The best African books of 2023
Once more, African writers from the continent and diaspora have provided us some literary gems. Our top novels of 2023, in no particular order.
Ghost Season — Fatin Abbas
A soul stirring and important novel that brings together the stories of five characters on an NGO compound in a remote border town between northern and southern Sudan. All from different backgrounds and walks of life, they grapple with their personal issues amid a backdrop of violence as conflict rages on. This year has seen Sudan in the news due to an ongoing war which has led to unimaginable losses. Thus, beyond being a skilfully written story, this is a timely and important read.
Beyond The Door Of No Return — David Diop
Award-winning Senegalese-French novelist David Diop is back with a captivating and poignant novel. Dying French botanist Michael Adanson leaves behind a notebook for his daughter which reveals an untold story about his travels in colonised Senegal. During his time in the country, Adanson became obsessed with the story of Maram, a woman sold into the slave trade who managed to escape, and whom he went in search of. Yet this is not just a love story; it is far more, a tale that captures the horrors of colonialism, slavery, and the fragility of human relationships, weaved together by a master storyteller.
A Spell of Good Things — Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Love, power and politics; this is a book that has it all. At the centre of this plot are two individuals from vastly different backgrounds whose lives collide in spectacular fashion. Told against the backdrop of a Nigeria of extremes, where there is great wealth and endemic poverty, where some live lavishly and others fight to survive. Her award-winning debut novel Stay With Me saw Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ marked as a literary superstar. With this second novel, she has cemented that status.
Call and Response — Gothataone Moeng
Set in Botswana, this collection features stories of everyday people navigating life, love, relationships, grief, societal expectations, class, culture, and power dynamics. While each tale has a depth and richness to it, what really makes Call and Response stand out is that it reads like a beautiful tribute to girlhood and womanhood.
Avenues by Train — Farai Mudzingwa
Set in Zimbabwe, Avenues by Train is the story of struggling electrician Jedza who leaves the small town of Miners Drift for the capital Harare. Here, Jedza finds himself grappling with trauma, grief, and the supernatural as he battles his demons. Multiple themes run through the novel; music, mythology, history, collective trauma, and the colonial legacy. Mudzingwa’s essays, articles and short stories illustrate that he is a man of many talents. His debut novel was therefore highly anticipated, and it does not disappoint.
Lucky Girl — Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu
Set in 1990s, the story centres around protagonist Soila, a privileged young woman who lives with her conservative mother in Nairobi. Following a traumatic incident, Soila leaves for New York, ready to fulfil her dream of moving abroad. There she is confronted with the realities of America, the immigrant experience, and what it is two live between two cultures and countries. New relationships are formed, while old bonds weigh heavily. Over the years, Kenya has borne some excellent literary talent. With this debut, Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu joins that list.
The Middle Daughter — Chika Unigwe
Set between Nigeria and America, this is a modern re-telling of the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. The story centres around Nani, a young woman grieving the loss of loved ones and who finds herself in an abusive marriage. Alternating between voices, timelines, and locations, the novel’s structure and style would perhaps be its failing in the hands of a less skilled novelist, but here Unigwe triumphs. Stories of women have been a central part of her work, and while womanhood sits at the centre of this story, it is also a novel about grief, family, and courage.
No One Dies Yet — Kobby Ben Ben
In Ghana, it is “The Year of Return” as the country opens its doors to the Black diaspora. Three Black American men arrive in the country, eager to visit the sites of the transatlantic slave trade and explore the underground queer scene. They enlist the help of two very different Ghanaian men, our narrators Kobby and Nana. Relations between all 5 men and their surroundings take multiple twists and turns, meanwhile a murderer is on the loose, and someone has to die. Dark, unsettling, utterly addictive.
No edges: Swahili stories — Edited by Sarah Coolidge
Described as being the first collection of Kiswahili stories translated into English, this anthology is a journey into different lives, worlds, cultures and experiences, brought to you by an array of writers from Kenya and Tanzania. There are stories of sorcerers, junkyards, cross-country bus rides, and spaceships that blast prisoners into eternity. Daring, bold, and brilliant, it will leave the reader eager to seek out more Swahili literature.
Everything is Not Enough — Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Three black women living in Sweden navigate the challenges of love and life while also grappling with the realities of what it is to live in a majority white country. The sequel to In Every Mirror She’s Black, Åkerström manages to seamlessly strike a balance between creating captivating plotlines while simultaneously tackling difficult topics that form part of the human experience.
Black Foam — Haji Jabir
The English translation of the Eritrean author’s 2018 novel is finally here. The protagonist, Dawood/David/Adal/Dawit, leaves Eritrea in search of safety, peace, and belonging. All he wants is to survive, to a live normal life. However, in a world filled with prejudice, this is a tall order. His search for belonging turns him into a chameleon of sorts, changing his name, identity, and story through his journey. Sensitively told, this is a timely read.
The History of a Difficult Child — Mihret Sibhat
Set in a small town in Ethiopia, this story is told from the perspective of Selam Asmelash, the youngest in her family and a very big personality. As political turmoil coupled with personal losses unfold around her, Selam takes it all in her stride, navigating the turbulence with a unique wit. To tell a story from the perspective of a child is a challenge many writers have struggled with, yet it is in this that Sibhat triumphs. Selam’s charm and wit make this a delightful read.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa — Stephen Buoro
A hilarious and thought-provoking tragicomic novel that will have you engrossed. Set in the Nigerian town of Kontagora, 15-year-old Andy’s days are spent obsessing over a variety of things including white girls, mathematical theorems, Black Power, and the identity of his father. Yet this coming of age story is not just about Andy. Buoro effortlessly depicts the many facets of life in Nigeria, including religion, language, politics, and Western influence, and how these impact the lives of our young protagonist.
Angola is Wherever I Plant My Field — João Melo (Translated by Luisa Venturini)
An eclectic collection of stories from the Angolan writer, journalist, university professor, and former government official. Sometimes satirical, other times darkly humorous, these stories, translated from Portuguese into English, provide an insight into the Angolan experience.
The Quality of Mercy — Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
Following the success of The Theory of Flight and The History of Man, the award -winning Zimbabwean writer is back with a novel that has all the hallmarks of a brilliant mystery. Chief Inspector Spokes Moloi is about to retire from the police force; cue a disappearance, an unsolved case, a country on the verge of independence, and an unforgettable cast of characters. Will Inspector Moloi be up to the task, or do some puzzles simply have to remain unsolved?
River Spirit — Leila Aboulela
The acclaimed Sudanese-Egyptian writer is back with her sixth novel, a sweeping tale of love, war, and the quest for freedom, set in 19th century Sudan. The country is under Ottoman rule, the scene is set for an uprising. Amid this, a young girl, our main character Akounyi, and her brother are left orphaned following a raid on their village and are taken in by a merchant from Khartoum. More characters emerge, all with their own stories, hopes, and beliefs. Seven lives unfold against the backdrop of a revolution. In true Aboulela style, this is the kind of writing that will transport you to another time and place.
Maame — Jessica George
Winner of multiple awards, this book hardly needs an introduction. Maame tells the story of 25-year-old Maddie, a British-Ghanaian woman carrying big burdens. She is the primary caretaker for her father who has Parkinson’s, her mother is in Ghana, and her brother is pursuing his own dreams. As her mother returns to the UK, Maddie gets the opportunity to finally go out and explore the world and become the woman she has always wanted to be. What follows is a painful, glorious, beautiful journey. An exquisite read.
The Private Apartments — Idman Nur Omar
A selection of stories about the Somali diaspora set in different parts of the world. We gain an insight into the everyday lives of people, all of whom were forced to leave behind their homeland due to war. There are few pulse raising plotlines, and that is where the magic lies, for this collection is compassionate, evocative, and engaging, a world away from the dehumanising narratives of refugees and immigrants that we have typically seen.
In Such Tremendous Heat/The Sun Sets in Singapore — Kehinde Fadipe
The British-Nigerian writer and actress’s debut novel is set in Singapore and follows the lives of three Nigerian women who are living the “expat dream”. Enter charming and mysterious lawyer Lani, whose presence sets the already sweltering temperatures rising. Drama, romance, friendship, and a little sex appeal all feature, but under it all the book does not shy away from tackling subjects such as race, family relationships, and sexism.
Three Egg Dilemma — Morabo Morojele
17 years since the release of his first novel, How We Buried Puso, the Lesotho born and raised writer and musician is back with his second offering. We enter the world of Ex (short for Example), a man who once had a life of meaning but now spends his time drinking and hanging out with his friends while being haunted by a supernatural phenomenon referred to as Mota’s Ghost. As events ranging from the comical to the dystopian unfold in Ex’s life, one cannot help but observe that his life reflects the situation of the wider country, worn down by conflict, drought and violence, where there is little in the way of hope. This is one book which will have you laughing and crying.
Whites Can Dance Too — Kalaf Epalanga (Translated by David Hahn)
Set to perform at a music festival, an Angolan musician is detained by Norwegian immigration officials on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. As he waits to find out his wait, he reflects upon immigration policies, race, history and identity, all to the hum of Kuduro music. There are two other voices which feature in the novel, Norwegian immigration officer and Portuguese dancer Sofia. If you love music, this book is for you.