Our Wives Under the Sea
By Julia Armfield. Picador
The best novel I’ve read this year is also the most unusual. A woman’s wife returns from a deep-sea mission but struggles to reintegrate into normal life. The narrative unravels mysteriously, moving between the depths of the ocean and dry land, but it is the force of Armfield’s writing – her brimming sentences and artful paragraphs – that elevates this work to something sublime.
By Louise Kennedy. Bloomsbury
Kennedy’s sparkling debut novel will no doubt feature on countless books-of-the-year lists, for good reason. She creates a world with utter clarity and feeds us the story of a doomed love affair in 1970s Belfast with subtlety and intelligence. Read our review.
By Colin Barrett. Jonathan Cape
In Barrett’s second short story collection, set between Mayo and Canada, outsider types grapple with various malaises. An aspiring writer struggles with his father’s illness, a policewoman is shaken by a shooting incident on a sheep farm… Barrett’s observational intelligence and wit make the work shine.
By Louise O’Neill. Bantam Press
O’Neill’s brilliant sixth novel tells of a high-profile American influencer whose brand is threatened when secrets from her past surface. A taut suspense is held throughout, as it is never clear how, or if, the central controversies will be resolved.
The Geometer Lobachevsky
By Adrian Duncan. Lilliput
I’ve been proselytising about Duncan’s writing for years, and each new work adds kindling to my cause. His latest novel about a Soviet mathematician exiled in Ireland and working on a Bord na Móna project is intelligent, atmospheric and disarmingly moving.
Lessons in Chemistry
By Bonnie Garmus. Doubleday
Garmus’s debut received much attention this year and will soon be released as a TV drama. Its story of a female chemist-turned-TV-chef who defies the patriarchy in 1950s and 1960s America is delivered with charm and panache.
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan. Corsair
A new technology, Own Your Unconscious, grants users access to other people’s memories in this sibling novel to Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. A quasi-speculative take on contemporary America and social media, it can be read as a standalone and is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
The House of Fortune
By Jessie Burton. Picador
This follow-up to Burton’s 2014 bestseller, The Miniaturist, is richly rendered and skilfully woven. We re-enter the world of the Brandt family in 18th-century Amsterdam. The family has fallen on hard times, the elusive miniaturist is back, and our 18-year-old protagonist, Thea (daughter of Marin Brandt), is falling for an inappropriate suitor. Read our review.
By Benjamin Markovits. Faber
In his 12th novel British-American author and former basketball player Markovits tells of two schoolfriends, one black, one Jewish, whose paths diverge after one becomes a pro basketball star. Themes of ambition, race, class and disillusionment are explored but it is the lively, detailed telling that makes this story so absorbing.
There’s Been a Little Incident
By Alice Ryan. Apollo
When a young woman goes missing her extended family bands together to get to the bottom of what has happened. Is there something sinister going on? Or is it just Molly’s flighty nature? Ryan’s debut is full of humour, warmth and heart.
By Emma Donoghue. Picador
Donoghue merges the tension of an adventure novel with the searching allure of historical fiction in this reimagining of the first discovery of Skellig Michael by 7th-century monks. Read our review.
By George Saunders. Bloomsbury
Saunders is a master of the short form, and his latest collection is full of trademark strangeness. “Pinioned” beings are forced to perform theatrical recitals, formerly homeless people have been reprogrammed to participate in violent protests... Yet contemporary life is right there in Saunders’s shrewd, truthful sentences.
By Daphne Palasi Andreades. Fourth Estate
Andreades’s short but lyrical novel, told in the first-person plural voice, plunges us into the experience of growing up a “brown girl” in 1990s New York.
The Night Interns
By Austin Duffy. Granta
There’s a close intensity to this novel set in the sleep-deprived world of night shifts on a surgical ward. Duffy, an oncologist as well as an author, brings a unique perspective and writes in a pared-back yet hypnotic style.
By Ian McEwan. Jonathan Cape
Beginning with an 11-year-old at a piano lesson in 1959, and moving through a life that witnessed the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the reign of Thatcher, the rise of Brexit, the Covid pandemic, and more, this sprawling yet gleaming tome captures a century in flux and a personal story that might represent an alternative to McEwan’s own.
By Barbara Kingsolver. Faber
Another long, meaty novel to sink into over Christmas is Kingsolver’s reimagining of Dickens’s David Copperfield. Set in Lee County, amid the modern-day opioid crisis, this story of poverty, institutional failure and resilience is held aloft by a compelling and energetic narrative voice.
This article is part of our guide to the Irish Times books of the year. Follow one of these links to read Malachy Clerkin on sports books / Tony Clayton-Lea on music books / Rory Kiberd on nonfiction books / Adrian Duncan on art books / Seán Hewitt and Martina Evans on poetry / Jane Casey on crime fiction / Claire Hennessy on young-adult fiction / Sara Keating on children’s books / Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Fintan O’Toole and more on their books of the year