Ugh, another nothing-y year of uncertainty: what joy! These are exactly the times that good fiction was made for when all we want is escapism, reflection of non-pandemic times, and something to do all the hard work of prodding your emotions beyond light despair and Covid misery.
We’ve rounded up our selection of the very best fiction published in 2021 to give you some pointers if you’re looking to escape for a few hours.
How we tested
We know only too well how much tastes vary, so we have whittled our list down to some principal genres to ensure as wide a spread as possible – and if there’s something specific you’re looking for, we have plenty of detailed “best books” lists classed by genre. Unsurprisingly, some of the books you’ll find here have featured on previous IndyBest lists.
When looking at possible contenders for the best fiction, we wanted to look at the best of the best, in terms of genre and lasting quality. We especially wanted to single out the books that will still be being passed around in years to come once talking point flashes in the pan have expired; novels that anyone could pick up to read and go, “oh yes!”.
Whatever you’re in the mood for, we’re confident that you’ll find your next favourite book here.
The best fiction books of 2021 are:
- Best overall – ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: £12.99, Waterstones.com
- Best crime novel – ‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean: £8.36, Bookshop.org
- Best surprising novel – ‘The Other Black Girl’ by Zakiya Dalila Harris: £13.94, Bookshop.org
- Best comedy fiction – ‘Early Morning Riser’ by Katherine Heiny: £14.99, Waterstones.com
- Best sex novel – ‘Insatiable’ by Daisy Buchanan: £10.99, Hive.co.uk
- Best comedy of manners – ‘Detransition Baby’ by Torrey Peters: £13.94, Bookshop.org
- Best inspiring novel – ‘One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin: £13.94, Bookshop.org
‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason, published by Orion
Martha is approaching 40, blessed with talent but undercut by a brain that sabotages her, and has done since her late teens. Her devoted husband, Patrick, has left her, she couldn’t get pregnant even as her beloved sister keeps falling pregnant, her family is largely mad, and she has periodic waves of sadness that threaten to topple her. It sounds like a truly awful misery read, yet it’s the funniest book of the year, with the most recognisable characters.
Mason, a New Zealander journalist and writer of non-fiction, has written a debut novel of such spark that you’re aware, right from the first pages, that you’re reading something very special. Martha is a tremendous creation (as is her sweary sister Ingrid, endlessly furious at falling pregnant) and Mason gifted with one-liners of laser precision. It all feels wonderfully real, damaged goods and all, and most clever of all, Mason never lets the reader in on Martha’s diagnosis to avoid the illness becoming the star. Martha is the star, and how she learns how to live with other people is a compelling, kind, and very funny story.
‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean, published by Harper Collins
Best: Crime novel
Dean’s debut won “best pageturner” in our round-up of the best book club reads. This is a crime thriller with crossover appeal, one for readers who can’t cope with the genre’s grislier reaches.
Lexie Grace is a lawyer – but growing up, she was “Girl A”, the girl who escaped from a house of horrors overseen by her violent father and passive mother. When her mother dies, Lexie is appointed executor of the will and must divide up the house among her siblings, each of whom have responded to their appalling childhoods in different ways.
This is a compelling “what next?” concept that builds on tragic events covered in the press in recent years and imagines how the young adults involved might respond to both their upbringing, and the public’s fascination with them.
‘The Other Black Girl’ by Zakiya Dalila Harris, published by Bloomsbury
Best: Surprising novel
To expand on what makes Harris’s debut a surprise would, er, ruin the surprise, but the idea of something not being quite right is laid from the first page.
Young publishing hopeful Nella is an assistant at a prestigious New York publishing firm, clinging on to be made editor. As the lone black employee in a very white, middle-class team, Nella is limited to dealing with books featuring black characters, however badly written, and is subject to the tone-deaf attitudes of her colleagues. When another black girl, glamorous, put-together Hazel, joins the team as another assistant, Nella is convinced she’s found an ally, but things are about to get even more complicated.
This novel more than stands alone, but also makes for thoughtful reading in the wake of how the British publishing industry closed ranks around the author Kate Clanchy after she falsely accused readers of making up racist quotes in her book, and laid into three writers of colour who had noted Clanchy’s wrongdoing. “The Other Black Girl” may be set in New York, but it’s based in a global truth.
‘Early Morning Riser’ by Katherine Heiny, published by Vertigo
Best: Comedy fiction
If we quietly forget about the dire 2016 Gilmore Girls reboot, we can celebrate Heiny’s tender second novel as the spiritual successor to that show’s fast-talking small town comedy. Episodes spread across 17-years are packed with eccentric characters with inner lives that run far deeper than our narrator, schoolteacher Jane, may see at first.
Jane is new to Boyne City, and after locking herself out of her new home, meets Duncan, a woodworker and locksmith, and, as she later discovers as their night together falls into bed and a long relationship, also its supreme swordsman. There’s no small-town snobbery, as Jane is wholly invested in her new home and becomes a crucial part of its social fabric, but sardonic observations and character-driven incident bring plentiful laughs to these years in Jane’s life, and provide balance to challenges and tragedies that inevitably dot her life.
This is a book with a gentle message running through it, to appreciate what you have, treasure the small things, and take people as they are. It’s a message worth knowing at any time, but especially this year.
‘Insatiable’ by Daisy Buchanan, published by Penguin
Best: Sex novel
Until now, Buchanan has focused on memoir, comment, and advice columns. But with Insatiable her distinctive non-fiction voice melts away and heralds the arrival of a novelist with a very different, equally assured voice – and an alluring and extremely filthy one at that.
Violet is living the classic 20-something story: broke, broken-hearted and in a job she loathes. When charismatic Lottie offers her a role in her start-up, Violet can’t believe her luck – and even more so when she meets Lottie’s husband and business partner, Simon, who she fancies as much as Lottie. Their business relationship soon becomes sexual, and Violet becomes a valued third at their sex parties, and in their wider lives. But their new understanding isn’t as stable as Violet hopes, and the chaos of her life and desires soon collides.
Endlessly entertaining, this is a shrewd commentary on ambition and young womanhood that also reads as a rollicking page-turner. You may blush. You will certainly love it.
‘Detransition Baby’ by Torrey Peters, published by Little, Brown
Best: Comedy of manners
In a year that has seen a shameful amount of non-fiction and journalism monstering the trans community, Peters’ Woman’s Prize-nominated novel reframes trans lives as they truly are, as boring and messy as everyone else’s.
After being attacked in the street, Ames has de-transitioned from “Amy” much to the upset of his cynical ex-partner, Reese, who is now self-destructively sleeping with married men. Ames hoped to simplify things by living as a man without society’s transphobic gaze, but he longs to be with Reese and achieve their shared dream of having a child together. When his lover Katrina becomes surprisingly pregnant by him, Ames wonders if the three of them might be able to co-parent. Gloriously witty, absorbing, and moving.
‘One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot’ by Marianne Cronin, published by Picador
Best: Inspiring novel
Winner of our “best uplifting book” title in our round-up of the best positive books, this enchanting story has quite enough salt in the sugar to keep any cloying sentimentality at bay. Cronin’s remarkable debut details the relationship between two female in-patients, one teenage, one elderly, and the friendship that builds between them as they take part in their hospital’s art therapy class.
Put any thoughts of Pollyanna aside, as Lenni, a 17-year-old terminal cancer patient, and Margot, 83, on the next ward over, approach their friendship as equals. When they start an art project to tell the story of their combined 100 years on Earth, they come to appreciate new, funny, and tragic things about their lives.
The verdict: Fiction books of 2021
Picking a favourite from the very top of the pile is always a nightmare task but it’s a pleasure to select Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss as our best fiction book of 2021. This is an exciting, funny, and thought-provoking novel that we pressed on friends, family, people who were vaguely near our bookcases at the time. We guarantee you won’t notice the time passing. May your 2022 be filled with joy and good reading – starting here.
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