Best Literary Fiction 2019

Radiant. Soaring. Extraordinarily original. The best literary fiction published in 2019.

See all of our 2019 Best Books lists.

Barry, Kevin. Night Boat to Tangier. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385540315.
During one long, misty night, two old Irish reprobates sit dockside in Algeciras, Spain, awaiting the hoped-for appearance of a long-estranged daughter and recalling their tangled history as friends, drug-dealing business associates, and romantic rivals. Read this for the crackling dialog, the tension-soaked atmosphere, and the unlikeliest of likable characters.
 
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Water Dancer. One World. ISBN 9780399590597.
In antebellum Virginia, Hiram Walker, the son of an enslaved mother and a plantation owner, stands out for his impeccable memory and his mysterious gift of conduction, which will lead him on a perilous journey to the Underground Railroad. Coates’s inventive storytelling is as memorable as his prose.
 
Dalton, Trent. Boy Swallows Universe. Harper. ISBN 9780062898104.
In 1980s Australia, Eli, 12, navigates life in a rundown suburb with a jailbird mom, heroin-dealing stepdad, and sort-of guardian who’s a legendary felon. Eli’s tough life story is enlivened by his sass, smarts, and fast-paced narration. A wholly unexpected, wholly delightful debut.
 
Mengiste, Maaza. The Shadow King. Norton. ISBN 9780393083569.
In luminous prose deftly interwoven with a women’s chorus, interludes involving Haile Selassie, and descriptions of brutal war photos, Mengiste shows the women of Ethiopia joining the resistance to Mussolini’s 1935–36 invasion. She focuses on proud warriors Aster and Hirut, an orphaned servant who guards a peasant disguised as the absent emperor, lifting people’s spirits as this book will lift yours.
 
Obreht, Téa. Inland. Random. ISBN 9780812992861.
Obreht captures multiple aspects of American history as she limns tough but desperate Nora awaiting her husband’s return to the family homestead in late-1800s Arizona territory even as a Balkans-born thief who bears the burden of hearing ghosts ranges throughout the Southwest on a plundered stead. Radiant, incisive, and original.
 
Phillips, Julia. Disappearing Earth. Knopf. ISBN 978052552041.
Combining literary heft with a propulsive plot, Phillips examines the subtle effects of racism on the investigation of missing sisters from the desolate, cinematic far-eastern Russian peninsula, Kamchatka. Prejudice blinds people to the evidence until two grieving mothers, brought together by their shared loss, combine forces to seek the truth.
 
Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Penguin Pr. ISBN 9780525562023.
In soaring, poetic language, narrator Little Dog excavates the beauty and anguish of growing up as a gay, biracial child of an illiterate Vietnamese mother who doles out love and violence in equal portions while grandmother Lan protects the boy with epic storytelling that teaches him the power of words.
 
Whitehead, Colson. The Nickel Boys. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385537070.
Told not with fireworks but a sustained, quiet growl that is far more persuasive, Whitehead’s narrative follows a college-bound African American boy erroneously accused of crime in the Sixties and shuffled off to a monstrous Florida juvenile reformatory. Whitehead articulates the inmates’ fear, anger, and helplessness as he continues to clarify racism in America.
 
Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein: A Love Story. Grove. ISBN 9780802129499.
From Mary Shelley’s 1816 creation of Frankenstein to the 21st century creation of sex bots to a cryogenic lab where minds are preserved for future use, Winterson’s brave, bawdy exploration of sexual identity, feminist theory, transgender love, and the future of artificial intelligence is extraordinarily original.
 
Woodson, Jacqueline. Red at the Bone. Riverhead. ISBN 9780525535270.
A high school romance between the daughter of a gentrified Brooklyn couple and the son of a drug-troubled mother leads to an unplanned pregnancy that threatens to upend the couple’s college-bound trajectory. A luminous novel told from multiple voices in shimmering prose.
 

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