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BEST OF 2019

Best Books of 2019: Fiction

We Are Family” Fabio Bartolomei, translated by Antony Shugaar (Europa) In the micro-genre of novels about wildly precocious kids who turn your perceptions of the world inside out, the Italian writer’s deeply eccentric comedy about family connection and loss is a standout. it winds up being both a testament to the struggles of the little guy and a giddily topsy-turvy tour of how youngsters see their world.

The Body in Question” Jill Ciment (Pantheon) Ciment, whose specialty is short, cunning novels with a lot on their mind, is in fine form here with a tale about a 52-year-old woman who seizes on jury duty as her chance to get a break from caring for her 86-year-old husband — and to have one last “dalliance” (with a fellow juror) while she’s at it.


In the Full Light of the Sun” Clare Clark (Hougton Mifflin Harcourt) Set in Weimar Germany, this British writer’s brilliant new novel offers a van Gogh art-forgery case, based on a real scandal, as its enticing hook. But its larger energy stems from the way its three novella-like sections, unfolding in 1923, 1927, and 1933, create a shifting fabric of reality that by its final stretch — as the Nazis consolidate their hold on Germany — is terrifyingly suspenseful.

Lost and Wanted” Nell Freudenberger (Knopf) An MIT professor’s loss of her best friend to lupus, followed by the deceased’s continued communication with her via e-mail, kicks things off in the latest novel by the “Lucky Girls" author. Pitting the world of science and logic against human susceptibility to grief, Freudenberger also slyly weighs the way we use intuition and intellect to parse our realities.

Travelers” Helon Habili (Norton) The Nigerian-American writer leapfrogs between far-flung immigrant experiences in this novel about a Nigerian graduate student who accompanies his American-artist wife on a fellowship to Berlin. In six novella-like chapters connected by extraordinary coincidences, Habili ranges from expatriate adventure to refugee-camp despair.


Late in the Day” Tessa Hadley (Harper) The British writer’s latest novel concerns a four-way friendship between two middle-aged married couples that gets entirely thrown out of whack when one of the husbands dies. Digging through the layers of her characters’ richly furnished minds and tangled pasts, Hadley is as wryly alert as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen to how time sculpts, warps, or casually destroys us.

The Gifted School” Bruce Holsinger (Riverhead) Set in Crystal, Colorado (read: Boulder), this satirical novel feels as fresh as this year’s college-admissions scandal headlines. Holsinger’s sharp observation, knack for dialogue, and droll description are the draw here as he follows a circle of mostly well-to-do parents who lose their common sense and moral bearings when they push to get their children into a new magnet school.

Afternoon of a Faun” James Lasdun (Norton) In this short, shrewd novel about “harassment, memory [and] the public reverberations of private conduct,” two journalists with their reputations on the wane fall into a bitter dispute about the nature of a sexual encounter they had 40 years earlier. The book’s unnamed narrator — who has longstanding personal connections to both parties — finds it impossible to know who’s telling the truth.

The Dutch House” Ann Patchett (Harper) Patchett is in top form as she blends elements of fairy tale and psychodrama in this story of two siblings exiled by their controlling stepmother from a patrimony they think is rightly theirs. As they move on with their lives without quite letting go, Patchett seductively examines whether “it’s ever possible to see the past exactly as it was.”


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Riverhead) This novel by the Polish Nobel laureate dons the outward form of a seriocomic murder mystery, but deep down it’s a barbed, subversive tale about what it takes to challenge the powers that be. Its narrator, an elderly astrology enthusiast and animal lover, has eccentric theories about the culprit behind the deaths of public officials in the Czech-Polish border region where she lives, but her story sows continual doubt in the reader’s mind.

Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.