Book reviews: 16 of the best new novels of 2023

Since Salman Rushdie moved to the US in 2000, his novels have fallen into two camps, said Hadley Freeman in The Sunday Times. Some (Fury, Quichotte) have been “satirical takes on modern America”; the others (such as Shalimar the Clown) have been “lyrical narratives about his native India”. Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City – his first to be published since the “brutal attack” last August that left him blind in one eye – belongs in that second group. A historical fantasy set in medieval India, it purports to be a modern translation of an epic autobiographical poem, written by a demigod named Pampa Kampana. Although packed with death and destruction, it comes across as “one of Rushdie’s most joyful” novels. It is “a total pleasure to read”. 

We first meet Pampa as a (non-divine) nine-year-old, whose mother is one of many widows committing suicide on a “great bonfire along the river”, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. As Pampa watches her mother burn, she resolves never to “sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld”. Instead, she tells herself, she will live to be “impossibly” old. Impressed by her defiance, a goddess gives her an assortment of magical powers. Aged 18, Pampa grows a “spectacular city” from vegetable seeds, on the spot where her mother died. This, it becomes clear, is an actual city – Bisnaga in southern India – which was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Pampa’s initial hope for Bisnaga is that it will become a “kind of feminist utopia” – a place of gender equality and “variegated sexual delight”. Instead, over the next two centuries, she watches her kingdom “grow and stumble” before it is eventually destroyed (as the historical Bisnaga was) by Muslim invaders in 1565. 

With its “lashings of wildly imaginative, slightly bonkers storytelling”, Victory City is vintage Rushdie, said James Walton in The Spectator. While it has flaws – notably, a rather “repetitive” storyline – there’s something “undeniably stirring” about seeing Rushdie perform his “greatest hits with such undiminished commitment”. The best writing comes near the end, when Pampa is blinded using a hot iron rod, said Michael Gorra in The New York Times. Victory City was completed before last August – and so Rushdie could not have known that his own fate would be uncannily similar. It is “not the first time that he has been the Cassandra of his own fate” – and it underlines the fact that he is an author whose “work will always matter”.