Best Fiction of 2021 | The best books of the year
TThe most anticipated, discussed and accessorized novel of the year was Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful people, where are you (Faber), launched on a tide of tote bags and bobs. It’s a book about adulthood accommodation, which plays with interiority and narrative distance as Rooney’s characters consider the purpose of friendship, sex, and politics – as well as the hardships of fame and writing novels – in a world on fire.
Rooney’s was not the only highly anticipated new chapter. Polish Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus Jacob’s books (Fitzcarraldo) has finally reached English-speaking readers, in a formidable feat of translation by Jennifer Croft: a dazzling historical panorama of both spiritual and scientific enlightenment. In 2021, we also saw the returns of Jonathan Franzen, who begins a fine and engaging family trilogy of the 70s with crossroads (4th state); Kazuo Ishiguro, with Klara and the sun (Faber) probes the limits of emotion in the story of a sick girl and her “artificial friend”; and the famous American author Gayl Jones, whose epic seventeenth-century Brazilian freed slaves, prize list (Virago), took decades.
Pat Barker’s The women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton) continued her streak by reclaiming female voices from ancient conflicts, while Elizabeth Strout revisited her heroine Lucy Barton in the softly comedic, emotionally pitched film. Ah Guillaume! (Viking). that of Ruth Ozeki The book of form and emptiness (Canongate), her first novel since A Tale for the Time Being, selected by Booker in 2013, is an ironic and metafictional vision of grief, attachment and growth. Having traveled through the mind of Henry James in The Master in 2004, Colm Tóibín created a comprehensive overview of the life and times of Thomas Mann in The magician (Viking). There has been a change of tone for Colson Whitehead, with a bubbly heist novel set amid the civil rights movement, Harlem Shuffle (Fleet), 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 flintlocked late career fable by National Treasure Alan Garner, is a wonderful distillation of his visionary work. On 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 turning page on individual lives caught in war and conflict, from Constantinople in the 15th century to a future spaceship in flight from the dying earth. Cuckoo Earth 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, hopeful and utterly inspiring. And it was a pleasure to see Irish writer Keith Ridgway return to fiction, almost a decade after Hawthorn & Child, with A shock (Picador), his subtly bizarre stories of interconnected London lives.
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. A few excellent British novels have also been listed: Nadifa Mohamed’s expert light on actual racial injustice in Cardiff’s cultural melting pot of the 1950s, Men of fortune (Viking); Francis Spufford’s deep tracing of lives on the move in post-war London, Perpetual light (Faber); The delicate story of the family consequences of Sunjeev Sahota, China Room (Harvill Secker); and Rachel Cusk’s intrepid and baffling investigation into gender politics and creativity, 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 extremely disparate subjects: the black hole of social media and the painful wonder of a beloved disabled child. Leilani’s Crow Chandelier (Picador) introduced an equally gifted stylist: her story of precarious living in New York City is full of phrases to savor. Other notable debuts include Natasha Brown Assembly (Hamish Hamilton), a brilliantly compressed and daring study of a high-profile black woman negotiating with the British establishment; AK Blakemore’s earthy and exuberant tale of 17th-century Puritanism, Witches of Manningtree (Granta); and Tice Cin’s fresh and lively saga on drug trafficking and women’s resilience in the Turkish Cypriot community of London, 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, Even death misses death (Canongate), is a very contemporary allegory of creativity, injustice and keeping afloat in modern Britain. Further on, two first Indians of the state of the nation anatomize class, corruption and power: that of Megha Majumdar a burning (Scribner) in a thriller, and that of Rahul Raina How to kidnap the rich (Little, Brown) in a comical black cabriole. 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? Word of mouth this summer was Meg Mason’s Sorrow and happiness (W&N), a delusional black comedy of mental angst and eccentric family life centered on a woman who should have everything to live on. Another deeply 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 entire world in one individual, its playful structure makes the tale an ever-changing surprise.
There was a colder outlook on family life in Gwendoline Riley my ghosts (Granta): This sharp and painfully witty tale of a toxic mother-daughter relationship is her best novel yet.
Two early collections of stories pushed back formal and linguistic boundaries. Dark district by Vanessa Onwuemezi (Fitzcarraldo) announced a new surreal and inventive voice, while in English Magic (Galley Beggar) Uschi Gatward has proven to be a master at putting things straight. Isabel Waidner also broke boundaries, including Karat sterling gold (Péninsule), carnival cry against repression, won the Goldsmith’s Prize for Innovative Fiction.
It will take time for Covid-19 to turn into fiction, but the first answers are already starting to appear. at Sarah Hall Burnt coat (Faber) is a courageous exploration of art, love, sex and ego in the face of the threat of contagion. In Hall’s version of the pandemic, a lonely sculptor who typically expresses himself through monumental works is forced into a high-stakes intimacy with a new lover, while also pitting his sense of his own creativity against the power of the virus.
A fascinating historical rediscovery has brought to light the closing borders and the growing prejudices of the present day. In The passenger by 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 guarantees that he is met with unmoved bureaucratic refusal and cold indifference on the part of fellow passengers in a tense and growing nightmare that is of timeless relevance.
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) takes place in a 12th-century English abbey and tells the story of a clumsy and passionate teenage girl, the gifted leader she grew up in and the community of women she built around her . Full of sharp sensory details, with an emotional reach that spans the centuries, it is balm and nourishment for the brain, heart and soul.