There’s no denying that this year has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to truly extraordinary, life-changing novels. From books that quietly interrogate the nuances of life among the elite, to stunning panoramic works that imagine a more physically and spatially flexible world, the authors on this list took a classic literary form and reimagined it from the inside out, even bringing us tales from the future—some green lights, some warning signs. The books on this list tell family stories, love stories, stories of ambition and lust and power and greed, and stories of rest, relaxation, and meditation. All of them are important, and we’re grateful to have read and loved them.
Here are Electric Lit’s top 5 novels of the year, followed by additional favorites below:
The Top 5 Novels of The Year:
The Guest by Emma Cline
Emma Cline is masterful at subtle tension and heightening anticipation while dropping profound insight seamlessly throughout everything she writes. Her second novel, The Guest, reads like a short story—in its taut, tight, crystalline prose and plot—and Cline has even said that it was inspired by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” But The Guest manages to do something possibly even more magical and intensifying with that alluring idea of a drifter floating through the pools, parties, and private lives of the wealthy elite. For a summer in the Hamptons, 22-year-old Alex uses her freeloading talents to get by unemployed among the one-percent. But when she slips up, and she’s silently dismissed by her latest target, Simon, she waits out the week—on her own devices—with a plan to confront him once and for all at the annual Labor Day party.
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Greta is a 45-year-old transcriber for a New Age sex therapist named Om. Flavia is a 28-year-old patient of said sex therapist. While typing out her sessions, Greta becomes infatuated by Flavia, and to the point of obsession, invested in her life story while learning about all of her past trauma. One day at the dog park, Greta becomes starstruck when she hears Flavia’s voice but manages to introduce herself under a fake name, and their banter and instant chemistry quickly leads to a passionate affair built upon a lie. Set in Hudson, New York, this novel is part character study, part mystery, and entirely riveting. Beagin’s prose is beguiling with an absurd, witty tone that leaves the reader, like the novel’s characters, desperately wanting it never to end.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
In a near dystopian future, the most popular form of entertainment is “hard action-sports”—gladiator-style death-matches between incarcerated individuals within America’s increasingly dominant private prison industry. If a contestant, known as a Link, survives for three years, a nearly impossible achievement, they are granted freedom. The Links team up in Chains to fight groups from other prisons all while being live streamed to the American public. The novel is layered with chapters from the perspectives not only of Links but also those of viewers, protestors who believe that action-sports are inhumane, and board members who oversee the regulations of matches. As Adjei-Brenyah told Electric Lit: “There’s a lot of suffering going around, and we don’t have the vocabulary or the ability to engage that suffering outside the terms of creating more suffering.” In this breathtaking novel, sprinkled with footnotes that provide facts and statistics on the prison system, Adjei-Brenyah places a critical eye—through a fictional lens—on the very real human costs of entertainment and the humane reasons for abolition today.
Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter
Based on the National Magazine Award winning story, Hilary Leichter’s profound second novel asks how far the mind can travel when it’s looking for something that’s gone. Annie, Edward, and their young daughter Rose live in a cramped city apartment. One night, when their friend Stephanie visits, a beautiful and spacious terrace appears in their closet. When Stephanie leaves, the terrace disappears, only to return when Stephanie returns. But Annie and Edward must learn that every bit of space comes at a hidden cost, setting off a seismic chain of events. Ultimately, Terrace Story is a love story that seeks to mend a broken-hearted world. Read an interview with Leichter here.
Forgive Me Not by Jennifer Baker
From former Electric Literature contributing editor Jennifer Baker comes a searing indictment of the juvenile justice system. It takes one night, one bad decision, and one drunk driving accident for fifteen year old Violetta Chen-Samuels to cause the accident that kills her little sister. In the juvenile justice system, her future lies in the hands of those she’s wronged—her family. Denied their forgiveness, Violetta is forced to make one of two choices: to remain in detention, or participate in The Trials—no easy feat. But success might bring her freedom, and what she craves most of all: her family’s love. In the quest to win her family’s forgiveness, Violetta must confront her own grief, and consider that it might be more important to forgive herself.
Electric Literature’s Other Favorite Novels:
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Bodie Kane, successful film professor and podcast host is invited back to the New England boarding school, where she spent four miserable years, to teach a new course. While she’d prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, Bodie finds herself drawn back into the case of Thalia Keith, her classmate who died, and Omar Evans, the athletic trainer who was convicted for her murder. As the many flaws in the case, and a rush to conviction, become apparent, Kane begins to wonder if something from her past holds the key to solving the case. Read an excerpt of I Have Some Questions For You here.
Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind by Molly McGhee
When Jonathan Abernathy lands a job with a government loan forgiveness program, one that will absolve him of his debts if he is successful, he jumps at the chance. He can give himself a new life if he proves competent at entering the dreams of middle class workers while they sleep and removes the unsavory detritus from their daily lives. As he settles into his new job, reality and morality begin to collide, forcing him to confront the lines between love and hate, work and life, right and wrong, and even sleep and consciousness. Read an excerpt of Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind here.
Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang
In a world covered in smog and filled with disappearing food crops, a chef leaves behind her dying career in a dreary city for a mountaintop escape, a colony where the world’s troubles seem more like faraway annoyances. The sky is clear, elusive ingredients are plenty, and she is reminded of the pleasures of taste, touch, and her own body. Sensuous, surprising, and alluring, Land of Milk and Honey examines the ethics of seeking pleasure in a world who’s days are numbered.
Blackouts by Justin Torres
In the desert in a place called The Palace, a young man tends to a dying soul who’s haunted the margins of his life: Juan Gay. Juan has a project to pass along, a book: Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, and its devastating history. Hidden in buried and muted voices are the stories of early twentieth century queer life. As Juan waits for his end, he and the narrator regale each other with moments of joy and sadness, of love and loss. A book about storytelling, this National Book Award winning novel reminds us that the past is with us, beside us, behind us, and ahead of us.
Holding Pattern by Jenny Xie
In Jenny Xie’s debut novel, Kathleen moves back to Oakland and back in with her mother, Marissa, after a recent heartbreak. To distract herself and to get out of the house quite frankly, she applies for a job as a professional cuddler at the tactile therapy startup, Midas Touch. Marissa, meanwhile, is recently engaged and in the midst of planning her wedding. Holding Pattern—with its mesmerizing prose and endearingly authentic mother-daughter relationship—is about connection in all its many forms and fashions. Get a taste of the poignant novel by reading this excerpt published in Recommended Reading earlier this year.
People Collide by Isle McElroy
When Eli wakes up alone in the cramped Bulgarian apartment he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, who’s more organized and successful, he discovers that somehow he’s in her body. She, in his body, has vanished. As he searches throughout Europe for his wife, he embarks on an exploration of gender and embodied reality. People Collide is rich, rewarding, and a tender portrayal of ambition, desire, and shared lives and bodies. Check out Electric Lit’s exclusive cover reveal here.
The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
Set in Iowa City around a group of acquaintances—some friends, some lovers, some strangers—this mosaic of a novel alternates perspectives each chapter to dissect and discover the complexities as well as tragedies of being human. Eventually leading up to a dramatic weekend in a cabin, the central ensemble of artists, café-workers, poets, dancers, writers, and mathematicians are all haunted by societal expectations, cultural notions of art, Capitalism, their pasts, and perhaps each other. As Taylor probes the tension between individuals, communities, and contemporary America, he surely displays “the rhythms of living in the world” with this lasting, memorable novel.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
Yellowface follows two friends, June Hayward and Athena Liu, who are both writers but have had drastically different career outcomes. While Athena has become a bestseller, June’s books continue to go unnoticed. But after June witnesses Athena’s death, she steals her friend’s latest manuscript about Chinese laborers in World War I. June, who is white, changes her name to sound more ethnic and edits, plagiarizes, lies, then publishes Athena’s manuscript under the racially ambiguous “Juniper Song.” Unsurprisingly, June, or Juniper, is haunted by the threat of getting caught. The tension is high, and so are the stakes in this literary thriller, as Kuang develops her characters into ultra-real people and insightful commentaries on today’s publishing industry.
A Quitter’s Paradise by Elysha Chang
What holds a family together when the fallout seems inevitable? After Eleanor’s mother passes, she quits her PhD program, lies to her boyfriend, and continues down a path of questionable choices to distract herself from her own feelings. In hopes of confronting the present, Eleanor looks to the past and soon finds family secrets in every corner. Told through interwoven narratives from varying perspectives, eras, and continents, Elysha Chang’s debut is a sharp, intimate, and poignant investigation of grief, family dynamics, and selfhood.
Mrs. S by K. Patrick
Mrs. S is an atmospheric slow burn of a novel. Taking place at an all-girls English boarding school, the titular character is the wife of the headmaster and the narrator, an unnamed 22-year-old and new matron hired to supervise the girls, is obsessed. What follows is a story of utmost yearning in the sense of queer desire, the attempt to understand one’s self, and a simple longing to be understood. The prose in this novel makes it stand out immensely—filled with poetry and melancholy around every corner and a hypnotic voice that conveys the intensity of youth and infatuation exquisitely.
Sea Change by Gina Chung
Ro, having entered her thirties, her mother estranged, and her boyfriend having recently left to join a mission to Mars, is feeling stuck. She spends her days working at the aquarium, where she befriends Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who is also Ro’s last remaining link to her father, a marine biologist who disappeared on an expedition. When Dolores is sold, Ro is left to wade through her memories and trauma, and finally come to terms with her history while finding her place in the ever-changing world around her.
Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias
When a lethal fire burns evidence of a cover up at the American Fruit Company’s most lucrative banana plantation, a Costa Rican family is forever changed. What unfolds is a story of forgiveness, of a mother and daughter, of trying to cope with family mysteries and forces not fully understood. Brimming with ancestral ghosts and spirits, John Manuel Arias weaves a gorgeous tapestry of love, loss, secrets, and redemption in this debut National Bestseller.
All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby
When former-FBI agent Titus Crowne returns to his hometown in Virginia as the newly-appointed sheriff, he’s faced with a tragedy and trail of secrets. The town, he finds, is torn apart and coming undone by Confederacy statues and flags on every street. And at the heart of the novel is a school shooting with the serial killer still on the loose—unleashing more tension and drama until it all brims over in this dark, complex story. All the Sinners Bleed asks its readers to reckon with what’s been lost and what’s about to be.
Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks
In 1957, Alice Young steps off the bus in the all-Black town of New Jessup, Alabama, where residents have rejected racial integration as a method of social advancement. When Alice falls in love with Raymond Campbell, whose community organizing challenges the status quo, she realizes their love could lead to their expulsion from the town they both so dearly love. Rendered in lush, exquisite prose, Moonrise Over New Jessup revels in the turbulent underbelly of the politics of love.
Rouge by Mona Awad
To borrow phrasing from Chelsea Davis, who interviewed Awad for Electric Lit in September, “Rouge tenderly explores grief, the psychic damage wrought by Eurocentric beauty standards, and the fierce, fraught love between mothers and daughters.” When Belle’s estranged mother dies suddenly, she returns to California to settle the debts and the mystery behind the cause. Belle has always been addicted to the endless stream of YouTube beauty tutorials and skincare rituals (because who hasn’t been at one point?), but things are taken to the next level when Belle enters La Maison de Méduse—the culty spa her mother was supposedly a part of—and finds possible answers as well as secrets galore.
The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng
Born in a fishing village amid the heat and coastal beauty of Singapore, Ah Boon is a gentle boy not much interested in fishing. He prefers to spend time playing with the neighbor girl, but when he discovers an ability to find beautiful islands that no one else can find, he feels an obligation to impress the girl he loves. Told amidst the backdrop of the Japanese army’s invasion, and the rise of resistance, The Great Reclamation is an aching love, and coming of age story that reckons with colonialism and the wounds of progress.
We Are a Haunting by Tyriek White
Set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, Key, a charming and tender doula serving the Black women of East New York is enchanted with her world. Like her mother, she lives among the departed, learning to speak to and for them. Her untimely death leaves behind her mother Audrey, and her son, Colly, who soon learns that he, too, has inherited his mother’s gifts. As he moves between the living and the dead, he begins a journey of radical self-realization. Part supernatural family saga, part searing social critique, Tyriek White’s Center for Fiction First Novel Prize winning debut is a lyrical and potent work of art.
Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad
Isabella Hammad’s second novel follows Sonia Nasir, an actress who leaves London and a ruinous love affair, to spend the summer with her older sister in Haifa—their family’s ancestral city. Sonia gets caught up in a production of Hamlet (in Arabic and premiering on the West Bank) that a friend of her sister’s is organizing. Through the narrator, the complexities, dangers, and haunting realities of contemporary Palestinian existence seep through the tightly-woven plot and beautifully moving prose of Enter Ghost.
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell
When a young father and son set out on a roadtrip, devastated by the death of their wife and mother, they must confront her terrifying legacy: a family called The Order that commits unspeakable acts in search of immortality. Moving back and forth in time, from London in the 60s to the Argentinian military dictatorship and its aftermath, Our Share of Night is a beautiful, arresting novel of love and longing.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey
As Lauren Groff writes in her introduction to this excerpt published in Recommended Reading, “Biography of X is a ghost story in which the living haunts the dead; it is a doomed and obsessive attempt by Lucca to make contact with X through time and space, coming closer and closer, but—infuriatingly—never being quite able to touch her lost love.” Set in an alternative USA, Biography of X is at its surface a book within a book—a biography of the late enigmatic and shape-shifting artist X, written by her wife, the journalist C.M. Lucca—but it becomes so much more than that as secrets, unknown histories, and questions unravel themselves with an almost equal amount of force as Lacey’s breathtaking sentences.