Best novels of 2024: top books to read this year

A curated selection of some of the most engaging novels to dive into next

Book covers of Wild Houses by Colin Barrett, Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney, and Wellness by Nathan Hill
Novels by Colin Barrett, Cathy Sweeney and Nathan Hill
(Image credit: Penguin / Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

Leaving by Roxana Robinson

At a performance of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, two 60-year-olds who were briefly a couple in their youth cross paths, said Amity Gaige in The New York Times. The woman, Sarah, is divorced; the man, Warren, is married. They have dinner together, and realise that they have "unfinished business". From this premise, the American novelist Roxana Robinson builds a pitch-perfect study of "late-life love", said Joan Frank in The Washington Post. It's not a remotely sentimental or cloying tale; Robinson charts the many obstacles the couple face, including the "implacable" rage of Warren's grown-up daughter. Written in "shapely and sensuous" sentences, Leaving is a "wondrous feat". 

"Affection between older people" is just one theme here, said Caroline Moorehead in The Spectator. Robinson writes superbly about the "terrifying ruthlessness of human beings", and even about dog ownership. And as its title suggests, Leaving is as much about loss as about fulfilment. With its "many twists" and bombshell ending, this is a "highly enjoyable" novel.

Magpie 336pp £13.99; available on The Week Bookshop 

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Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux

In his 30th novel, the veteran writer Paul Theroux fictionalises a "relatively unexplored" period of George Orwell's life, said William Boyd in The New York Times: the five years he spent as a colonial police officer in Burma between 1922 and 1927. Eric Blair (as he then was) was fresh out of Eton, and hadn't yet decided to become a writer. Theroux presents him as a "somewhat tormented soul", who is "repelled" by the snobberies and injustices of colonial life. To console himself, he sleeps promiscuously with "local prostitutes and colonial wives". Inevitably, it's a work that owes much to speculation, but everything in it "reeks of plausibility" – and it shows that, at the age of 82, Theroux's talent remains "in remarkable shape". 

Theroux's Orwell sets sail for Burma "full of romantic notions acquired from Kipling", said Nikhil Krishnan in The Daily Telegraph. The narrative charts how he loses his idealism, and in the process "acquires a sense of writerly vocation". Full of "fine" descriptive passages, Burma Sahib is "both credible as history" and an "enjoyable" novel in its own right.

Hamish Hamilton 400pp £15.99; available on The Week Bookshop

My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld

This second novel by the acclaimed Dutch author Lucas Rijneveld "belongs to a tiny, controversial subgenre", said Sandra Newman in The Guardian: "novels about child sex abuse rendered in exquisite prose". It is narrated by "Kurt", a 49-year-old vet from rural Holland, who becomes obsessed with the "troubled 14-year-old daughter of a dairy farmer". The girl, whom Kurt – her name for him – calls "Little Bird", comes from a strict religious society, and is confused about her gender identity – something Kurt exploits to become a "parental figure". 

Such a novel could easily have been a "cynical" rehash of Lolita, but instead it's a "tour de force of transgressive imagination". Rijneveld's "unsettling" first novel, "The Discomfort of Evening" – about a girl coaxed into sex games with her siblings – won the 2020 International Booker Prize, said Luke Kennard in The Daily Telegraph. His follow-up is quite possibly even better. Written in run-on sentences with a "breathless cadence", it's an "extraordinary literary achievement – albeit one you might hesitate to recommend".

Faber 352pp £16.99; available on The Week Bookshop

Green Dot by Madeleine Gray

This "acutely witty debut" by the Australian literary critic Madeleine Gray charts the "affair between a disaffected millennial and her older, married boss", said Madeleine Feeny in The Guardian. Hera, 24, is broke, overqualified, and "living in Sydney with her father" when she starts a job as an online community moderator. Exasperated by the "indignities of office life on the bottom rung", she begins a flirtation with fortysomething Arthur – which develops into a full-blown affair. While it's hardly an original story, Gray's "parodist's ear for the cadences, platitudes and jargon of modern speech" ensures that this is a convincing, propulsive work. There's some "quite bad writing" on display in these pages, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times – as when Gray describes the feeling of being kept a secret by your lover as like "getting your period mid-hike with no tampons in sight". But the novel "shines" in other ways – such as in its subtle "exploration of the toxic relationship between boredom and lust". Ignore the "TikTok-friendly metaphors", and you'll be in for a treat.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 384pp; available on The Week Bookshop

Day by Michael Cunningham

Many writers have responded to the Covid pandemic by "fashioning dystopias", said Claire Allfree in The Daily Telegraph. Not Michael Cunningham. "One of America's most refined stylists", he prefers, in the elegiac "Day", to "see lockdown as a microcosm of life at its most yearningly restless". The novel is focused on three "angsty New Yorkers" who share the same cramped Brooklyn brownstone. Isabel and Dan are married: she's a "harried senior photo editor at a soon-to-be-defunct" magazine; he's a failed singer-songwriter. Upstairs lives Isabel's younger brother Robbie, a gay schoolteacher who spends much of his time curating the Instagram account of an imaginary brother he nicknames "Wolfe".

Cunningham deploys the same "triptych structure" he used in his best-known novel, "The Hours", said Ron Charles in The Washington Post: "Day" unfolds in three sections, each taking place on the same day, 5 April, over three consecutive years. While it's "thinly plotted", Cunningham's exposure of his characters' inner life is "piercing", and his "truly beautiful" writing "vibrates off the page".

Fourth Estate 288pp; available on The Week Bookshop

Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney

This "blistering" first novel by an acclaimed Irish short-story writer anatomises "a marriage that has outrun its course", said Lucy Popescu in The Observer. The unnamed narrator doesn't know she's walking out for good when she leaves her comfortable house in a Dublin suburb one Tuesday morning, not saying goodbye to her sleeping husband and teenaged children. But, as she makes her way, by train and ferry, to Fishguard in Wales, we're filled in on her "prolonged unravelling" in writing of masterly economy and restraint.

Sweeney's spare, precise prose "gives the book a cinematic quality", said Chloë Ashby in The Spectator. Every moment in it is "observed in slow motion and high definition". It turns out that the protagonist's exit has been preceded by certain signs: "drinking alone; disliking her daughter, or at least her type; having an affair with her friend's son; opening a separate bank account in her maiden name when her mother died". But there's a core of mystery to this "deceptively simple story that tugs you along from start to finish".

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 224pp; available on The Week Bookshop

Wild Houses by Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett is a writer of "glaringly obvious talent" who has previously restricted himself to short stories, said Keiran Goddard in The Guardian. Now, for the first time, he has broadened his canvas: set in the same working class County Mayo milieu that Barrett has explored in his earlier work, "Wild Houses" is a hugely enjoyable crime caper. Gabe and Sketch are small-time crooks who are owed a few grand by a local drug dealer. In an attempt to extract the money, they abduct the dealer's younger brother, Doll, and retreat to a remote farmhouse owned by their cousin Dev. Although the story may seem slight, the book is elevated by the "deftness of its telling", and Barrett's "droll, linguistically inventive" dialogue.

There's an impressive "depth of character on display" in these pages, said George Cochrane in The TLS. Dev – a "godly-sized unit" who is dominated by his younger cousins – is memorably drawn, as is Doll's frantic girlfriend, Nicky. Mixing "action scenes with quieter moments", Wild Houses is "exhilarating", atmospheric and addictive.

Jonathan Cape 272pp; available on The Week Bookshop

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill's 2016 debut novel, "The Nix" – a "time-jumping, character-hopping, consistently funny 200,000-word" doorstop – was hailed as a work of staggering promise, said Jonathan Myerson in The Observer. Nearly as long, and no less ambitious, Hill's follow-up is "equally remarkable". In part, it's an "Updikean story of marital inertia", about a couple called Jack and Elizabeth who, after 20 years together, find themselves contemplating "separate master bedrooms". Yet it's also a satire on the "many post-truths" flourishing in contemporary America – including the blandishments of the wellness industry, for which Elizabeth works. Rich in "ideas and possibilities", "Wellness" is "utterly immersive".

Hill is at his best when his "satirical prods" are directed at specific topics, said John Self in The Daily Telegraph. For instance, an account of a swingers' orgy proves funny and surprisingly affecting. But a novel this long needs gripping storylines and convincing themes – and here "Wellness" falls down. It provides "page-by-page pleasure", but works less well on a larger scale.

Picador 624pp; available on The Week Bookshop

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