The best books of 2023, a critic’s choice

By Jason Steger

Books critic Jason Steger shares his favourite books of the year.Credit: Monique Westermann

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There have been so many good books published this year – the question is how to choose 10? These are books that both made me think and delighted me with their characters, writing or stories. Sadly, there’s no space to include books by the likes of Rebecca F. Kuang, Charlotte Wood, Claire Keegan, Mick Herron, David Marr, Kate Grenville, Michael Cunningham, Tom Keneally, Anna McGahan, Shankari Chandran and many others whose work I have been moved, impressed and entertained by.


Wifedom, Anna Funder

The author of Stasiland and the Miles Franklin-winning novel All That I Am produced a sort of hybrid book in Wifedom that aims to restore Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s tragic first wife, to a position of real significance in his life. Funder blends biography, memoir and even fiction, but while expressing her admiration for Orwell’s writing, portrays him as a dismal husband and serial philanderer who treated his wife appallingly, never named her in Homage to Catalonia (despite mentioning “my wife” multiple times), and failed to acknowledge her input to Animal Farm. Whether you agree with Funder or not, she makes a strong case.

Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry

One night retired detective Tom Kettle opens his door to two former colleagues who want his help solving a cold case – the murder of a priest. Tom is grieving June, his dead wife and the mother of his adult children (whose whereabouts are unclear), and is not keen to help. He is getting older and more confused, but he is certain about one thing: the priests who abused children in Ireland are “filthy, relentless, feckless men who never paused a moment in their evil”. Written in Barry’s characteristically beautiful prose, this is a powerful, tender novel that delves into a scandal that has horrified Ireland.

Sebastian Barry writes in his characteristically beautiful prose.Credit: David Levenson

The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt

I love Patrick deWitt’s novels, all very different from each other. They are populated by endearing and quirky characters, written in an always distinctive style, with great care for the prose. The Librarianist focuses on Bob Comet, a retired librarian who doesn’t live up to his name. He is quiet and thoughtful. One day, after a particularly vivid dream, he steps out of his home and encounters an elderly woman who, it transpires, has gone missing from an aged care home. He takes her back, starts volunteering there and gradually his life story emerges. Once, as a boy, he had an adventure that coloured his entire life. And once he had a wife, but she left him.


The Visitors, Jane Harrison

This novel is the result of an idea that playwright Jane Harrison had a long time ago: how would Indigenous Australians have reacted to the sight of ships assembling offshore in 1788? She started it as a novel, but then it got more life as a play and was staged at the Sydney Festival and later by the Sydney Theatre Company. Finally, she wrote the novel. After the British are spotted, a message stick is sent around the local mobs and an Elders meeting is called at warrane (Sydney Cove). The discussions about what response the seven Indigenous characters – each given contemporary names and clothing – should give are heated and carefully delineated. Of course, we readers know the outcome, but Harrison gives her novel a powerful coda.

Jane Harrison had the idea for her novel a long time ago.Credit: Janie Barrett

Question 7, Richard Flanagan

Does Richard Flanagan owe his existence to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945? And what has H.G. “War of the Worlds” Wells’ affair with Rebecca West got to do with it all?

Richard Flanagan’s Question 7 is a bravura bit of writing.

In a bravura display, the Tasmanian novelist provides the links to all these and more, as well as musing on the titular question posed by Chekhov: who loves longer, a man or a woman? Another hybrid work blending autofiction, history, biography and memoir, Question 7 bristles with ideas and ends with a striking account of when he was trapped and close to drowning in the Franklin River, an event that inspired his first novel, Death of a River Guide.

Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward

You may know Jesmyn Ward from her remarkable first novel set during Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones. Or her memoir about the deaths of five black men she knew, including her brother, Men We Reaped.


Her fourth novel is set in the Deep South when Annis, the child of a slave raped by her enslaver, is then on-sold by her father and forced to descend like Dante in the Decameron into a sort of living hell. She is reinforced by memories and stories told by her mother, and visited by spirits who nurture her, drive her on and enrage her. It is a confronting novel full of the horrors of slavery, but also imbued with transcendent love and powerful, beautiful writing.

Edenglassie, Melissa Lucashenko

The Queensland writer won the Miles Franklin for her last novel, Too Much Lip, and at the time said she was ready to write her “big book”. Well, here it is, and it lives up to her billing, dealing – after significant research – with the days when colonialists hadn’t quite outnumbered the Indigenous population in Brisbane, and the violence the former inflicted on the latter. There are two time frames, 2024 and 1854, with the former focusing on the hospitalised 103-year-old Granny Eddie, her granddaughter Winona, and doctor Johnny who is besotted with Winona, and the latter on Mulanyin, his love for Nita, and their fate in the mid-19th century. It’s a book that yearns for respect and honesty between black and white. Not surprisingly, Lucashenko’s Indigenous characters are wonderfully created as they realise their “people might soon become a minority – a strange and disturbing new reality to think upon”.

Melissa Lucashenko has written her “big book”.Credit: Janie Barrett

Women & Children, Tony Birch

Tony Birch’s fourth novel is set in the mid-’60s in the familiar territory of a hardscrabble inner suburb and focuses on a young scallywag, Joe Cluny, his mother and sister, and, memorably, his grandfather Charlie and Charlie’s friend Ranji Khan. It’s about domestic violence and the trauma it inflicts – and the difficulties of getting away from it. When Joe’s aunt turns up one day, it’s clear she has taken a beating at the hand of her Flash Harry boyfriend. But don’t be put off, the book oozes the tenderness often seen in Birch’s work, with characters who live, love and even laugh.

Tony Birch’s fourth novel, Women & Children, features his characteristic tenderness.Credit: Eddie Jim

Songs for the Dead and the Living, Sara M. Saleh

Sydney writer Sara M. Saleh has written a poem called The Year That Changed Everything. It refers to 1948 and the Nakba, when Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Her first novel follows three generations of a family who are living the consequences of this event, surviving discreetly in Beirut before again being forced to flee, this time to Egypt, and eventually Australia. Focusing largely on the teenage Jamilah, it’s a tale of trauma, belonging and family, delving into the nature and experience of home. As one character says: “Sometimes the homes that matter most are the ones we do not live in. They’re the homes left behind, the ones we yearn to return to.”


The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas

This is Tsiolkas’ best book for quite a while. Beginning with a first date, its portrayal of a burgeoning midlife romance between two quite different men, Perry and Ivan, is tender and touching. It’s a novel written by an older writer about characters who, like himself, are navigating those years in between the passions and drive of youth and the slower, contemplative time of the autumnal years. There are several of Tsiolkas’ familiar, blunt sex scenes, of course, but the emotional depth of his characters – male and female – is what impresses, and the ease with which he cinematically shifts focus on different characters as the narrative expands away from Australia seems particularly deft.


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