The best books of 2023: Writers and critics choose

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More than 20 authors and reviewers select their favourite fiction and nonfiction titles of the year

Jan Carson

My book of the year is undoubtedly Catherine Lacey’s epic Biography of X. Lacey’s writing continues to astound me and this hybrid novel/pseudo-history of 20th-century America masquerading as a biography put me in mind of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, (though I must confess I found Biography of X more of a page-turner than Austerlitz). I read it in one furious gulp. I also adored Victoria Mackenzie’s sparse and lyrical debut, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain. This slim novel is set in 1413 and imagines a fictional meeting between Julian of Norwich and the mystic Margery Kempe. It’s intimate, moving and a wonderful snapshot of two extraordinary women’s lives. 2023 was also a fabulous year for literature in translation. I thoroughly recommend Blue Hunger by Italian novelist Viola Di Grado, translated by Jamie Richards. Di Grado’s prose is clean, efficient and devastating as she explores queer love, displacement and grief against the backdrop of Shanghai.

Jan Carson’s next book, Quickly, While They Still Have Horses, is out next April

Tony Clayton-Lea

Among all the confessional memoirs and coffee-table books, reissues and updates, flagrant egos and humble brags, several books remain on the shelves. The best reprint of the year and as fine a document of the rollercoaster journey of a record label as you’ll ever read, is My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize: The Creation Records Story by David Cavanagh. If you can lift it, Real to Reel: Garech Browne & Claddagh Records by James Morrissey offers a great story with quality design, while Bee Gees: Children of the World by Bob Stanley opens the lid on the fascinating career trajectory of the Gibb brothers. Each year presents yet more books on/about Bob Dylan, but this year’s zinger is Bob Dylan: Mixing up the Medicine, by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. Finally, the best behind-the-scenes memoir is Sonic Life: A Memoir by Thurston Moore, who outlines life before, during and after Sonic Youth with clarity and wisdom.

Tony Clayton-Lea is a critic


Edel Coffey

The year 2023 was an incredible year for Irish fiction and my favourites included Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond, Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren and Elaine Feeney’s How To Build A Boat. However, two nonfiction books stand out for me as contenders for book of the year. Katriona O’Sullivan’s Poor tells the story of O’Sullivan’s journey from dire childhood poverty and neglect to professional and personal success. But this book is more than just an incredible story of survival; it also offers an invaluable insight into how we can help, inspire and empower those growing up in similarly challenging circumstances. Essential reading. Meanwhile, Martin Doyle’s Dirty Linen is an impeccably researched and incredibly moving hybrid memoir/social history of The Troubles in his home parish of Tullylish, Co Down. Laden with devastating personal testimonies from neighbours who lost loved ones, this is an important book that commemorates the all too often anonymised victims of The Troubles.

Edel Coffey’s new novel In Her Place is out next March

Catriona Crowe

Three books of poetry: Paula Meehan’s The Solace of Artemis, further explorations of life, pain, joy, class and art by a unique consciousness; Theo Dorgan’s Once Was a Boy, a forensic examination of a Catholic childhood education in Cork; and The Coming Thing by Martina Evans, a mind-spinning narrative poem that brings us through a young woman’s life in 1980s Ireland. All three poets are at the pinnacle of their craft. Dirty Linen by Martin Doyle, an extraordinary, beautifully written and vitally necessary intimate history of all of the murders in a parish in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles”. Lost Lives for Tullylish, Co Down. The Letters of Seamus Heaney, the absorbing communications of our great poet with his many friends. Besides giving us insights into the poetry and ideas, this collection reminds us of what a very nice man he was, generous, encouraging and practically helpful to so many.

Catriona Crowe is an archivist and critic

Kit de Waal

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is a thriller of the highest order that I gobbled down in a few days. Loved it. No list would be complete with at least one Claire Keegan on it. Her latest, So Late In The Day, is another Tardis of a book, slight and simple on the outside, anything but inside. A masterclass for any writer who thinks they need a hundred thousand words to tell a good story. And I’m giving a plug to the Irish Writers Handbook 2024 with nuggets from some of the best Irish writers around. It’s not just for writers starting out but also for those of us who continue to learn from our contemporaries.

Kit de Waal’s latest book is Without Warning and Only Sometimes

Niamh Donnelly

A slightly obscure short story collection, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana, took me by surprise this year. Centred upon the residents of a Harlem apartment block, it impressed not only for its ingenuity, but its tenderness and compassion. Another American author I love is Brandon Taylor and his careful sensibilities as an observer are showcased in The Late Americans, an ensemble piece set in and around the University of Iowa. Irish writer Nicole Flattery’s Nothing Special speaks to contemporary themes of celebrity, surveillance and ambition through the story of the women who typed up Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel, in 1960s New York. Really, though, Flattery could write about a black bag, and it would resonate. I’m sure Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren will get a lot of love herein, because it blows the heart open with its Enright-ian exploration of family dynamics and the pain and ecstasy of love. Lastly, Rachel Connolly’s Lazy City, about a woman who returns to her native Belfast following the death of a friend, has subtle yet potent power.

Niamh Donnelly is a critic

Roddy Doyle
16/10/2023 - ARTS -
Roddy Doyle, who has a new version of Peter Pan, at the Gate Theatre, Dublin.
Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Mothers and daughters are at the centre of a lot of the novels I’ve read this year and Lost on Me, by Italian writer Veronica Raimo is the one I enjoyed most. It is wild, funny and disturbing, all I ask of a book about mothers and their daughters. How to Build A Boat, by Elaine Feeney, is beautifully written and engrossing; I loved it. The character of the year is Sally in Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond; she’s a wonderful creation and so is the book. My annual “He must have been watching me when he wrote that” award goes to Thomas Morris, for his short story collection, Open Up. Rough Beast, by Máiría Cahill, and Dirty Linen, by Martin Doyle, are two deeply personal accounts of the Troubles; they are very different but they are both brilliant.

Roddy Doyle’s latest book is Life Without Children: Stories

Anne Enright

I can’t be doing with Andy Warhol and, for too long, this bias kept me from Nicole Flattery’s Nothing Special. The novel centres on a teenaged typist Mae, who worked at Warhol’s Factory and manages to capture something new about loneliness, disconnection and the tawdry. Mae really is “no-one”, she is all voice: every line seems to thrill and break in an indifferent social space, and the result is very moving. The internet pushed Nick Laird’s poem Up Late at me, when it won the Forward Prize last year for best single poem and, after I read it, I had to get up and walk around the room. It is an elegy to his father who died of Covid, with decades of skill and a lifetime’s love in the making. The recent anthology of the same name is Laird’s signature collection. I read anything by Sigrid Nunez and her latest, The Vulnerables, chimes sweetly with 2018′s The Friend and is the best of company throughout.

Anne Enright’s latest novel is The Wren, The Wren

Diarmaid Ferriter

Michael Magee’s Close to Home is yet another brilliant novel to emerge from Northern Ireland, making sense of the impact of the long conflict and the transition to troubled peace; Magee powerfully delineates the psychology of those crushed by betrayal. Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time is his best novel yet, inhabiting the mind of Tom Kettle who struggles to deal with loss and yet, as he says, “you have to live on”. Barry can take sentences to places few others can, as he masters the psychology of grief, daily routine and the storehouse of the conflicted mind. Matthew Parker’s One Fine Day takes a clever approach to meditating on the nature of the British empire one hundred years ago by looking at a single day in September 1923. Even though the empire was at the peak of its size, the fault lines that ensured its demise were many and clear.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Revelation of Ireland 1995-2020 will be published next year by Profile Books.

Sarah Gilmartin

The book that has stayed with me most this year is Darragh McKeon’s Remembrance Sunday for its artful story on the long reach of trauma. A novel of high craft, with courageous formal choices and elegant prose, it is a reminder, in this anniversary year of the Good Friday Agreement, not just of the lives that were lost during the Troubles, but of those that were stunted or derailed. For something totally different and a good stocking filler for aspiring actors or writers, I really enjoyed Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, a series of interviews with Judi Dench on her career and enduring love of the bard. Wise, witty and hugely entertaining, it’s packed with back-stage anecdotes, celebrity cameos and novel insights on the plays.

Sarah Gilmartin’s latest novel is Service (One)

Sinéad Gleeson

Finishing your own book destroys your reading habits, so I read much less than usual. The Irish books I got to that impressed include How To Build A Boat by Elaine Feeney, Susannah Dickey’s Isdal, Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion, Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary and Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Cacophony of Bone. In nonfiction, I was captivated by Amy Key’s Arrangements in Blue, Janet Malcolm’s final essays Still Pictures, Sally Huband’s exceptional Sea Bean and Evelyn Conlon’s funny, political memoir Reading Rites. Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men, Jennifer Higgie’s The Other Side and Laura Cumming’s Thunderclap sent me down artist rabbit holes. Time poor, I gravitated towards short books and loved Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, Annie Ernaux’s double-bill of Shame and The Young Man, Natalia Ginzburg’s Valentino, Derek Owusu’s Losing the Plot and Cheri by Jo Ann Beard. My book of the year is Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch, a superb, slim novel/biography hybrid about a female jockey.

Sinéad Gleeson’s debut novel Hagstone is out next April

Sally Hayden

New nonfiction books I read this year and recommend include Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, on tragedy in the West Bank; A Death in Malta, where Paul Caruana Galizia details his journalist mother Daphne’s life and the aftermath of her death; Love Across Borders by Anna Lekas Miller, who looks at the impact of hard border policies on relationships; Some People Need Killing, Patricia Evangelista’s memoir of covering Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drugs war; Doro: Refugee, hero, champion, survivor, the story of a Mediterranean boat journey and its lead up, told by Brendan Woodhouse and Doro Ģoumãňęh – a rescuer and the man rescued; Breakup, by Anjan Sundaram, on the war in the Central African Republic and the impact covering it had on Sundaram’s personal life; and Mark O’Connell’s A Thread of Violence. I’m reading Christopher Miller’s The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine. In fiction, I loved Your Wish Is My Command, a graphic novel by Deena Mohamed about Egyptians navigating a world where wishes are for sale.

Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time We Drowned won Irish Book of the Year 2022 and the Orwell Prize for Political Nonfiction

Rónán Hession

My book of the year is a dead heat between two utterly original, genre-bending, innovative novels. Grimmish by Michael Winkler is an “exploded nonfiction novel” about Joe Grim, the Italian-American boxer famous for his ability to take punishment – he won just 24 of his 152 fights. Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlon draws on her interviews with a female jockey working the rough lower tiers of US horse racing. It’s a documentary novel where the story is extracted from its subject with magical skill. In translated fiction, I was impressed by The End of August by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles – a monumental family history woven through the story of the Japanese occupation of Korea – and Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter, with its rich, weird dream life of a nobody Romanian schoolteacher. House on the A34 by Stoke poet, Philip Hancock, made my year. A deft and beautifully observed collection, drawing heavily on his work as a painter-decorator.

Rónán Hession’s next novel is Ghost Mountain (May 2024)

Louise Kennedy

A few days after October 7th, the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s invitation to appear at Frankfurt Book Fair was withdrawn. The organisers had “spontaneously decided to create additional stage moments for Israeli voices”. If you are interested in Palestinian voices, I recommend: Shibli’s Minor Detail, a novel centred on the rape of a young Palestinian by Israeli soldiers in 1949; Selma Dabbagh’s novel Out of It, which opens in Gaza under Israeli bombardment during the second Intifada and moves between London, Palestine and the Gulf; Edward Said’s beautiful, intelligent Out of Place, a memoir of his early life in Jerusalem, Cairo, and the US. I fled real life for fiction this year. Standouts were Una Mannion’s Tell Me What I Am, Michael Magee’s Close to Home, Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren, Elaine Feeney’s How To Build a Boat, Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend, and Sinéad Gleeson’s debut Hagstone, which publishes in April.

Louise Kennedy’s latest book is Trespasses

Mia Levitin

Ann Goldstein’s translation of Alba de Céspedes’s 1952 novel Forbidden Notebook continues to haunt me. I was deeply moved by Jo Ann Beard’s novella Cheri, which has the chutzpah to imagine a woman’s dying thoughts. Anne Enright clearly had fun writing The Wren, The Wren and Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss is refreshingly (and hilariously) subversive. The best sex scene of the year goes to Tom Crewe’s debut, The New Life. In nonfiction, Paul Caruana Galizia’s A Death in Malta is a gripping account of the life and murder of his mother, Daphne, a journalist who exposed corruption. Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory opened my eyes to the racial implications of shifting beauty standards. And Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure is the perfect stocking stuffer for writers: a pep talk of sorts despite its sober reminder that even “James Joyce - James fucking Joyce - couldn’t make a living” writing.

Mia Levitin is a critic

Sarah Moss

I always admire Samantha Harvey’s work. Her new novel Orbital, set in one day on the International Space Station, is honest and tender in thinking about what we do to the planet and for each other. Judging the Dublin Literary Prize this year brought me all sorts of treasures I wouldn’t otherwise have found. I was delighted that we were all happy for Katja Ostkamp’s Marzahn Mon Amour to win, a small but immense book about chiropody in Berlin and therefore also about care and history and generations. I also enjoyed, and recommend, Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, about running a bookshop in America during lockdown and also about America’s political divide; Native American culture, art and society; love and incarceration of various kinds. New Zealand writer Kirsten MacDougall’s She’s A Killer was a wild ride and made me think about similarities between NZ and Ireland as we face climate change, housing crises and the righteous anger of the young. Working on a memoir, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction, and have returned repeatedly to Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, which simply (with endless complexity) shows me how to think better. It’s a personal, political and scholarly exploration of race, histories and representations, and I want everyone to read it so we can think and talk about it together.

Sarah Moss’s latest work is The Fell

Conor O’Clery

I was enlightened and frightened by Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk, whose personal wealth and travel ambitions are stratospheric, and who seeks to shape the world through X and AI. The Last Colony, an inspiring David and Goliath story by lawyer Philippe Sands, relates the struggle of Indian Ocean islanders to return home after their cruel eviction by British authorities to establish a military base. Martin Doyle’s moving conflict memoir, Dirty Linen, The Troubles in My Home Place, resonated powerfully with me, partly because it refers to my own ancestral home place, the linen triangle of Down and Armagh. For backstabbing and betrayals it is hard to beat Liv and Let Die, Alan Shipnuck’s rollicking account of the war in professional golf, in which Rory McIlroy features as one of the good guys. I loved Louise Wilder’s Blurb Your Enthusiasm, a delightful celebration of the art of literary persuasion through book covers. Who knew that blurbs were an art form!

Conor O’Clery’s latest book is The Shoemaker and his Daughter

Joseph O’Connor

I get something from Martina Evans’ beautiful work that I can’t explain, a powerful sense of recognition even when I’ve no personal experience of what’s being described. There are marvels in The Coming Thing that all poetry readers will love: the sheer joy of spoken language, the honest, fragile exuberance of the writing. Martin Doyle’s Dirty Linen is essential reading for all those of us with Ulster family and loved ones. I used to think that the novel can’t engage directly with political questions without lessening itself as a work of art. This year two compelling novels moved me deeply and made me think: Service by Sarah Gilmartin and Silent City by Sarah Davis-Goff. I adored three very different music books: Triggers, former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock’s journey through 30 great songs, Leah Broad’s Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World and Fiona Maddock’s exquisite Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile.

Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is My Father’s House

Ed O’Loughlin

They say you should never mix your metaphors, but I’m going to climb on the log-rolling bandwagon by recommending Paul Murray’s achingly tragicomic The Bee Sting. Few, if any, Irish writers have ever succeeded in sketching contemporary midlands Ireland in such queasy yet humane detail. Himself a Dub, Murray brings a rare outsider’s eye to an unfashionable and overlooked milieu. In This Is My Sea, Miriam Mulcahy has written a moving and profound memoir about grief and loss, in which her family’s generation-long love of sea-swimming serves as metaphor for life and consolation for loss. If you thought the rash of Covid-era features about “wild swimming” had done this pastime to death, Mulcahy’s beautiful book is here to prove you wrong. Sligo-based illustrator Annie West has always had an eye for narrative, which this year bore the ultimate fruit of a full graphic novel. The Late Night Writer’s Club is a love letter to the National Library, and to all the great, late Irish writers who have passed through its doors, illustrated with the warmth and detail for which West is renowned. As for the plot, it would make a great movie.

Ed O’Loughlin’s latest book is The Last Good Funeral of the Year: A Memoir

Fintan O’Toole

Sebastian Barry has a peerless ability to reach into the heart of darkness and pluck out beauty. Old God’s Time is a novel that confronts the legacy of institutional abuse in Ireland with an appropriate rage but also with wonder at the improbable persistence of grace. Barry’s exquisite prose is a net that catches all the tender mercies that escape from history’s cruelties. Anne Enright is also a novelist at the height of her powers. The Wren, The Wren explores the relationship between a mother and a daughter, both grappling with the afterlife of a self-centred poet, with deliciously sardonic humour, finely-etched emotion and indeed eloquent poetry. Mark O’Connell’s A Thread of Violence is a dangerous book about a very dangerous man. O’Connell is well aware of the moral risks in giving a voice to the double murderer Malcolm Macarthur but he navigates his way around them with courage, tact and superb narrative skill. He gives us real insight into the evil of narcissism and establishes his position as one of the best non-fiction writers of our times.

Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958

Kevin Power

The two best Irish novels published in 2023 – each mysteriously overlooked by awards juries, but who can say what goes on at those hidden tables of disputation? – were Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor and Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time, both published by Faber & Faber. Soldier Sailor is about early motherhood, understood as a trap; understood also as a source of the blackest comedy and the most unspeakable joy. As Philip Larkin didn’t put it: they fuck you up, your little kids. Old God’s Time is a reckoning with Ireland’s past – with the failures of Church and state to treat all the children of the nation equally. In prose of great beauty and metaphysical reach, Barry envelops us in the maimed life of retired Garda Tom Kettle, who is drawn into a cold case that proves to be his own – and ours.

Kevin Power’s latest work is The Written World: Essays and Reviews

Anakana Schofield

In Tamara Faith Berger’s resonant, unflinching novel YARA, a young Brazilian woman is dispatched by her mother to Israel. Liberated from her controlling girlfriend, Yara trips into a perplexing cauldron of nationalism and debauchery. Berger uses humour and the body to extract and nuance the territory of nationhood, queerness, consent, and power. Esther Kinsky’s novel Rombo is formally bold and consumed with environment since it’s a record of the aftermath of two historic earthquakes. Through distinct, variegated vignettes, Rombo accrues to a unique portrait of place, people and portents. Elaine Feeney’s gorgeous novel How to Build a Boat absorbed and rewarded, with its lively exploration of community, distilled language, and refreshing critique. Finally, I spent months reading Clarice Lispector’s Too Much of Life, an elephantine-sized collection of her newspaper columns. Since I could never have too much Clarice, 2024 will see less online owl stalking for more binge reading.

Anakana Schofield’s latest novel is Bina

John Self

“Three novels about the various ages of woman have thrilled me this year. Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book is a one-of-a-kind account of being a daughter: funny, touching and true. Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor, a new mother’s cry of rage, is a slender juggernaut that deserves to flatten all competition. And Lore Segal’s Ladies’ Lunch is a compendium of stories about nonagenarian friends in Manhattan, that I wished were five times longer. Oh, but I can’t forget Paul Murray’s triumphant The Bee Sting, which is the best sort of holiday reading: engrossingly long, incredibly funny, impossibly sad.”

John Self is a critic

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times