Best fiction books 2022: from To Paradise to Young Mungo

Best Christmas books, novels and fiction of 2022 - Illustration for Review by R Fresson (A Human Agency)
Best Christmas books, novels and fiction of 2022 - Illustration for Review by R Fresson (A Human Agency)

Every year when the Booker Prize jury announces its longlist, the observation is made, with an implied raised eyebrow, that certain big names have failed to make the cut. This year, the “snubs” included previous winners Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. Yet it might have been more remarkable if they had been recognised: for ­although both remain fine novelists, 2022 marked the ­moment when much of the (largely male) literary establishment who had reigned supreme throughout the 1980s and 1990s – and kept the 2000s in a reverential stranglehold – finally felt like a spent force.

To be fair, plenty of reviewers admired McEwan’s latest novel Lessons (Jonathan Cape, £20), which, in following the underachieving Roland as he drifts through several decades of British social upheaval, paints a compassionate portrait of generational disconnect. Yet for all the book’s humanity, McEwan’s penchant for aphoristic pronouncements about a changing nation has come to feel loftily out of touch.

Barnes, meanwhile, produced the largely unreadable Elizabeth Finch (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), comprising a student’s discursive memories of a friendship with an inspirational teacher (modelled on the author’s own relationship with Anita Brookner). Its novel-of-ideas format is among the most unforgiving manifestations of the recent trend for essays masquerading as fiction, a fad arguably kick-started by Sally Rooney’s 2021 novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (which ­features long email debates on the ethics of art) and further exemplified this year by Elif Batuman’s skittishly cerebral and discursive campus novel Either/Or (Vintage, £16.99).

Elsewhere, Jonathan Coe, author of such witty state-of-the-nation novels as The Rotters’ Club and What a Carve Up!, takes readers on a ­particularly dreary trawl through postwar British history in his perfunctory Bournville (Viking, £20), while Monica Ali, acclaimed for 2003’s zeitgeisty Brick Lane, returned with a clunking satire of today’s identity wars in Love Marriage (Virago, £18.99).

Meanwhile, American old dogs Cormac McCarthy and John Irving, the former breaking a 16-year silence, produced in The Passenger (Picador, £20) and The Last Chairlift (Scribner, £25) novels that are, respectively, intriguingly baffling and utterly appalling. No, anyone looking for revelatory fiction in a year rocked by political turbulence and the ongoing rumblings of Covid won’t find much joy in turning to the old guard.

Where, in 2022, were the decent novels about Britain today? The predicted glut of pandemic fiction failed to materialise, although there was some. The dazzlingly singular Ali Smith provided a coda to her “real time” seasonal quartet in Companion Piece (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), another restless mix of lexical trickery and social comment that pivots on the unlikely friendship between two women during lockdown. From America came one of my novels of the year: Hanya Yanagihara’s wildly ambitious, shapeshifting To Paradise (Picador, £20), which maps out an tripartite alternative history of New York, and offers in its final section a thoroughly chilling vision of a country’s founding idealism betrayed by its dystopian response to successive pandemics. More simply, in all senses of the word, Booker nominee Elizabeth Strout returned with a fourth Lucy Barton book, Lucy by the Sea (Viking, £14.99), in which her sexagenarian heroine, by now prone to wittering, holes up in Maine with her ex-husband William, while Covid rampages across America.

Strout and Smith were not the only novelists who found a degree of comfort and continuity by retreating into familiar creative territory. Douglas Stuart, who won the 2020 Booker Prize with the loosely autobiographical Shuggie Bain, about a young boy’s love for his alcoholic mum in 1980s Scotland, replays the story with different characters in the equally excellent Young Mungo (Picador, £16.99). This time, the narrative feels more pitiless, possibly in response to not unreasonable accusations that Shuggie Bain’s heart-snagging prose prettified poverty.

Charlotte Mendelson's The Exhibitionist, Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise and Shehan Karunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Charlotte Mendelson's The Exhibitionist, Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise and Shehan Karunatilaka's The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Words serve as a consoling force in John Banville’s impishly self-­referential The Singularities (Vintage, £14.99), for which the Irish nov­elist gathers in a country house several characters from his previous novels. Elsewhere, fans of Marlon James’s unfolding fantasy trilogy Black Leopard, Red Wolf will find their appetite for fever-dream African mythology sated by its for­mid­able second instalment, Moon Witch, Spider King (Hamish Ham­il­ton, £20). And the always interesting Jennifer Egan revisits characters from 2011’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad in her polyphonic riff on possible digital futures, The Candy House (Little, Brown, £20).

Perhaps, though, it remains true that the present is best understood through the prism of the past. Certainly, Robert Harris finds an ingenious parallel for 2022’s ideological intractability in his rollicking but entirely serious novel Act of Oblivion (Hutchinson, £22), which re­imagines the real-life story of two Puritans, involved in the execution of Charles I, on the run through America’s settler colonies. Karen Joy Fowler holds up a tangential mirror to Trump’s America in her Booker-longlisted Booth (Serpent’s Tail, £18.99), which pivots on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Similarly recognised by the Booker judges were Percival Everett’s grotesquely entertaining The Trees (Influx, £9.99), which fashions the historic racist lynching of Emmett Till into a lurid modern American horror story, and Shehan Karunatilaka’s eventual winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books, £16.99), a multi-­storied supernatural farce steeped in the legacy of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Building on the triumph of Hamnet, in The Marriage Portrait (Tinder, £25) Maggie O’Farrell imagines the story of the forgotten Lucrezia de’Medici, the Italian duchess believed to have been murdered by her husband in 1561 at the age of 16. For me, though, O’Farrell’s prolix style smothers much of the life out of her subject. Olivier Guez, on the other hand, delivers an unqualified masterclass in how to blend known fact with imagined truth in The ­Disappearance of Josef Mengele (Verso, £11.99), which journeys unflinchingly into the mind of a monster. No conversation on historical fiction in 2022 can pass, though, without reference to Hilary Mantel, who died with awful suddenness in September. She understood better than almost any author the power of historical narratives to reveal deep truths about our modern selves.

Elsewhere, novelists reflected the uncertainty of our times in splintered narratives. In All Along the Echo (Atlantic, £14.99), Danny ­Denton splices the story of a radio DJ and his producer’s road trip across ­Ireland with the variously paranoid and anxious voices of listeners calling in. Less formally adventurous but no less satisfying is The Exhibitionist (Mantle, £16.99), Charlotte Mendelson’s spin on the Hampstead novel. Her story of a marriage in free fall doubles as a savagely funny take-down of toxic masculine privilege.

Thankfully, the feared grip of identity politics on the artistic imagination failed to gain much hold. However, one novel that did feel as though it had been tailor-written for sensitivity readers was Sandra Newman’s The Men (Granta, £14.99), in which all the men in the world mysteriously disappear overnight. Trans activists in America took exception to the book’s use of the word “men”, and another writer who publicly supported the novel then lost her place on an awards shortlist, making The Men a standout example of a depressing tendency for conversations about books to be valued more than the conversations within them.

This only made Julia May Jonas’s Vlad­imir (Picador, £14.99) all the more welcome. Its story of a woman ob­ses­sed with a much younger man offers a reverse riff on Lolita that skewers both the pieties surrounding #MeToo and the debate about art and morality. Other debuts that caught the eye included Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses (Bloomsbury, £14.99), a finely detailed account of an affair between a married Protestant lawyer and a young Catholic woman in 1970s Belfast, and Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea (Pan Macmillan £16.99), which combines elements of myth and horror in a tale set aboard a sub­marine. And I greatly enjoyed Claire Powell’s deceptively breezy At the Table (Fleet, £14.99), about an ordinary family unravelling. Between them, these novels glittered with intellectual rigour and unbridled imag­ination. Here’s hoping next year offers much more of the same.

For 15% off any of these books, call 0844 871 1514 or use the checkout code XMAS at