Electric Lit’s 15 Best Novels of 2019
Staff and contributors recommend their favorite book-length fiction of the year
We’re closing in on the holiday season, which if you’re lucky means a few days to drink some nog and catch up on your reading. This tumultuous year produced some great books, and while they’re mostly not cozy per se—there’s a nonzero amount of eldritch ritual, war-torn countryside, menacing secret police, and cult abuse—they can still be a vital part of your winter hygge. We polled current and former Electric Lit staff and contributors about their most-recommended novels of the year. Here, in ascending order, are the results.
Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa
This 2019 National Book Award finalist for translated literature follows three siblings who must take their father’s body from Damascus to Anabiya. Though it’s only a two-hour drive, the trip between these Syrian cities becomes an odyssey through a war-torn country full of death and danger. Read our interview with Khaled Khalifa here.
The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell
A multigenerational story spanning over a hundred years, this novel explores the relationships between three Zambian families living in a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. After a mistake threads the families together, they remain linked as conflicts are reignited and the future is confronted. We interviewed Namwali Serpell about transcending time, genre, and binaries.
The Unpassing, Chia-Chia Lin
When a Taiwanese immigrant family living outside of Anchorage, Alaska loses a daughter, the family quickly spirals into grief. They each feel the loss differently, and the rural landscape heightens the family’s emotions until a lawsuit threatens to blow apart everything they’ve built. For more, read an interview with Chia-Chia Lin or an excerpt from The Unpassing recommended by D. Wystan Owen.
Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi
Perdita lives in London with her mother, Harriet, a baker who makes magical gingerbread. When a teenage Perdita decides to visit her mother’s home country, she learns that her mother’s life is more extraordinary than she ever could have imagined. Read our interview with Helen Oyeyemi about fairytales, gingerbread, and family.
Riots I Have Known, Ryan Chapman
A Sri Lankan inmate has locked himself in a prison computer lab while a riot rages around him—a riot caused by a poem in The Holding Pen, the prison’s highly-regarded literary magazine. He’s writing his final Editor’s Letter for the magazine, and in doing so he’ll tell his life story, explain his connection to the riots, and maybe vindicate himself along the way. Check out our interview with Ryan Chapman about teaching writing.
Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police are causing things to disappear, and only a select few people can remember what. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from this dystopian police force, she decides to hide him under her floorboards and the two must face the oncoming threat of loss while working to preserve their past.
Normal People, Sally Rooney
When quiet, unpopular Marianne and well-liked Connell start secretly dating in high school, they don’t imagine how much their relationship will impact their lives. Following Marianne and Connell from high school to college, as their social roles are reversed and their traumas are revealed, this thoughtful novel explores the difficulties of growing up and being in love. Read Carrie V. Mullins’ essay about how Rooney’s literary genius is subjugated to the genre of “chick lit.”
Bunny, Mona Awad
Even though Samantha Mackey feels like an outsider in her MFA program, she accepts an invitation to a mysterious Salon run by the “Bunnies,” the wealthy, obnoxious members of her fiction cohort. As Samantha becomes more involved with the Bunnies, she slips into a dark world of magic and rituals, where the things she writes can become nightmarishly real. Here’s our interview with Mona Awad.
American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
It’s 1986, and Marie Mitchell is a black woman working as an intelligence officer in the FBI, a notorious boy’s club. Her career has stalled, so when she’s offered the opportunity to take down Thomas Sankara, a man known as “Africa’s Che Guevera,” she accepts even though she secretly agrees with Sankara’s revolutionary ideas. Check out our interview with Lauren Wilkinson about American Spy, or our interview with Wilkinson about her favorite writing advice.
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
Adam Gordon is a high school senior, debate champion, and the son of two brilliant parents. Everything seems to go his way—until he invites a troubled new boy into his social scene, and Adam’s world begins to collapse.
Trust Exercise, Susan Choi
A cultish acting class run by a teacher with questionable methods, an intense romance, and an event that flips the plot completely on its head: the winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction is a dynamic and exciting novel about students in a prestigious performing arts high school. This book will keep readers guessing about the truth until the last page. Here’s our interview with Susan Choi, as well as an excerpt from Trust Exercise recommended by Julie Buntin.
The Heavens, Sandra Newman
Ever since she was a child, Kate has been plagued by dreams that she’s a woman named Emilia in Elizabethan England. But when she starts waking up to an altered present, Kate and her boyfriend, Ben, must struggle with whether or not these dreams are real, and whether they can affect reality. Check out our interview with Sandra Newman here.
Women Talking, Miriam Toews
Eight Mennonite women in a hay loft have two days to make a decision that will affect every woman in their colony. It’s been discovered that a group of men in the colony have been drugging and raping the women nightly for years, and now this all-female congregation must decide whether they will stay in the only home they’ve ever known, or escape to save themselves. Read our interview with Miriam Toews to learn about the historical events that inspired this novel.
Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett
Jessa’s family is torn apart after her father commits suicide in his taxidermy shop. As their lives warp towards grief and absurdity, Jessa is forced to reckon with her family, her identity, and her relationships, all while finding a way to keep the shop running. Check out our interview with Kristen Arnett for more about taxidermy and queerness.
The Need, Helen Phillips
A mother with two young children begins hearing strange noises in her house. While she originally thinks little of the noises, she’s soon faced with the terrifying reality of an intruder who knows too much about her. For more, read our interview with Helen Phillips or Katie Gutierrez’s essay on how The Need explores motherhood and loss.