The Hindu on Books | Best fiction and non-fiction reads of 2023

Updated - January 03, 2024 01:03 pm IST

Published - January 02, 2024 03:40 pm IST

The world is in turmoil politically and socially, with wars being waged on two fronts. The year saw extreme weather events with hurricanes, cyclones, too much heat, too much rain, making climate change a cause for real anxiety. Not surprisingly, many of the non-fiction published this year looked into the chaos. It was a bounteous year for fiction too, and there were long-awaited books from favourite authors, and some brilliant debuts offering fresh perspectives. Here are the best reads of fiction and non-fiction for 2023, books that entertained and educated, prodded and poked, as Swati Daftuar writes while introducing the fiction list.


Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water (Grove Press, U.K.) is a sweeping narrative, the story of a Christian family in Kerala, set over eight decades, and following three generations with a secret. In a place where water is everywhere, in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning. The book opens in 1900 and goes all the way to the 1970s — over 700 pages of a deeply moving story steeped in emotional generosity and empathy, and a social history of the times.

Assassin (HarperCollins) by K.R. Meera, and translated by J. Devika, races through recent history, through crime and detection, through the many twists and turns of personal history woven with the history of women in India. Originally titled Ghathakan in Malayalam, Meera’s latest is an adventure and a quest, all in one.

Paul Murray’s Booker Prize-shortlisted The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton) is a family drama full of the foibles of human life, with its humour and darkness. Set in a small Irish town, the inviting story takes readers inside a deceptively simple world.

Our Strangers (Canongate) by Lydia Davis, available only in brick-and-mortar stores as per the author’s wishes, readers are offered tantalising little bites of scenes and moments, snatches of conversations and fiery exchanges. So economical that they feel almost too sharp, too quick — a little like magic.

If there is a book that really marked 2023, it is R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface (HarperCollins). It was, for a while, pretty much everywhere. The story is contemporary and familiar, with conversations on race and appropriation and art, publishing and friendship. Above all, it’s eminently entertaining and readable.

This year, with Tom Lake (HarperCollins), Ann Patchett brought readers some calm. She put together a world of warmth, love and joy. It’s a story that starts off in a familiar world — of COVID-19 and lockdowns — but takes us back to a single summer of young love and cherry orchards, handsome actors and simple joys. It’s a slow read, driven mostly by characters and their impulses rather than a fast-paced storyline. The book mimics a kind of idyll — something to savour slowly, mindfully.

Devika Rege is a new voice in every way. The devices in her debut book, Quarterlife (Fourth Estate India) — the central conceit, the characters and concerns – may not be entirely unfamiliar but Rege manages to make them feel new and urgent. A book about India on the cusp, Rege concentrates her power on the rage and earnestness of youth, and the ways in which the personal can reveal itself to be political.

In Absolution(Bloomsbury), Alice McDermott travels to Vietnam in 1963, just before the war. We see Saigon through the eyes of the American wives — the women we rarely hear about, the ones who live on the margins and act as “help meets” to their husbands The story is about the friendship between two such women. Lush with details, Absolution will force readers to ask questions that are both uncomfortable and inevitable — what does doing good mean, and can it ever be enough?

Fire Bird (Penguin) by Perumal Murugan, translated by Janani Kannan, is a simple story that takes on big, difficult questions. This prize-winning book is a fine example of the author’s ability to weave layers upon layers of meaning into deceptively simple prose. He questions the idea of permanence, of what the existence of home, or the lack of it, can do to people, and where the search for it can take them.

It’s 1972 when James McBride’s Heaven and Earth Grocery Store (Penguin) begins, at Pottstown, Pennsylvania. A skeleton is found at the bottom of a well. To find out more, readers must travel back in time, to Pottstown in the 1920s and 30s, and to a place called Chicken Hill. This is a book, essentially, about the good in humanity, about how love can bring together every kind of person, and how we keep secrets to protect each other. It’s a book that glows with kindness and empathy.


In India is Broken and Why It’s Hard to Fix (Juggernaut), Ashoka Mody, the veteran economist, critiques contemporary India’s glaring inequalities by tracing the history of socio-economic misadventures since independence. In an interview to The Hindu, he said, “When social norms and public accountability erodes, policy has no meaning.” Pointing out that though liberalisation helped India to reduce poverty, the nature of the growth has not been all-encompassing -- there are not enough jobs, or clean air and water, and zero accountability when execution falters.

Joya Chatterji’s Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century (Penguin Viking) tells the “turbulent, rich and compelling” history of the region and how it informs the present. In the Introduction, she writes that unlike many other histories of the subcontinent that concentrate solely on politics, people are at the heart of her book, “in all their voluble and often violent relationships with one another.” The historian points at the ties that bind India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, “connected by a shared legacy of structures of rule. And a lot else – let’s call it history.”

In Marginlands (Pan Macmillan), Arati Kumar-Rao travels to the Thar desert, the mangrove forests in the Sunderbans, eroding coastlines and beaches of Mumbai and Kerala, to study India’s most endangered landscapes. With climate change a reality, Kumar-Rao listens to the people – and explains why misguided decisions have taken many ecologically fragile places to the brink. She has documented a rich monologue about the fate of India’s landscapes, coming away with the belief that “the ancient practice of listening to the land and doing right by it can yet be reclaimed.”

Emperor of Rome (Profile Books/Hachette) by Mary Beard shines a light on the emperors who ruled the Roman empire, from Julius Caesar to Alexander Severus. Sifting fact from fiction, and the tall stories of excess, intrigue and outright terror associated with several Roman emperors, her study maps the period from 44 BCE to 235 CE and chronicles the “malevolent chaos” that emperors, instinctively or deliberately, thrived on. And yes, there’s a chilling resonance with the modern day chaos.

City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh (HarperCollins) by Zeyad Masroor Khan is a coming-of-age narrative about growing up in a ghetto where there were perpetual undercurrents of religious violence and an omnipresent fear that someone in the family may turn up dead. How did hate and “othering” become a part of everyday life? Is there a way out? Through his own experience, Khan, in his debut book, writes what it feels to be a Muslim in India today.

The figure of her grandfather, Premchand, naturally looms over Sara Rai’s Raw Umber: A Memoir (Westland Books), but her evocative autobiography is so much more and ‘The Ancestor in the Cupboard’ is just one part of it. Others in her family, grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, were all writers and in her mind she saw them insisting that they be written about too. In doing this and writing her story as well, she brings alive an eclectic and syncretic past, showing readers a world –and a time -- lost forever.

Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King by Patrick Olivelle is the first book in HarperCollins’ Indian Lives series, edited and curated by Ramachandra Guha. The portrait of King Ashoka, who ruled from 268-232 BCE, is aimed principally at the informed and curious public, says the biographer in his Preface. Calling him a unique and complex personality, Prof. Olivelle explores how a ruler in the third century before the Common Era wanted to practise a dharma that could bring – “or so he thought” – international conflicts to an end.

In Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right (1924-1977), published by Picador India, Abhishek Choudhary writes that the former Prime Minister remains “the most enigmatic Indian politician of recent times,” despite looming large on the political scene. For the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vajpayee was the “first authentic homegrown hero who was loved and respected by the masses.” Choudhary locates Vajpayee in the larger pantheon of Hindu nationalism; this part ends in 1977, and a second volume is in the works.

Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom (Aleph) by Govind Krishnan V. argues that the best antidote to the Sangh Parivar’s appropriation of Vivekananda is for more people to read his work. Pointing out that Vivekananda was not a Hindu supremacist nor a “facile glorifier of Hinduism”, as the Sangh Parivar portrays him to be, the writer says Vivekananda’s thought stands in direct opposition to all the fundamentalist tenets of Hindutva. As a liberal and an individualist, Vivekananda pushed for universal religious tolerance.

Courting India by Nandini Das (Bloomsbury) won the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding for 2023. Her book retrieves Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the court of Jahangir, from the margins and puts him at the centre of the narrative. Roe arrived in India in 1616 at a time when a new king, James 1, was on the throne, and England had suffered “famine, plague, war and economic stagnation.” In contrast, the court Roe encountered in India was wealthy and cultured, and Das explores how the imperial seeds were sown, giving readers an understanding of Britain and early empire.

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