At the start of each year, I get privately exercised over the arts pages’ previews of books to look out for over the coming year. Not only do the same titles crop up from newspaper to newspaper, many are by familiar names – and some of which, with sunrise-sunfall inevitability, are billed as that alchemical thing, the “return to form”. It strikes me annually that I’m not interested in this intrinsically backward-looking phenomenon, or of making the (almost inevitably disheartening) comparison between the work of an author in their fifth decade of publishing and their youthful promise, and by doing so risk feeling my regard for that early work undermined. Instead, I want to look forward and hear the newest of new voices. Below are some of the best, oddest, most galvanising books I encountered in 2022.
I was raving about Davey Davis’s X (Cipher Press/Catapult) before I was even halfway through reading it, and spent the rest of the year giving out copies to friends. This is a novel that hits like a slap delivered from the future: this is where the novel – and the world – is going. It’s bracingly fresh and full-on about lived experience and personal, sexual rebellions against a world torn between increasing openness and a dangerous urge to categorise and crush dissident places, behaviours, people. At the same time, Davis is delivering a knowing take on noir, and the combination of familiar genre trappings with super-avant elements reminded me, surprisingly, of Neuromancer. It remains to be seen how prescient X proves, but for now it feels like the future of literature.
South and Central America continues to produce some of our richest and freshest fiction. Mexican author Ave Barrera’s The Forgery (Charco Press; trans. Ellen Jones) sees the central character engaged to precisely replicate a famous work of art for an enigmatic and very rich employer. The hitch is that the original artwork, and so the forger, must be kept in total isolation: the stage is set for a twisting, surreal mystery. Mariana Enriquez, having made her name here with two collections of stories, goes big with the novel Our Share of Night (Granta/Hogarth; trans. Megan McDowell). Moments of pure gleaming horror shine in this saga of a demonic family operating amid the real horrors of 1970s and ’80s Argentina. Enriquez knowingly deploys the genre tropes: generational curses, devilish ceremonies, and a truly unsettling haunted house. More earthly horrors inform Jawbone, a novel by Ecuador’s Mónica Ojeda (New Ruins/Coffee House Press, trans. Sarah Booker), in which teenage girls who have built a scary mythology to thrill themselves with run up against a troubled teacher, to whom the adolescents are a source of terror and, ultimately, a target as vulnerability turns to violence. In Fernanda Melchor’s short, stark Paradaís (Fitzcarraldo/New Directions, trans. Sophie Hughes), two teenage boys hanging around at a gated community in Veracruz, Mexico – one boy employed, the other not, and both expected to remain unseen by the privileged residents – hit upon a way to make themselves very visible indeed. As the title’s heavy irony suggests, the end of the story is never in doubt, but Melchor’s propulsive, expletive-spiked writing makes the inevitable ride to hell thrilling.
For something completely different, in Easy Reading (Jonathan Cape, trans. Kevin Gerry Dunn), Spain’s Cristina Morales mixes the politics of resistance and anarchy with that of choreography and different (dissident) kinds of bodies. I don’t think I’ve read a novel before that explores the world of contemporary dance, or that brings in zine culture – the title may, again, be somewhat ironic, but this is the novel doing what it’s best at: telling us new things. I also enjoyed the meaty, twisting weirdness of Cursed Bunny (Honford Star/Algonquin Books, trans. Anton Hur), Korean author Bora Chung’s International Booker-shortlisted collection of stories, and the more earthly setting of rural and exurban County Mayo in Homesickness by Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape/Grove Press): each book bucks the trend of collections that contain one standout story and several also-rans.
Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow (Fitzcarraldo/New Directions Press) tells the story of a daughter travelling with her mother to Japan, a country unfamiliar to each. Beneath the coolly lyrical prose – sentence by sentence, this is one of the year’s most beautifully written books – churns a paralysing sense of the history between the two women and the unspoken, maybe unspeakable, reason for their making this journey together.
One of the most eye-opening pieces of non-fiction I read in 2022 was The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters by Megan Walsh (Columbia Global Reports). Walsh surveys contemporary Chinese literature and its most significant practitioners, from the controversial Novel Prize winner Mo Yan to a new frontier of science fiction authors, glossing some of the best-known (in China) and least familiar (elsewhere) “set texts” and exploring the fascinating way that cultural oversight (or censorship) has shaped a thriving and influential literary scene about which the West knows – and, it may seem, cares – very little.
For several years, author Preti Taneja taught creative writing in prisons as part of a Cambridge University programme. In November 2019, one of her erstwhile students carried out a terrible terrorist attack near London Bridge, and in her memoir Aftermath (And Other Stories) Taneja anatomises the background and fallout from the attack, and what the context and response says about our society. The book’s showy style takes a little getting used to, but its declared fragmentariness is the effect of a detonation, and Taneja resists easy conclusions, a “healing after trauma”, or simple answers to the questions she raises.
In Birds of Maine, a graphic novel by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly), Earth’s birds have emigrated en masse to found a socialist utopia on a distant planet. They make music, share portions of a universal food source, communicate over a fungal internet. The youth scoff at stories of how their ancestors lived on Earth, while the rebellious daydream of becoming economists. A certain resemblance in one of the elder birds made me imagine a grown-up, (other)worldly-wise Woodstock from Peanuts, and DeForge’s tone too reminded me to of the best of Schulz’s work: drolly philosophical, whimsical but never twee.
In poetry, I admired and was moved by Ocean Vuong’s Time is a Mother (Cape/Penguin Press) – hearing him read the central poem at the Edinburgh Book Festival was a highlight of my year – and loved Don Paterson’s The Arctic (Faber), a collection which shows off his terrific range, from snippy to scabrous, wry to wrenching. In the long central poem which gives this book its title, The Arctic is a pub hosting a lock-in and humanity’s zone of last resort following an unfolding of apocalypses: super-smart and gorgeously readable, it’s the brilliant Paterson at his best.
New in paperback this year, and noteworthy in any year: Lea Ypi’s memoir of growing up in Communist and post-Communist Albania, Free (Penguin/W.W. Norton) is by turns bemusing, bewildering and touching, as it explores what it means to live in a country that is liberated from beyond its borders by the purportedly civilising influence of globalisation. The last few years have seen the Sackler name disappear from many major cultural institutes in the UK and US as the role of the eponymous family in America’s ongoing and catastrophic opioid epidemic has become ever clearer and more disturbing; Patrick Radden Keefe’s brilliant and shocking Empire of Pain (Penguin/Anchor) profiles multiple generations of a family whose name has gone from a byword for philanthropy to one for amoral profiteering – it’s a page-turning, eyebrow-raising work of terrific investigative journalism. Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart (Picador/Knopf) mixes a memorial for her late mother with a kind of culinary travelogue through Korean food, and is moving and mouthwatering by turns. Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: How We Went Out (Granta/Little, Brown) chronicles the rise and fall of venues where men met for social and sexual reasons, before high rents and phone apps destroyed much of their reason to be. It’s a sexy, beautifully written elegy for a way of life that seems to be pretty much gone for good. And, late as I am to the party on this, in No One is Talking About This (Penguin/Riverhead) the poet, memoirist and prolific social media user Patricia Lockwood takes what she’s best known for – jokey poems, poem-y jokes and lines of prose that can blind through dazzling – and turns it on its head, asking us to look afresh at the world we’re living in, where everything in life is mediated through what the novel calls “the portal”. The novel, unlike the portal, unlocks the echo chamber, lets in light, opens us to the everything around us, makes it new. C
Neil D.A. Stewart is the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale. His new novel is forthcoming from Corsair in 2024
Civilian recommends independent UK retailers BookBar, Book Hive, Burley Fisher Books, Ink84 Books, the London Review Bookshop and Pages of Hackney (London), Mr B’S Emporium (Bath) and Golden Hare (Edinburgh)