Picking the best books of the year is always somewhat arbitrary, but in this selection of the 20 best books of 2021, I have plumped for the publications that have given me the most pleasure, the most intense moments of reflection and the keenest insights into the beautiful, troubled and ailing planet on which we all exist.
It has been a strong year for fiction, something evident in the high calibre of the novels that didn’t quite make the cut – impressive works such as David Peace’s Tokyo Redux, Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road, Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed, Susie Boyt’s Loved and Missed and Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters.
The year started in lockdown in the UK, and somehow the isolation and lack of social contact over the following months made reading about extraordinary, active lives more appealing, and 2021 has been a superb year for biography. Two accounts of real lives have made my pick of the 20 best books, but I would also wholeheartedly recommend Mark Glancy’s biography of Cary Grant, John Preston’s one on Robert Maxwell and Claire Tomalin’s account of the life of the young HG Wells, along with moving and thoughtful memoirs by Sinead O’Connor, David Storey and Alan Cumming. Few memoirs are as punchy and funny as Brian Cox’s Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, while David Harewood’s Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery is an intensely potent testimony to the impact of racism.
20. Bewilderment by Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann)
The 2021 Booker Prize-shortlisted Bewilderment is a fascinating tale of a fraught, loving relationship between neurodivergent Robin and his astrophysicist father. The novel is also a love letter to nature, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers shows us the marvels of existence through the eyes of a confused, frightened and angry child. Robin is a memorable character and Bewilderment has an emotional truth that is heart-wrenching.
19. Millennial Love by Olivia Petter (Fourth Estate)
There was no shortage of dismal #MeToo scandals in 2021. The impact of that movement on the lives of young women is just one of the important topics covered in Olivia Petter’s Millennial Love, a no-holds-barred guide to the modern dating landscape. The book, named after the popular podcast Independent writer Petter has hosted since 2017, features contributions from past guests such as Dolly Alderton, Victoria Pendleton and Poppy Jay, in a work that is an essential handbook for our increasingly labyrinthine sexual age.
18. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
Jhumpa Lahiri, who was born in London to Bengali parents and raised in America before relocating to Rome, wrote Whereabouts in Italian and translated it herself into English. In her pared-down, direct and elegant language, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies explores themes of detachment and loss in 46 brief chapters. There are deeply etched portraits of all the (Italian) whereabouts – the cafes, the parks, the bridges, museums and shops – places that both depress and sustain her. Although there is a palpable sense of estrangement in Whereabouts, there are also life-affirming moments of human tenderness.
17. Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press)
It was a good year for books of essays and I would recommend Mary Gaitskill’s Oppositions: Selected Essays and Siri Hustvedt’s Mothers, Fathers, and Others: New Essays. Just edging them out is Lucy Ellmann’s first collection of essays; all 14 in Things Are Against Us, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of the excellent novel Ducks, Newburyport, are stimulating, entertaining and spiky. Some of her targets are dreary sexist men but she skewers them with real humour. Ellmann is fond of puns, alliteration and long lists of sharp adjectives, and her put-downs are like a literary version of watching popcorn kernels sizzle and suddenly pop in the pan.
16. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life) by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
George Saunders, author of the brilliant, inventive novel Lincoln in the Bardo, has spent two decades as a professor teaching the Syracuse University masters creative writing course – and he offers his own literary masterclass in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an eye-opening, forensic look at seven great short stories – three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy and single ones by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. This is a detailed, erudite book, with all the precision analysis you would expect from Saunders, a former engineering student. But it is also joyful and playful, a book full of wisdom, one to drink in slowly. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain offers an enriching reminder of the power of fiction – and the craft that goes into the very best stories.
15. The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken (Jonathan Cape)
There were some outstanding short-story collections this year, including Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty, Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle and Male Tears by Benjamin Myers. My favourite, though, was Elizabeth McCracken’s marvellous collection The Souvenir Museum. McCracken, a former librarian and National Book Award finalist who teaches at the University of Texas, has a gift for startlingly original turns of phrase and piercing observational writing. Her 12 stories are varied and imaginative, sparkling tales of human eccentricity.
14. The Importance of Being Interested: Adventures in Scientific Curiosity by Robin Ince (Atlantic Books)
Robin Ince, the comedian who is co-creator and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage, wrote The Importance of Being Interested during lockdown, conducting more than 100 interviews with astronauts, comedians, musicians, teachers, neuroscientists and quantum physicists. His passion for science is infectious, and as well as dealing with some of the biggest topics in life – death, the end of the world, aliens, the concept of reality, the possibility of heaven, the sands of time – the book has plenty of light-hearted moments. A sparkling read.
13. A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (Viking)
Financial dishonesty has been a regular and depressing feature of news stories in 2021 and grubby money-grabbing is a theme of A Calling for Charlie Barnes, which is mainly set during America’s financial collapse of 2008. We all allow ourselves, to varying degrees, to live a lie but few of us are called out on our dishonesty as sharply as Charlie Barnes, the central character of Joshua Ferris’s splendid novel. It is hard to be genuinely funny in a novel but the final 50 or so pages, in which Charlie’s family confront Jake Barnes, the fourth wall-breaking narrator of the novel, over the content of the tell-all memoir, was easily the most hilarious chapter of a novel I read all year.
12. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
The book’s title is taken from an Anais Nin quote, “shame is the lie that somebody tells you about yourself”, and there is a lot of guilt, blame and shame in Peter Ho Davies’s moving, unflinching tale of parenthood. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself captures the complex, painful emotions of being a parent, and it is also a courageous, honest book, one that confronts the repercussion of choices about terminating a pregnancy. The novel puts your emotions through the wringer, in prose full of piercing emotional shards. Like Ho Davies, born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, the protagonist is a writer and professor of creative writing, and the novel is in part about the problems of writing fiction and saying the unsayable.
11. Animal by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury Circus)
Lisa Taddeo, author of the bestseller Three Women, a ground-breaking non-fiction book about female sexuality and male power, has created a memorable character in Joan, a woman who has faced “a lifetime of suffering”. Taddeo allows us to understand the events, including a horrific sexual assault, that have left Joan so damaged. Nearly all the men in the novel are as predatory as the coyotes that stalk Joan’s new home in the Santa Monica Mountains. In Animal, Taddeo tackles disturbing subjects – rape, suicide, child sexual assault, murder, miscarriage, dementia, abortion and adultery – with her own gimlet eye, and the result is a haunting, transfixing read.
10. Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber)
There was plenty of pandemic fiction in 2021 but few novels were as deft and intriguing as Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat, about a celebrated sculptor called Edith Harkness. Now old, and living in the immense studio at Burntcoat, Edith tries to make sense of the transitory nature of existence, her fractured past, the challenges of work as an artistic creator and the painful memories of long-lost friends and lovers. Her self-reflection comes at the same time as she is struggling to come to terms with the pandemic and existing in an era of quarantine. Hall, who has twice previously been nominated for the Booker Prize, skilfully captures the way that confined existence exacerbates existing wounds to the psyche.
9. Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)
Snow Country, the second book in Sebastian Faulks’s planned Austrian trilogy, examines the consequences for lives that have been through the horror of conflict. Snow Country, whose title is taken from Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s celebrated 1956 novel, is set in three time periods: 1914, 1927 and 1933. We follow the story of Anton and Lena on their intensely affecting journey to find a way to live with their tortured pasts. Although the book is full of sorrow, it also shows us how the power to love somebody for what they are – and all that they are – can bring solace during our short time “on this woebegotten earth”.
8. All In: The Autobiography by Billie Jean King (Viking)
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles (12 of them singles, six of which came at Wimbledon) and was a true pioneer in fighting sexism in sport. The 77-year-old’s wonderfully candid memoir All In tells the story of a remarkable career on and off the court. King, well served by thorough ghostwriters Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers, offers an intriguing account of her family history along with her own tortured sexual awakening. For tennis lovers, King articulates quite beautifully why the game offers such a captivating mental challenge. All In is the story of a true champion, one with an indomitable spirit.
7. Second Place by Rachel Cusk (Faber)
Rachel Cusk’s Second Place is a novel of deep insight and scarring honesty. The book was in part written in tribute to the spirit of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a woman who had her own trouble with an arrogant, cold-hearted interloper, in the form of DH Lawrence, when he stayed in Taos, New Mexico in the early 1930s. Cusk’s protagonist (identified only as M) invites an artist (just called L) to the remote, marshy coastal landscape. She gradually begins to fear that she has “invited a cuckoo into our nest”. Cusk, author of the excellent Outline trilogy, slowly and skilfully draws the reader into a compelling psychodrama that is full of surprising, stimulating reflections on creativity, art, culture, power structures, parenthood and the moral questions that animate our lives.
6. It’s Always Summer Somewhere: A Matter of Life & Cricket by Felix White (Cassell)
Musician Felix White, the guitarist of The Maccabees and co-presenter of the podcast Tailenders with Jimmy Anderson, deftly blends an account of his musical coming-of-age with memories of the sporting heroes who defined his upbringing. His observations on both cricket and music are sharp and colourful. It’s Always Summer Somewhere: A Matter of Life & Cricket is an elegiac memoir that also movingly explains an adolescence blighted by the suffering of his seriously ill mother and his subsequent struggles with adult relationships. This candid, perceptive and warm-hearted book will knock cricket fans (and non-cricket fans) for six.
5. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
Sorrow and Bliss is a truly witty novel about love and the despair of depression. There is a madcap energy to Meg Mason’s book, which is also a sublime 21st-century family comedy. Mason’s tender tale of Martha Friel – on the edge of 40, friendless and frequently mired in sadness – will surely strike a chord with anyone self-aware enough to wonder whether there is something wrong with them.
4. Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen (Ebury Press)
I read Michael Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love in one enthralled sitting. The book, which features lovely illustrations from Chris Riddell, deals with the poet’s fight for survival from Covid-19. After six weeks in an induced coma, and many more of rehab and recovery, Rosen wrote about his near-death experience. There are also moving contributions from his nurses, doctors and family, all of which re-affirm the wonder of kindness. This is a splendid, moving book, so full of humour, love and resilience. It is also another timely reminder of why we should worship and protect the NHS.
3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury)
Patricia Lockwood, the Indiana-born, 38-year-old author of the hilarious memoir Priestdaddy, has produced an imaginative tour de force in No One is Talking About This, a book about our warped digital landscape. Her debut novel is full of splintered, piercing asides regarding the online world, told in hundreds of short, firecracker entries. No One is Talking About This is a difficult book to pin down, and perhaps you get the most out of it by just basking in Lockwood’s imaginative, offbeat mind – and the constant waterfall of sparkling, thought-provoking images.
2. The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus)
South African Damon Galgut, whose previous novels include the remarkable The Good Doctor, won the 2021 Booker Prize for the outstanding The Promise, a multi-generational saga set between 1986 and 2018 and based around four different funerals. The fleetingness of time is one of the main themes of a mesmerising drama about a South African family whose deathbed promise to their black housekeeper – ownership of her property – is not kept. The Promise is just 300 pages long, but Galgut shows his skills as a concise and piercing novelist by packing so much into this exceptional book.
1. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate)
Crossroads, the captivating first novel in a new trilogy from Jonathan Franzen, opens on 23 December 1971, and tells the story of the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. Franzen masterfully captures the complicated emotional fallout from household grudges, rivalries and insecurities. Franzen, who won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel The Corrections, maintains suspense throughout 580 pages of a novel superbly told through deft interwoven perspectives. The compelling dialogue, the authenticity of place, time and character, the assured insights and the exquisite minutiae of description, all confirm that the reader is in the hands of a true modern master.
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