about difficult protagonists facing inexplicable problems—this time, it features a woman who has lost the ability to speak, and her language tutor who is losing his vision. Elegaic and tender, it is more abstract and less violent than The Vegetarian. Given the linguistic complexities of imparting the experience of learning Ancient Greek as a Korean speaker, it must have been a nightmare to translate, but Deborah Smith and Emily Jae Won have created a clean, clear translation (albeit not without ambiguities—which I imagine are baked into Kang’s prose) that I zipped through during a single long train journey. Strange, thoughtful, compelling.

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And look out for The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali, one of Iraq’s most celebrated authors. It follows a father searching for his son in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. This new translation from the original Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman is reportedly an excellent introduction to Ali’s work. Kirkus described it as “[a]ltogether extraordinary: a masterwork of modern Middle Eastern literature deserving the widest possible audience.”

 

What books are you most looking forward to this summer? Let us know. Send us a tweet, or post on our Facebook page.

Part of our best books of 2023 series

January 21, 2023

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. 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 Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation. She was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2022.

Cal writes regular round-ups of the best new fiction, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. 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 Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation. She was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2022.

Cal writes regular round-ups of the best new fiction, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.