Books of Year 2023: Part Four

Cover image for Roman Stories by Jhumpa LahiriMuch of October was taken up with a rail jaunt around Central Europe, our first since covid struck. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Such an interesting part of the world; definitely worth exploring further. Despite less reading time than usual, two books stand out, the first of which is Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisite short story collection Roman Stories. Written in elegant, precise language, Lahiri’s stories are suffused with a quiet empathy for characters who are often living far away from their family or have reached the middle of a life marked by loss or discontent. The experience of well-heeled professionals contrasts with economic and political migrants, often homesick and struggling to pay the rent. It’s a gorgeous collection which meets the extraordinarily high bar set by Whereabouts, one of my 2021 favourites.Cover image for Family Meal by Bryan Washington

Bryan Washington missed my 2019 books of the year by a whisker with Lot but made it on to 2021’s list with Memorial. He’s done it again with Family Meal which sees Cam returning to Houston after his lover dies. Washington explores friendship, family and grief through Cam’s reluctant homecoming, his unravelling through drugs and food but above all his friendship with TJ whose family took Cam in as their own when he lost his parents. Blood ties run undeniably deep but less conventional families can be just as strong and loving, if not more so, and just as bedevilled by conflict, illustrated beautifully by Washington through these two men and their relationship with each other. A brilliant novel, both heartrending and heartening, filled with humanity and love.

Cover image for Bird Life by Anna SmailWe’re on the home stretch with November which delivered two more standouts for me including one that took me by surprise. I remember choosing not to read New Zealand writer Anna Smaill’s Man Booker longlisted debut The Chimes thinking it sounded a little too fantastical for me but decided to take a chance with Bird Life.  It opens arrestingly with two women in a Tokyo park, one a foreigner prostrate on the grass, carefully ignored by passersby, while the other strides out perfectly groomed but with one shoe missing. Smaill’s novel tells the story of Yasuko and Dinah, both suffering terrible loss, each seeing the other as a way to heal her wounds. Grief and madness are difficult themes to explore but Smaill does it with great skill and a lyrical delicacy leaving her readers with much to think about and much to admire.

My last book of 2023 is Fugitive Pieces author Anne Michaels’ Held, her third novel making three in almost three decades, anCover image for Hled by Anne Michaels indication of the care and thought with which she approaches her craft. This sublimely beautiful book opens with a wounded man, slipping in and out of consciousness on a battlefield in France in 1917, and ends in the Gulf of Finland where a spark of attraction is both made and remembered. Made up of a series of gorgeously poetic snapshots unfolding a family’s history, Michaels’ narrative explores themes of war, love, loss, memory and connection, posing profound questions about the human state, all expressed in arrestingly beautiful prose. An extraordinary piece of fiction, and a hugely affecting one, at times suffused with an awful, aching yearning for what is lost. It demands a great deal of thought and concentration from its readers but more than repays them.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible, as ever, but Old God’s Time, Small Worlds, Falling Animals and Held are all in the frame.

I’ve been busy congratulating myself on keeping to twenty books just for once but there are a few honourable mentions I can’t leave out. They are: Sadik Fofana’s Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, Ia Genberg’s The Details and Ron Rash’s The Caretaker.

That’s it for 2023’s favourites. Thanks to all who stayed the course and for those who’d like to catch up, the first three parts are here, here and here.

Just one more review before setting my sights on 2024’s treats.

19 thoughts on “Books of Year 2023: Part Four”

  1. I’ve just finished Held, and I know that, having put it aside for a while, I’ll need to read it again. It’s a wonderful collection of images ( I don’t think ‘snapshots’ quite covers the carefully crafted sentences) which I’m sure I haven’t fully absorbed or necessarily understood as they patchwork together into a complex story of loss and yearning. Lahiri has been on my radar for a while. And now you’ve added Bryan Washington and possibly Anna Smaill …

  2. I haven’t read any of these but I am in the process of compiling the Books of the Year (according to all of the ‘best of’ lists) and Family Meal and Bird Life are both popping up frequently.

  3. Thank you for this. I really enjoyed Old God’s Time. That would be on my list too. But I never met another book like this one that appears to undo most of what has gone before in the last sentence. Unless I completely misunderstood. Which is quite possible. What did you think?

    1. You’re welcome! Ah, I wish I had a copy to check that last sentence now – I read it on Netgalley quite some time ago – although Barry’s narrative was full of shifting ground and unreliability for me. So much pain and trauma had been buried over so many years that Tom seemed hardly able to distinguish what had happened from his dreams and nightmares leaving readers with much to interpret for themselves.

  4. You have read so many interesting books this year. I love the sound of Roman Stories, and I also like the sound of Held, but I probably should read the author’s more famous novel Fugitive Pieces first.

  5. My friends praise Anne Michaels to the skies. I have one of the novels. That’s one to imagine on the TBR… Lovely roundup as usual!

  6. Your year end posts have reminded me of all the books I’d shortlisted from your previous posts but am yet to get to, but glad to have my memory jogged; from this part, Roman Stories (though I still haven’t started Whereabouts), Bird Life and Held are ones I do hope to look up sometime.

  7. If I was going to follow my usual Year Summary I would definitely include Bryan Washington’s book as one of my 2023 favourites too. Those characters still crop up for me. (It’s been such an erratic reading year, I’m thinking it might call for a different approach for a summary of books.) I also quite enjoyed Tenants from the Downstairs this year too (which narrowly missed your list) but of course that’s one of my favourite themes, how lives intersect in a building/block/floor.

    1. I’m a big fan of Washington’s writing, so empathetic. And I know what you mean about apartment blocks. Very fertile ground for fiction. I do enjoy writing these annual reading favourites. Helps me get my thoughts in order about the year. Perhaps a brief one might work for you this year, or maybe a year off.

  8. Excellent selections! I’ve been through my lists and am giving myself 20 best books this year, however I have 20 selected already and still some books to read …

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