The 14 best books of the year so far 2022 – BBC

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Thrillers, essays and family sagas are among the BBC Culture picks, write Rebecca Laurence and Lindsay Baker.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Much of Nagamatsu’s debut novel was completed before 2020, and its themes will strike readers with their prescience. Set in the near-future, a team of scientists in Siberia discover a mummified pre-historic female corpse they name “Annie”, which holds a disease that sets off a catastrophic pandemic named “the Arctic Plague”. Nagamatsu focuses on the human side of the crisis, leaping forward 6,000 years to reveal a society that has commercialised death, and the long-reaching legacy of past decisions. Expansive and genre-defying, it is told through discrete stories that slowly coalesce. “Like a Polaroid photograph, How High We Go in the Dark takes time to show its true colours. When they finally appear, the effect is all the more dazzling,” writes the Guardian. It is, writes the New York Times, “a book of sorrow for the destruction we’re bringing on ourselves. Yet the novel reminds us there’s still hope in human connections, despite our sadness.” (RL)

Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood

Now in the seventh decade of her remarkable literary career, Margaret Atwood has written her third collection of essays that, says the i newspaper, “brims with enthusiasm and verve”. Broadly looking at events of the past two decades, the range of subjects is wide – from censorship and Obama, to #MeToo and zombies. And there are insights into her own craft and the function of fiction. As the i puts it: “Atwood always makes the idea of big questions a little more digestible. You find yourself asking: what can fiction do? What can we do, generally?” The essays are full of a “droll, deadpan humour and an instinct for self-deprecation” says the Guardian. “Atwood remains frank, honest and good company.” (LB)

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire

This is Warsan Shire’s long-awaited, first full-length poetry collection, after two pamphlets, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) and Her Blue Body (2015). It arrives nearly six years after the Somali-British poet shot to world-wide fame collaborating with Beyoncé on the latter’s ground-breaking visual albums, Lemonade (2016) and Black is King (2020). The poems in Bless the Daughter… draw from Shire’s own experiences, bringing to vivid life black women’s lives, motherhood and migration. “Shire’s strikingly beautiful imagery leverages the specificity of her own womanhood, love life, tussles with mental health, grief, family history, and stories from the Somali diaspora, to make them reverberate universally,” writes Dfiza Benson in The Telegraph. (RL)

(Credit: Europa Editions)

(Credit: Europa Editions)

In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante

In the Margins is a collection of four essays in which the best-selling, pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan Quartet articulates how and why she writes – and her inspiration, struggles and evolution as both a writer and reader. Ranging from philosophical to practical, the essays give the reader an insight into the enigmatic author’s mind, and include an exploration of what a writer is – less an embodied entity, she says, than a stream of “pure sensibility that feeds on the alphabet”. As the New York Times puts it: “For those who wish to burrow gopher-like into the author’s mind, Ferrante has prepared a tunnel.” (LB)

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

The Booker Prize-winning novelist returns with part two of his Dark Star fantasy trilogy, after 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which the author initially described as the “African Game of Thrones” (he later insisted this was a joke). A female-centric counternarrative to the first novel, Moon Witch, Spider King follows Sogolon, the 177-year-old antihero, and Moon Witch of the title, on an epic and characteristically violent journey. “Like an ancient African Lisbeth Salander,” writes the FT, “she dedicates her lonesomeness to meting out lethal rough justice to men who harm women.” Praising the novel in The New York Times, Eowyn Ivey writes, “the Moon Witch lit my path and showed me how a woman might navigate this dangerous, remarkable world”. (RL)

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Identity, elites, race and capitalism are the areas explored in this multi-layered novel, the first by Xochitl Gonzalez. This “impressive debut”, says the Observer, is “deeply satisfying and nuanced… a tender exploration of love in its many forms”. Set in New York City in the months around a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, Olga Dies Dreaming follows the story of wedding planner Olga and her congressman brother Prieto. Family strife, political corruption and the notion of the American dream all feature in this “irresistibly warm yet entirely uncompromising” novel, says The Skinny. (LB)

(Credit: Penguin Books)

(Credit: Penguin Books)

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo became the first black African woman – and first Zimbabwean – to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for her 2013 debut, We Need New Names. Nine years later, Glory is an Orwell-inspired fable set in the animal kingdom of Jidada, which satirises the 2017 coup that toppled Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (Bulawayo has explained that Glory began its life as a non-fiction account of this history). As a fierce but comedic allegory, Glory can be seen as a companion piece to Wole Soyinka’s 2021 satire of Nigerian society, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. “By aiming the long, piercing gaze of this metaphor at the aftereffects of European imperialism in Africa, Bulawayo is really out-Orwelling Orwell,” writes the New York Times. “Glory,” writes the Guardian, “with a flicker of hope at its end, is allegory, satire and fairytale rolled into one mighty punch”. (RL)

French Braid by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 24th novel is “an extraordinarily rich portrait of a family in flux,” according to the Evening Standard. “Tyler’s set pieces seem undramatic, but her rhythms are masterly.” The novel tells the story of the Garrett family across six decades, and like most of Tyler’s works, is an ensemble piece that spans the generations, set in Baltimore. The story starts with a lakeside family holiday, where rifts emerge that are largely unvoiced, and that unravel in the lives of each family member as the years progress. It is “thoroughly enjoyable,” says the Guardian, “and at this point any Tyler book is a gift”. French Braid is “funny, poignant, generous… it suggests there’s always new light to be shed, whatever the situation, with just another turn of the prism.” (LB)

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s highly-anticipated third novel follows her bestselling, Booker Prize-shortlisted 2015 breakthrough, A Little Life. To Paradise, which was released in January to both rapturous acclaim and cries of dissent, is, like its predecessor, lengthy (at 720 pages) and dwells on deep suffering rather than joy, which has drawn criticism in some parts. Multi-form, and spanning three centuries, it is a compelling and wildly ambitious work, offering no less than an alternate retelling of the US, through 1890s New York, Hawaii and a dystopian, late-21st Century. “Resolution is not available here, but some of the most poignant feelings that literature can elicit certainly are,” writes Vogue, while the Boston Globe calls it “a rich, emotional, and thought-provoking read.” (RL)

(Credit: Doubleday)

(Credit: Doubleday)

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Frida Liu is a working single mother in a near future who makes the mistake of leaving her child alone at home for a couple of hours one afternoon. Authorities are summoned by the neighbours, and her daughter Harriet is taken from her. Frida is given the choice to either lose her child permanently, or to spend a year at a state-run re-education camp for mothers where inmates must care for eerily lifelike robot children, equipped with surveillance cameras. Calling this novel “dystopian” doesn’t feel quite right, says Wired. “Near-dystopian, maybe? Ever-so-slightly speculative? This closeness to reality is what turns the book’s emotional gut punch into a full knockout wallop.” The School for Good Mothers is, says the New York Times, “a chilling debut”. (LB)

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

The Hanrahan family gather for a weekend as the patriarch Ray – artist and notorious egoist – prepares for a new exhibition of his art. Ray’s three grown-up children and steadfast wife, Lucia, all have their own choices to make. This fifth novel by Mendelson has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize, and has been highly praised. The Guardian points to the author’s “succinct specificity of detail,” and “a precision of observation that made me laugh frequently and smile when I wasn’t laughing”. According to the Spectator, Mendelson excels at “vivid, drily hilarious tales about messy families”. The Exhibitionist is “a glorious ride. Mendelson observes the minutiae of human behaviour like a comic anthropologist.” (LB) 

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Described by The Guardian in 2015 as “one of this country’s great contemporary novelists,” British writer and academic Hadley has been quietly producing works of subtly powerful prose for two decades. Like her recent novels, The Past (2015) and Late in the Day (2019), Free Love – Hadley’s eighth – explores intimate relationships, sexuality, memory and grief, through an apparently ordinary-looking suburban family. But, Hadley writes, “under the placid surface of suburbia, something was unhinged.” Set amid the culture clash of the late 1960s, the novel interrogates the counterculture’s idealistic vision of sexual freedom, in, writes the i newspaper, “a complex tale of personal awakening and a snapshot of a moment in time when the survivors of war were suddenly painted as relics by a new generation determined not to live under their dour and hesitant shadow.” NPR writes, “Free Love is a fresh, moving evocation of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” (RL)

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

A debut novel, Black Cake tells the backstory of an African-American family of Caribbean origin, and two siblings who are reunited after eight years of estrangement at their mother’s funeral where they discover their unusual inheritance. The plot is driven by an omniscient narrator, dialogue and flashbacks. It is, says the New York Times, full of “family secrets, big lies, great loves, bright colours and strong smells”. The themes of race , identity and family love are all incorporated, says the Independent, “but the fun is in the reading… Black Cake is a satisfying literary meal, heralding the arrival of a new novelist to watch.” (LB)

Auē by Becky Manawatu

Told through several viewpoints, Auē tells the story of Māori siblings who have lost their parents, with each sibling telling their tale, and later their mother, Aroha, also telling hers from the afterlife. The novel has already won two awards in New Zealand, and is now gaining wider praise. “The plot reveals are masterful,” says The Guardian. “Auē has done well because it is expertly crafted, but also because it has something indefinable: enthralling, puzzling, gripping and familiar, yet otherworldly.” (LB)

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