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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
August Blue by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A virtuoso pianist named Elsa M Anderson skitters around Europe — shadowed all the while by her mysterious doppelgänger — after a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto goes awry. Levy fans will delight in August Blue’s heady exploration of female creativity, as well its cryptic allusions to earlier work, but newcomers can easily start here.
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (Faber/Penguin)
Former policeman Tom Kettle is resigned to living out a sad seaside retirement in Dalkey when a knock at the door brings his tragic past back into the present. Barry’s beautifully constructed narrative, centred around Ireland’s sexual abuse scandals, begins fractured and hazy, then clarifies into a thrillingly focused finale.
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor (Jonathan Cape/Riverhead)
The knowingly Whartonian title of Taylor’s second novel betrays the author’s deep interest in 19th- and turn-of-the-century literature. Yet in its sensitive and unflinching approach to sex, race and artistic identity, as explored through a group of students at a present-day Midwestern university, The Late Americans is thoroughly contemporary.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy (Faber/Scribner)
Kilroy’s first novel in over 10 years is a searing account of the everyday and epic challenges of new motherhood, which toys with a variety of genres to dazzling effect. Soldier Sailor reads like a thriller and romance (of sorts), but it also thrums with the threat of crime fiction and the moral indignation of a political manifesto. Oh, and it’s deftly funny too.
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng (Canongate/Bloomsbury)
Inspired by the writer William Somerset Maugham’s trips to British Malaya in the 1920s, during which he collected ideas for his short stories, The House of Doors skilfully intertwines a real-life murder trial with a fictionalised and highly evocative account of colonial society at the time, complete with its sanctimony and injustices.
Our Strangers by Lydia Davis (Canongate/Bookshop Editions)
Lydia Davis makes the word “minimalist” seem excessive: some of the stories in this latest collection are barely tweet-length. Yet the disparate worlds and characters she conjures here — two women gossiping loudly on a train; a baby being photographed; a neighbourhood chat board — throb with human feeling. Davis’s ability to observe and celebrate minutiae is as wise and miraculous as ever.
Tremor by Teju Cole (Faber/Random House)
Cole’s long-awaited new novel does not disappoint. Despite seeming like autofiction (narrating the story of an American photography professor with Nigerian roots, the author’s mirror image), this story is more like a jigsaw — a WG Sebald-like collage of memories and reflections on art, colonial violence, jazz and cultural dislocation. It sounds tricksy, but you’ll find yourself transfixed.
The Pole and Other Stories by JM Coetzee (Harvill Secker/Liveright)
This late-in-life collection by the South African master has a wintry chill — death never seems distant — but is also illuminated by wintry light, not a phrase wasted, everything sharp and back-to-the-bone. The novella of the title, concerning a middle-aged Spanish woman’s ill-fated affair with a cadaverous Polish pianist, seems slight but hits hard; the other tales linger too.
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes (Atlantic)
Eyebrows were raised when MacInnes’s third novel failed to progress from the Booker longlist to the final six, and it’s not hard to understand why, at least in terms of ambition. This is a sprawling, sci-fi-inflected journey from the deepest oceans to outer space, and a meditation on climate change and the strangeness of our own world to boot. The FT called it “a far-reaching epic”.
Tell us what you think
What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below
The Guest by Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus/Random House)
Emma Cline’s The Girls won many fans for its queasily atmospheric evocation of a teenage girl adrift in a 1960s Californian cult. Her new novel is set among the sleek elites of modern-day Long Island, where a young woman is hazily involved with a super-rich man, but its atmosphere is equally apprehensive and Cline’s eye for the fragility of insider-outsiders is as gimlet-sharp as before.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)
Plot twist: Zadie Smith’s latest is her first historical novel, an evocation of Victorian London that draws on the real-life court case of a fraudster who tried to muscle in on a baronetcy. Although it teems with period detail and Dickensian characters — one of whom is Dickens himself — the FT’s reviewer praised the book for illuminating “what it is to live and to love in the 21st century”.
Books of the Year 2023
All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:
Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Environment by Pilita Clark
Wednesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Thursday: Fiction by Laura Battle and Andrew Dickson
Friday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Saturday: Critics’ choice
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café