Books·Books of the Year

The best international fiction of 2019

Here are CBC Books's 28 favourite works of fiction from around the world this year.

Here are CBC Books's favourite 28 works of fiction from around the world that came out in 2019.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Jokha Alharthi (left) is the author of Celestial Bodies. Marilyn Booth translated the novel into English. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Celestial Bodies is a coming-of-age story about the country Oman, told through the perspective of three sisters as they witness waves of great change. Mayya, the eldest, is married to a devoted man named Abdallah, to whom she feels little attachment. Asma dreams of a marriage much different from Mayya's, while Khawla refuses proposals and remains steadfastly in love with a man who has emigrated to Canada.

Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and 2010 Best Omani Novel Award. Jokha Alharthi is the first female Omani writer to be published in English. She has also published two other novels, two short story collections and a children's book.

We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

We, the Survivors is a novel by Tash Aw. (Associated Press/Alastair Grant, Hamish Hamilton Canada)

A senseless act of violence becomes part of a much larger story in We, the Survivors. An ordinary, uneducated man, raised in poverty in rural Malaysia, tells a harrowing and sadly familiar tale of aspiration and struggle, leading to the murder of a migrant worker.

Born in Taipei and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Tash Aw grew up both in the urban Malaysian capital, as well as spending his summers in the countryside with his extended family. We, the Survivors, like his other novels, draws from his experiences with a foot in both worlds. 

Featured VideoThe Malaysian author spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at the Vancouver Writers Festival about his new book, We, the Survivors, a haunting tale of migration and murder.  

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Night Boat to Tangier is a novel by Kevin Barry. (Knopf Canada, Conor O'Mahony)

In Night Boat to Tangier, two aging Irish criminals — Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond — sit in a ferry waiting room on the Spanish port of Algeciras. They are waiting for Maurice's estranged daughter, who they are expecting to either arrive on a boat from Tangier or to get on a boat departing to the same place. Over the course of a long night, the two old friends ruminate over their dark shared histories. 

Kevin Barry is an acclaimed Irish writer. Based in County Sligo, Barry has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Irish Book Award. Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for the Booker Prize and appeared on The New York Times Book Review's list of 2019's 10 best books. 

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Taffy Brodesser-Akner's latest novel is Fleishman is in Trouble. (Random House, Eric Tanner)

Fleishman Is in Trouble is about a middle-aged doctor in New York named Toby Fleishman, who has just ended a 14-year marriage. He's pretty sure there's only one villain in his story. It's obviously his ex-wife Rachel, who always paid more attention to her high-powered career than to their family. Then one day Rachel drops their two kids off at his apartment and disappears. Toby is forced to deal with the fallout, and to consider the possibility that he never really understood the story of his own marriage.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a journalist and writer. Fleishman Is in Trouble is her first novel and it was longlisted for a National Book Award

Featured VideoIn Brodesser-Akner's new novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, middle-aged Toby Fleishman ends his 14-year marriage and expects to enter a new era of freedom. Then his ex-wife drops their kids off and disappears, and he's forced to reconsider the story he told about their marriage. She speaks with guest host Peter Armstrong about anger, ambition and the collision between two conflicting narratives.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang, pictured above at the premiere of the film adaptation Arrival, is the author of Exhalation. (Knopf, Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures International)

Exhalation is a collection of sci-fi stories from celebrated writer Ted Chiang. Stories include The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, which sends a Baghdad fabric seller through a time portal, and Exhalation, the tale of an alien scientist's universe-altering discovery. 

Chiang is also the author of the novella Story of Your Life, which was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film Arrival. 

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise is a novel by Susan Choi. (Henry Holt and Co., Heather Weston)

Set in the 1980s, Trust Exercise is about students at a rarified performing arts school in the American suburbs who are struggling to carve out their own paths in an esoteric bubble. Among the chaos of growing up, two freshmen — David and Sarah — fall headlong in love, going mostly unnoticed by the rest of the school and the outside world. That's until the outside world begins to penetrate the school's walls. 

Susan Choi is a critically acclaimed writer and scholar. She has published five novels and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She currently teaches fiction writing at Yale University. 

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer is a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (One World, Nina Subin)

The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram Walker, who is born into bondage in Virginia. His father is plantation owner Howell Walker and his mother is Rose, who has been sold away. After almost drowning, Hiram resolves to escape from the Deep South and becomes involved with the Underground. 

The book is Ta-Nehisi Coates' first novel. It is a finalist for the Carnegie Medal, and Coates previously won the National Book Award for his nonfiction book Between the World and Me

Africville by Jeffrey Colvin

Africville is a novel by Jeffrey Colvin. (HarperCollins Canada, Song of Myself Photography)

Africville tells the story of three generations of a family as they drift away from their roots in Nova Scotia. Structured as a triptych, the book begins with Kath Ella during the Great Depression, who struggles to raise her family amid suspicious stares from white-skinned neighbours. Her son Omar grows up frustrated by the racial prejudices he faces, and ends up rebelling against his family. Kath Ella's grandson Warner then takes up the narrative from his father.

Jeffrey Colvin is a  longtime contributor of short fiction to various publications. Africville is his first novel. 

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

Lucy Ellmann is an American-born British novelist based in Scotland. (Caroline Forbes, Biblioasis)

Composed mostly of one sentence, Ducks, Newburyport follows the stream of consciousness inner-monologue of an unnamed Ohio housewife living in Donald Trump's America. While making pies, the narrator ruminates on why her daughter won't speak to her, her fears over climate change and what it means to live in politically turbulent times.

Ducks, Newburyport won the Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. Ellmann is American-born, but has spent most of her life in the U.K. 

Featured VideoBen Lerner's new novel, The Topeka School, is perhaps his most dazzling yet — an exploration of masculinity and whiteness in Trump's America, how to raise children well, and the devolution of public debate into a vicious martial art.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo is the author of Girl, Woman, Other. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Girl, Woman, Other follows the stories of 12 black British women. Bernardine Evaristo traces the lives of these characters from the beginning of the 20th century to now in vivid and visceral prose. 

Evaristo is a British writer, scholar and dramatist. Her work, including 8 other books, explores aspects of the African diaspora. She shared the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. She was made an MBE in 2009, and is currently a professor of creative writing at Brunel University of London as well as vice chair of the Royal Society of Literature. 

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel by Marlon James. (Bond Street Books, Jeffrey Skemp)

In Black Leopard, Red WolfTracker, a well-respected hunter who always works alone, is hired to find a boy who has been missing for three years. He ends up joining a band of unusual characters, including a "shape-shifting man-animal" called Leopard, all engaged in the hunt. As they traverse ancient cities and forests and face deadly beasts, Tracker wonders why this boy is so special and finds himself caught in a web of lies.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is Marlon James's fourth book and was a finalist for the National Book Award. James previously won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Featured VideoThe British writer talked to Eleanor Wachtel onstage in Toronto about her new novel, an enigmatic story about a striking young man that makes startling connections through time and space. 

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka School is a novel by Ben Lerner. (McClelland & Stewart)

In The Topeka SchoolAdam Gordon is a successful high school student from an accomplished family. While he's a popular and talented debater, his parents run a world renown psychiatry clinic and his mother is a famous feminist writer. When Adam befriends a loner named Darren Eberheart — without realizing he's one of his father's patients — it unleashes a devastating chain of events.

An acclaimed writer, Lerner is also a poet, Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow and distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College. 

Featured VideoThe prize-winning author talked to Eleanor Wachtel on stage in Toronto about her new novel, Where Reasons End, written in the months following the suicide of her 16-year-old son. 

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel by Deborah Levy. (Hamish Hamilton Canada, Sheila Burnett)

The Man Who Saw Everything is about a historian named Saul Adler. He has been invited to do research in Communist East Berlin, but only if he writes a favourable article about the German Democratic Republic. While waiting to take a photograph on Abbey Road — intended as a present for his translator's sister — Saul's life is changed when he's hit by a car.

The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. She has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize, for the novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk

Featured VideoIn 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli began volunteering as an interpreter for young Central American asylum-seekers facing deportation. She speaks with Gillian Findlay about the conditions children are fleeing, their dangerous journey across Mexico, and what happens once they enter the American justice system.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

Where Reasons End is a novel by Yiyun Li. (Random House, Phillippe Matsas)

Where Reasons End is a conversation between a mother and her 16-year-old son, who has died by suicide. The mother, a writer, searches her son for answers as she contends with loss and grief.

Yiyun Li, a MacArthur fellow and 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award winner, previously wrote about her own experience with depression in her memoir Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your LifeWhere Reasons End has received overwhelming praise and has appeared on many best of the year lists, including Time and the New York Times. 

Featured VideoCan we own a consciousness? Can we buy and operate someone else's subjective experience? These themes of Ian McEwan's novel, Machines Like Me, force us to confront our relationship with technology and examine whether our human morality extends to AI being.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive is a novel by Valeria Luiselli. (Knopf, Diego Berruecos-Gatopardo)

In Lost Children Archive, a family road trip from New York to Arizona grows increasingly tense as news of an "immigration crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border breaks over the radio. Thousands of children are being detained or getting lost in the desert, while, in the car, a divide grows between the parents. 

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist and nonfiction writer from Mexico, has previously volunteered as an interpreter at the U.S.-Mexico border for children arriving from Central America. She previously wrote about her experiences in the essay collection Tell Me How it Ends. Lost Children Archive was longlisted for 2019 Booker Prize. 

Featured VideoThe 28-year-old writer talks to Eleanor Wachtel about her two novels, how she engages with the social conventions of her time and how her characters navigate coming-of-age in an Ireland itself reeling from the decline of the Celtic Tiger.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me is a novel by Ian McEwan. (Knopf Canada, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert)

Machines Like Me is set in an alternative 1980s in the U.K. A couple named Charlie and Miranda purchase Adam, a highly realistic humanoid robot who comes to live with them. The resulting tale includes a love triangle, questions of machine sentience and whether our human morality extends to AI beings.

Ian McEwan is a British writer who has published 15 novels, as well as numerous other works. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning once in 1998 for Amsterdam. His acclaimed novel Atonement was adapted into a Oscar-winning film of the same name. 

Featured VideoFrom England, author Jeanette Winterson reveals the true story behind her hit first novel "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit."

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is a novel by Ann Patchett. (HarperCollins, Heidi Ross)

Cyril Conroy began his real estate empire with a single lucky investment after the Second World War, effectively raising his family from poverty to wealth in a single blow. But another purchase, a lavish estate known as the Dutch House, will prove to be his family's downfall. The Dutch House is the story of his children, Danny and Maeve, who find themselves exiled from the family by their stepmother and thrust suddenly into poverty.

Ann Patchett has written seven previous novels, including Commonwealth. The Nashville-based author's work has been published in over 30 languages and she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth is the debut novel by Julia Phillips. (Knopft, @jkbphillips/ )

Taking place over a year in the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, Disappearing Earth traces the fragmentation of a small community in the wake of a terrible crime. Two girls, both sisters, go missing and the ensuing investigation turns up nothing. This debut novel traces vast mountainous vistas, as well as a whole host of richly drawn characters, as residents of the isolated area begin to turn against each other. 

Disappearing Earth is Julia Phillips's debut novel. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award finalist and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award. 

Lanny by Max Porter 

Lanny is a novel by Max Porter. (McClelland & Stewart)

In LannyLanny has recently moved to a new place. An hour away from London, the village he now calls home is fabled for its mysteriousness. It's the home of one church, one pub and a few houses. Its owner is only heard about through children's rumours and whispers: the elusive Dead Papa Toothwort. 

Lanny is the second novel by British writer Max Porter. It was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Waterstones' 2019 Book of the Year. 

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of Daisy Jones & The Six. (Deborah Feingold, Doubleday Canada)

Told in a series of transcribed interviews, Daisy Jones & The Six tells the story of a legendary 1970s rock group that mysteriously broke up at the height of their fame. The two central characters of the book are Billy Dunne, the leader of The Six who has a drug problem, and Daisy Jones, a singer with a soulful voice and a gift for songwriting. Daisy Jones and The Six make it big together, but a power struggle over creative control creates tension in the group.

Daisy Jones & The Six was named as one of the best books of the year by NPR. Taylor Jenkins Reid, a writer based in L.A., is also the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Film and television rights for Daisy Jones & The Six have been acquired by Reese Witherspoon, who is producing a 13-episode adaptation for Amazon.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney's second novel is Normal People. (Knopf Canada/Jonny L. Davies)

Normal People follows the lives of Connell Waldron, a popular football star from a poor family, and Marianne Sheridan, a teenage outcast from a wealthy background. Despite being opposites in many ways, Connell and Marianne form a lifelong friendship, straying in and out of romance along the way.

Normal People is Irish writer Sally Rooney's second novel. It won the 2018 Costa Novel Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as well as numerous other awards. 

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

You Know You Want This is a short story collection by Kristen Roupenian. (Simon & Schuster, Elisa Roupenian Toha)

Kristen Roupenian's short story Cat Person set the internet ablaze with conversations around consent and gender dynamics when The New Yorker published it in the winter of 2017. Cat Person, the story of a young college student's awkward sexual encounter with an older man, is now part of Roupenian's debut collection of short fiction, You Know You Want This

These 12 stories range from the mundane to the supernatural, each exploring different forms of violence perpetrated against and by both men and women.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again is a novel by Elizabeth Strout. (Random House)

Olive, Again is a sequel to Elizabeth Strout's Pultizer Prize-winning novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge. In 13 new stories, Olive describes life as a retired schoolteacher in a small town and remains oblivious to the challenges of those around her, including her adult son, husband and former student.

Strout's other books include My Name is Lucy Barton, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a novel by Olga Tokarczuk. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Riverhead Books)

In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadJanina is a recluse in her small Polish village and is known to prefer the company of animals over humans. When a sudden string of murders rocks the community, Janina finds herself drawn to the investigation and becomes increasingly certain she knows the guilty party.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flightswhich was translated by Jennifer Croft. Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature. 

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a novel by poet Ocean Vuong. (Tom Hines, Penguin Press)

In On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeousa man in his late 20s writes a moving, history-spanning letter to his mother, who is illiterate. The narrator, Little Dog, looks back on his ancestors in Vietnam and examines how his family history has shaped him and the secrets he bears.

Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet whose book Night Sky with Exit Wounds won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award and others. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel and was longlisted for the National Book Award, as well as the Carnegie Medal. 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's latest book is The Nickel Boys (Penguin Random House, Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Nickel Boys is based on a real reform school in Florida that operated for over a century. It follows a young black boy named Elwood Curtis who is sent to live at a juvenile reformatory after an innocent mistake. The Nickel Academy bills itself as a place of "physical, intellectual and moral training," but in reality it is a place where young boys are subject to physical and sexual abuse.

Colson Whitehead is a celebrated American writer whose previous book, The Underground Railroadwon the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Carnegie Medal for fiction and many other honours. The Nickel Boys won the $50,000 Kirkus Prize, an American prize that recognizes the best books of the year. 

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy is a novel by Lauren Wilkinson. (Random House Canada, Niqui Carter)

Inspired by true events and set during the Cold War, American Spy follows FBI agent Marie Mitchell, who is tired of getting passed over for assignments in favour of her white male colleagues. Mitchell ends up jumping at the opportunity to join a task force that will take down Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary that she secretly admires. Over the course of a year, Mitchell observes, seduces and plays a role in taking Sankara out — and learns about what she is truly capable of along the way.

Lauren Wilkinson is a writer from New York. American Spy is her first novel. Former president Barack Obama recommended it on his 2019 summer reading list.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein is a novel by Jeannette Winterson. (Knopf Canada)

In Jeanette Winterson's novel Frankisssteinit's 1816 and Mary Shelley dreams up a story where a doctor brings something to life. Just over two centuries later, a young doctor falls for a professor called Victor Stein, a leading voice on the AI debate in Britain. Meanwhile, a cryogenics lab in the U.S. is readying resurrection experiments and a recently divorced inventor named Ron Lord prepares to release a new set of sophisticated sex dolls.

Frankissstein was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. Winterson has been writing acclaimed fiction since her 1985 debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.