Best Literary Fiction of 2022

The best literary fiction of 2022 embraces a Wall Street tycoon, an Appalachian upbringing, and the women surrounding a jazz musician.

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Diaz, Hernan. Trust. Riverhead. tr. from French by Frank Wynne. ISBN 9780593420317.

In 1920s New York, Wall Street tycoon Benjamin Rask and his wife, Helen, of offbeat aristocratic origins, are society’s crème de la crème. They’re also the protagonists of the hit Depression-era novel-within-a-novel Bonds. With the Rasks at the center, Diaz uses a dazzling multilayered narrative to investigate money and power, truth and perception, to illuminate early 20th-century U.S. history and life today.

Egan, Jennifer. The Candy House. Scribner. ISBN 9781476716763.

In the early 2000s, tech genius Bix Bouton builds a company based on downloading, or “externalizing,” memory, allowing users to access all their own memories and share them with others. In the immersive, spliced-narrative structure that characterized her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan reveals the consequences for individuals and society.

Khalid, Zain. Brother Alive. Grove. ISBN 9780802159762.

Three adopted brothers live in Staten Island with their imam father: Dayo is Nigerian, Iseul Korean, and Youssef undefinedly Middle Eastern in heritage. Their coming-of-age is at once fantasy-like, given Youssef’s imagined double and the threat of controlling people through medical means; thriller-like, as events converge in Saudi Arabia; and literary-like in a rich purveyance of ideas ultimately indicting any system of thought that puts precepts before people.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Demon Copperhead. Harper. ISBN 9780063251922.

Born to a single, teenage mother, a boy nicknamed Demon grows up rough and tough in Appalachia, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for surviving abuse, neglect, foster care, child labor, and terrible schools while balancing athletic triumph with heartbreak and addiction. Yet his rural roots ultimately render him invisible to the larger society. Kingsolver’s gorgeous language lets readers feel Demon’s pain every step of the way.

McEwan, Ian. Lessons. Knopf. ISBN 9780593535202.

In a narrative that moves from the Suez Crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the current pandemic, diffident Roland Baines has life lessons to learn, starting with adjusting to an unconventional boarding school as an 11-year-old and experiencing the complexities of his piano teacher’s attentions. What results is a profoundly empathetic work rendered in language polished to a sterling shine.

Naga, Noor. If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English. Graywolf. ISBN 9781644450819.

After the Arab Spring, an Egyptian American woman probing her roots and a disillusioned photographer of the revolution meet in Cairo and fall in love. Jobless, cocaine-addicted, and living in a rooftop hovel, the photographer soon moves into the woman’s sun-drenched apartment, but their passion for each other and for what they hope to become leads to disaster. A one-of-a-kind work, formally inventive and ringing with emotion.

Stuart, Douglas. Young Mungo. Grove. ISBN 9780802159557.

In 1980s Glasgow, teenage Mungo lives with sister Jodie, their mother having decamped, and fears that brother Hamish will drag him into the “Proddy” (Protestant) gang he commands. He’s even more fearful that Hamish will discover his relationship with genial, pigeon-tending James, who is Catholic. In language crisper and more direct than Shuggie Bain’s, yet spiked with the same startling similes, Stuart heightens his exploration of the sibling bond.

Varela, Alejandro. The Town of Babylon. Astra. ISBN 9781662601033.

Having returned home to care for his ailing father, Andrés, a professor of public health, offhandedly attends his 20th high-school reunion and is reunited with key people in his life, including first love Jeremy. Varela delivers an effortless blend of the deeply personal, as Andrés reflects on the past and his current difficulties with his husband, and a sharp critique of a capitalist society hostile to immigrants.

Warrell, Laura. Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm. Pantheon. ISBN 9780593316443.

Aiming to highlight the women connected to men in jazz, Warrell dreams up fortyish jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer, a charismatic heartbreaker who performs regularly but hasn’t made it to the top, and startling female characters that include his lovers and ex-lovers, his former wife, and his daughter. Each woman has her own life and her own story; as in jazz, these stories play off one another seamlessly.

Wiggins, Marianne. Properties of Thirst. S. & S. ISBN 9781416571261.

Using shimmering, sharply distinctive language, Wiggins visits the Rhodes family ranch in California, where patriarch Rocky contends with twin children, his wife’s illness, and the LA Water Corporation, eventually signing up to fight when World War II arrives. Meanwhile, the government builds a concentration camp nearby to imprison Japanese Americans, and the Jewish American official in charge begins to question what he’s doing.

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