The 13 best novels (and 2 best short story collections) of 2023

Mild Vertigo
By Mieko Kanai, translated by Polly Barton
New Directions: 192 pages, $17

Sing me the song of the housewife! An ode to laundry baskets and durable flooring, washed windows and the slick purity of the Western-style kitchen. “Mild Vertigo’s” first chapter concludes with an ode to the running faucet: Natsumi, the woman at the center of this Tokyo-set novel, “kept staring at it, and falling, again for some unknown reason, into a kind of trance.” If all this sounds intolerably retro, pay closer attention. Natsumi isn’t necessarily discontent, but she studies herself like a researcher in a lab. And as she roams her apartment complex, gossiping with neighbors and stalking the grocery store aisles, the novel turns into a brilliant example of “the literature of things,” an examination of how we revel in the domestic stuff of life. If the home is the center of our lives, Kanai seems to ask, why not put it at the center of our books?

The Vaster Wilds
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead: 272 pages, $28

Towering chestnuts, ice floes “squealing” as they break, “yellow and black birds diving into the grasses,” native people coated in “paint a half inch thick”: This is what a young runaway sees when she flees the desolation of the Jamestown Colony in winter 1610 and heads into the primeval American forest. Groff’s second foray into the historical novel (her first,” Matrix,” about a community of nuns in 12th-century France, marked an extraordinary shift) is a close encounter with nature and a gonzo achievement of narration: The girl — sometimes called Zed, sometimes Lamentations — spends the entirety of the novel alone, battling the life-giving but punishing world and her own faith in a shape-shifting God. Groff keeps the tension high and the language ornate in this otherworldly rumination on what our planet might feel like if we believed in the divinity of nature.

Biography of X
By Catherine Lacey
FSG: 416 pages, $28

X is a novelist, a performance artist, a shape-shifter, and perhaps a con. She’s David Bowie and Marina Abramovic and entirely herself. Her name is a mark of absence and presence at the same time. She’s fictional, but Lacey animates her so fully that I’m half-convinced she might be alive out there somewhere. “Biography of X” is written from the point of view of X’s widow, CM, who is just as confused and curious as the reader about who her dead wife really was. And it charts X’s maneuvers through an alternate United States, where the religious right has turned the South into a kind of North Korea, and an art world that is just as obsessed with appearances as our own. This novel burns hot and never fades: It’s a new icon as amorphous and magnetic as X.

Terrace Story
By Hilary Leichter
Ecco: 208 pages, $28

I’ve heard “Terrace Story” described as a parable about real estate, which may be true, but come on, people, think bigger. In this palate-expander for narration, a young woman named Stephanie discovers that she can stretch space with her mind. Her first target, at least as far as we know, is the apartment of her financially struggling colleague Annie: Stephanie “adds” a terrace and then promptly locks Annie out of it — and into a different dimension. The story unfolds from there like a long hallway connected to a series of wildly disparate rooms. We learn about Annie’s parents’ fractured marriage, Stephanie’s isolated adolescence and a suburban space colony. The push is about what can grow in the space between the real and the imagined; Leichter has stitched together a narrative that purposely, beautifully, doesn’t quite hang together, one where raw emotion rubs up against fantastical possibility.

Loved and Missed
By Susie Boyt
NYRB: 208 pages, $18

Finally, a novel as happy as it is compelling, as beautiful as it is realistic. Admittedly, the premise sounds grim: Schoolteacher Ruth informally adopts her granddaughter Lily, rescuing her from her mother’s drug den and setting out to raise her right. Their life together is tinged with the absence of Lily’s mother, who only occasionally appears, thin-armed and scabby. But oh, the lightness and pleasure of Lily and Ruth, their keen companionship over tea and toast, quick trips to the seaside, plimsolls by the door. What keeps it so buoyant is Boyt’s glistening prose; like a candle in front of a mirror, it casts light in every direction. “The thick swoon of [love] …,” she writes, “No dilution, everything directly beamed heat and light. Synchronised breathing, warm tessellated limbs.” This is the rare novel that brings equal amounts of solace and joy.

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