1. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Simon & Schuster, $26)
"Asymmetry is a masterpiece in the original sense of the word — a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade," said Adam Kirsch at The Atlantic. First-time novelist Lisa Halliday makes brilliant use of the fact that Philip Roth was once her mentor and lover. The novel's first section reads almost as memoir: Shortly after 9/11, a taciturn young woman working in New York City publishing enters into a romantic relationship with a famous older Jewish novelist. But the book's second half changes everything, cutting to a monologue narrated by an Iraqi-American economist detained at a London airport, and revealing that Halliday has been playing us. Amar, from the start, is "so much more alive" than Alice, the first section's protagonist, said Annalisa Quinn at NPR. But this is by design: Amar is a fictional character — invented by Alice — and thus represents the novice's rejection of the idea, expounded by her Roth, that she should only write about her own world. More than just an indictment of such thinking, Asymmetry is "a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves."
2. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Knopf, $27)
Esi Edugyan's "soaring" third novel offers a unique spin on the traditional slave narrative, said Renée Graham at The Boston Globe. Its titular protagonist, known as Wash, is an 18-year-old freeman looking back on a childhood spent in bondage and on the unlikely events that allowed him to escape a Barbados sugar plantation in a hot-air balloon and travel from Virginia to the Arctic to Europe while blossoming into an accomplished artist and scientist. "Every story about slavery is ultimately about freedom" — including how we define what it means to be free — and Edugyan shows that even to Wash, freedom is never as perfect as it is in dreams. A Canadian author born to parents from Ghana, Edugyan has made friendship her great theme, and she again does so here, said Laura Miller at The New Yorker. Wash is rescued from slavery by a white man who enlisted his help in getting the balloon off the ground, and the young man never stops worrying that this imperfect surrogate father never saw him as a surrogate son. He's haunted by slavery, but also by "the delicate, indomitable, and often doomed power of human love."
3. There There by Tommy Orange (Knopf, $26)
Tommy Orange's teeming first novel is "a kind of dance," said Rowan Hisayo Buchanan at The Guardian. A group portrait of a dozen "urban Indians," each of them heading for different reasons to an annual powwow in Oakland, it "dips into the tiniest personal details and sweeps across history," and even when it presents tragedies of both past and present, "it is lyrical and playful, shaking and shimmering with energy." The very first character we meet is bringing a 3-D–printed gun to the powwow, planning to use it in a robbery, and that threat creates a suspense that runs through everything that follows. We also meet two of the event's organizers, a boy who recently learned his powwow dance steps from a YouTube video, and eight other distinct characters, almost all of them striving for self-knowledge, said Ron Charles at The Washington Post. But Orange, who's a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, isn't interested only in cultural identity. His novel builds toward a "dazzling cinematic climax," a "terrifying mess of violence" that feels preordained by a history of brutal subjugation.
4. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Algonquin, $27)
Tayari Jones has somehow written a penetrating novel about a marriage that's also "a searing, disturbing critique of America," said Meredith Maran at the San Francisco Chronicle. The book's central couple, Celestial and Roy, are successful young black Atlantans who are on the cusp of realizing all their dreams when, on a trip to Louisiana, Roy is arrested on a false charge of rape. When his unjust imprisonment forces the pair to try to keep their love alive by exchanging letters, we see the marriage begin to unravel missive by missive, and the book becomes "that rare treasure, a novel that pulls you under like a fever dream." Though the unfairness of the American legal system gives the story its slow burn, Jones "keeps her gaze on the personal," said Stephanie Powell Watts in The New York Times. Other forces also tug at the marriage's seams — disapproving in-laws, the possibility of children. Readers can't help but see themselves in these two victims of injustice. "This can be you, the story whispers. Forget that at your peril."
5. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (Random House, $27)
"Three classics and two weird gems; these are the last howls of a singular writing life," said Christian Lorentzen at Vulture. In only his second set of short stories — completed shortly before his death last year at age 67 — Denis Johnson returned to the types of haunted sinners who populated his 1992 masterpiece, Jesus' Son, and somehow matched that lofty standard. The title story, narrated by a middle-aged former ad executive who can't tell which ex-wife is calling when she tells him she's terminally ill, "ranks with the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century." Not all his characters here are past 50, but the stories often touch on life's deep mysteries, said Troy Jollimore in the Chicago Tribune. That title word, "largesse," is rarely used these days, "but it's a perfect word to describe Johnson's fiction, which overflows with creative energy." Johnson was also a poet, and "he has the poet's gift for finding the perfect image to encapsulate an idea or experience."
Our top-five lists were created by tallying and weighting the rankings of more than 20 other print and online sources, including AV Club, the Chicago Tribune, The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, the Financial Times, The New Yorker, The New York Times, People, Slate, Time, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.