Best fiction of 2021 | The best books of the year
JThe most anticipated, discussed and accessorized novel of the year was Sally Rooney Beautiful world, where are you (Faber), launched on a tide of tote bags and bucket hats. It’s a book about the accommodations of adulthood, playing with interiority and narrative distance as Rooney’s characters consider the purpose of friendship, sex and politics – and the difficulties of fame and writing novels – in a world on fire.
Rooney wasn’t the only highly anticipated new chapter. The masterpiece of Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk Jacob’s Books (Fitzcarraldo) has finally reached English-speaking readers, in a powerful translation feat by Jennifer Croft: a dazzling historical panorama of both spiritual and scientific enlightenment. In 2021, we also saw the return of Jonathan Franzen, starting a beautiful family trilogy of the 70s with crossroads (4th state); Kazuo Ishiguro, whose Clara and the sun (Faber) probes the limits of emotion in the story of a sickly girl and her “artificial friend”; and acclaimed American author Gayl Jones, whose epic of the freed slaves in 17th-century Brazil, track record (Virago), took decades to prepare.
Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton) continued her streak reclaiming women’s voices in ancient conflicts, while Elizabeth Strout revisited her heroine Lucy Barton in the softly comedic and emotionally sharp film Oh William! (Viking). At Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Void (Canongate), her first novel since A Tale for the Time Being, selected by Booker in 2013, is an ironic, metafictional take on grief, attachment and growth. After traveling through the mind of Henry James in 2004’s The Master, Colm Tóibín created a comprehensive insight into the life and times of Thomas Mann at The magician (Viking). There’s been a shift in tone for Colson Whitehead, with a bubbly heist novel set amid the civil rights movement, Harlem mix (Flotte), while the French author Maylis de Kerangal considered art and trompe-l’oeil with a characteristic style in painting time (MacLehose, translated by Jessica Moore).
Molasses walker (4th Estate), a career-ending fable by National Treasure Alan Garner, is a wonderful compendium of his visionary work. At the other end of the literary spectrum, Anthony Doerr, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller All the Light We Cannot See, returned with a great folio about individual lives caught up in war and conflict, from Constantinople in the 15th century to a future spaceship in flight from the dying earth. Earth Cuckoo Cloud (4th Estate) is a love letter to books and reading, as well as a chronicle of what has been lost over the centuries and what is at stake in the climate crisis today: sad, full hopeful and quite moving. And it was a pleasure to see the return to fiction of Irish author Keith Ridgway, almost a decade after Hawthorn & Child, with A shock (Picador), his subtly strange stories of interconnected lives in London.
Damon Galgut’s first novel in seven years won him the Booker. A fertile mix of family saga and satire, The promise (Chatto) explores broken vows and poisoned legacies in a changing South Africa. Some excellent British novels were also listed: Nadifa Mohamed’s expert insight into real racial injustice in the cultural melting pot of 1950s Cardiff, The men of fortune (Viking); Francis Spufford’s deep tracing of lives in motion in post-war London, perpetual light (Faber); Sunjeev Sahota’s delicate story of family consequences, China Room (Harville Secker); and Rachel Cusk’s fearless and baffling investigation of gender politics and creativity, The second place (Faber).
Also on Booker’s shortlist was a flamboyant tragicomic debut by American author Patricia Lockwood, whose nobody talks about it (Bloomsbury) brings his interrogative sensibility and unique style to wildly disparate subjects: the black hole of social media and the painful wonderment of a beloved disabled child. Raven Leilani Chandelier (Picador) introduced a similarly talented stylist: her story of precarious life in New York is full of phrases to savor. Other notable debuts include Natasha Brown Assembly (Hamish Hamilton), a brilliantly compressed and daring existential study of a high-flying black woman negotiating with the British establishment; AK Blakemore’s earthy and exuberant account of 17th century Puritanism, Manningtree Witches (Granta); and Tice Cin’s fresh and lively saga about drug trafficking and women’s resilience in London’s Turkish Cypriot community, keep the house (And other stories).
Caleb Azumah Nelson The wide (Viking) is a lyrical love story celebrating black art, while poet Salena Godden’s debut novel, Mrs death misses death (Canongate), is a very contemporary allegory about creativity, injustice and staying afloat in modern Britain. Further on, two Indian premieres on the state of the nation anatomize class, corruption and power: that of Megha Majumdar A burning (Scribner) in a propulsive thriller, and Rahul Raina How to Kidnap the Rich (Little, Brown) in a dark, comical caper. Meanwhile, Robin McLean Have mercy on the beast (And Other Stories), a free-spirited revenge western, is a gothic treat.
When is love not enough? The word-of-mouth hit of the summer was Meg Mason’s sorrow and happiness (W&N), a sarcastic black comedy about mental angst and eccentric family life centered on a woman who should have everything to live for. Another very enjoyable read. The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (W&N, translated by Elena Pala), traces the life of a man through his family relationships. An expansive novel that finds the whole world in one individual, its playful structure makes the narrative an ever-evolving surprise.
There was a colder view of family life in Gwendoline Riley my ghosts (Granta): This sharp, painfully witty account of a toxic mother-daughter relationship is her best novel yet.
Two early collections of stories pushed formal and linguistic boundaries. Dark neighborhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi (Fitzcarraldo) heralded a surreal and inventive new voice, while in English magic (Galley Beggar) Uschi Gatward has proven himself a master at not saying things. Isabel Waidner also broke boundaries, including Sterling karat gold (Peninsula), a carnival cry against repression, won the Goldsmiths Prize for Innovative Fiction.
It will take time for the Covid-19 to show through in fiction, but the first answers are already beginning to appear. At Sarah Hall burnt coat (Faber) is a bravura exploration of art, love, sex and ego pressed against the threat of contagion. In Hall’s version of the pandemic, a solitary sculptress who typically expresses herself through monumental works is forced into high-stakes intimacy with a new lover, while pitting her sense of her own creativity against the power of the virus.
A fascinating historical rediscovery has shed light on the closing of borders and the rise of prejudice in the present day. In The passenger through Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (Pushkin, translated by Philip Boehm), written in 1938, a Jewish businessman tries to flee the Nazi regime. The J stamped on his passport ensures that he is met with deadpan bureaucratic denial and cold indifference from fellow passengers in a tense, growing nightmare that is timelessly topical.
Finally a novel to transport the reader out of the present. Inspired by the life of Marie de France, Matrix by Lauren Groff (Hutchinson Heinemann) is set in a 12th-century English abbey and tells the story of a clumsy, passionate teenager, the gifted leader she becomes, and the community of women she builds around she. Full of sharp sensory details, with an emotional reach that spans centuries, it’s balm and nourishment for the brain, heart and soul.