The best novels published in 2019
1. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $25)
Colson Whitehead "can succeed at any novel he takes on," said Sam Sacks at The Wall Street Journal. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner chose to forego any flashes of whimsy or magic realism in his latest effort, but the book doesn't need them. It takes a grim true story — about a 20th-century Florida reform school at which black students were routinely beaten and often murdered — and makes the horror vivid. His protagonist is a model teenager who's been unjustly confined to the Nickel Academy, and the young man's experience inside "culminates in a dazzling final twist that Whitehead stages with such casual skill that one only begins to unpack its meanings well after the book has ended." Elwood's best friend inside is less trusting than he that justice will prevail, and the pair regularly debate the nature of the world they live in, said Anna Deavere Smith at The New York Review of Books. Only one viewpoint can prevail in this "profoundly sad but elegant" novel. Yet in the toxic place fate has consigned them to, "their comradeship is the hope."
2. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Holt, $27)
The first third of this crafty novel, though "magnificent on its own," offers no hint of the twists to come, said David Canfield at Entertainment Weekly. In 1980s Texas, an affair between two drama students at an elite arts high school ignites, then flames out — all under the watchful eye of a charismatic teacher whose instructional style borders on emotional abuse. But the girl in that relationship is only the book's first narrator: About 100 pages in, the time frame shifts and a former classmate takes over with an account that "calls into question much of the story as it's been told." The new drama that begins to unfold is "propelled by white-hot rage and the desire for revenge," said Lucy Scholes at the Financial Times. And that's not the novel's final reset, or Choi's final word on the ethics of co-opting the details of other peoples' lives for the sake of telling one's own story. Though Choi has written wily novels before, "Trust Exercise is without a doubt her most ingenious yet."
3. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf, $28)
"Not since Lolita has a road trip so brilliantly captured the dark underbelly of the American dream," said Carmen Maria Machado at O magazine. In Valeria Luiselli's fourth novel, a New York couple makes a cross-country road trip with their two young children, trying to distract themselves from marriage troubles by pursuing separate passion projects: He is creating an audio documentary about the Apache; she is making her own on migrant children from Central America. As Luiselli lets the story slowly unfold, "her language is so transporting, it stops you time and again." And she has a major plot twist waiting, said James Wood at The New Yorker. Out West, the couple's children, ages 10 and 5, go missing, tripping a gripping and "somewhat fantastical" tale in which they endure some of the same hardships faced by young migrants. Ultimately, this "brilliantly intricate" book reminds us why the stories of vulnerable people need to be told and retold. "The story hasn't ended yet — far from it."
4. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin, $26)
It might be easiest to read Ocean Vuong's "devastatingly beautiful" coming-of-age novel in small doses, said Heller McAlpin at NPR. "Not because the often elliptical, poetic language is difficult, but because the subject matter is so shattering." Drawing loosely from his own life, the Saigon-born poet presents the novel as a long letter written by a character we know as Little Dog, a young Vietnamese-American brought up in Hartford, Conn., where he was a victim of racism and abuse. Little Dog is writing to his mother, a war refugee who doesn't read English well, so he feels free to include a secret from his teenage years: a sexual relationship he had with the white grandson of a tobacco farmer. "There are moments when the writing slips, becoming cloying," said Steph Cha at the Los Angeles Times. Given the way Vuong consistently reaches for poetic effect, though, "it's impressive that this doesn't happen more often." Despite the hardships it describes, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a book of sustained beauty and lyricism, a series of high notes that trembles exquisitely almost without break."
5. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
"Here is that all-too-rare masterpiece: a svelte big novel," said Ron Charles at The Washington Post. Ben Lerner's "extraordinarily brilliant" bildungsroman requires fewer than 300 pages to capture the particularities of his 1990s hometown Topeka and use those details to illuminate a wider world. As the novel traces the travails of a Lerner-like high-school debate star, the tension between his psychologist parents, and the violent potential of an emotionally disturbed dropout, it provides insight that "seems downright forensic in its ability to trace the pathologies consuming us." Not to me, said Evan Kindley at The Nation. Lerner, an acclaimed poet, wants to believe that miscommunications and misunderstandings explain the nation's current divisions. But that's why he's not a social scientist. He is an acclaimed poet who has now written three novels, and "as a prose performance, The Topeka School is an unqualified success."
How the books were chosen
Our top-5 lists were created by tallying and weighting the rankings of 23 other sources, including AVClub.com, the Chicago Tribune, The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, O magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Slate.com, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Time, USA Today, Vogue, Vox.com, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.