Author of Klara and the Sun (Faber)
The beautiful, horrible world of Mariana Enriquez, as glimpsed in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (Granta), with its disturbed adolescents, ghosts, decaying ghouls, the sad and angry homeless of modern Argentina, is the most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time. Horrifying in another way, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s Failures of State (Mudlark) is a brilliantly presented indictment of the UK’s fumbling attempt to meet the Covid challenge. Read alongside Jeremy Farrar’s more personal Spike: The Virus v The People (Profile) and Michael Lewis’s compelling ThePremonition (Allen Lane), we see a disturbing common trait emerging in our country and others: the unwillingness to prioritise people’s lives over ideas and ingrained structures.
Author of Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (Hamish Hamilton)
I have been deeply impressed by recent books that invite us to reconsider aspects of British and global history, culture and identity beyond the often distorted, dishonest and pumped-up myth-making that has long prevailed. History is an interpretation of the past and these three books, each one powerfully persuasive and offering new ways of seeing, are in conversation with each other. Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Penguin) by Sathnam Sanghera, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World (Allen Lane) by Kehinde Andrews and Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections (Peepal Tree Press) by Corinne Fowler.
Author of The Promise (Chatto & Windus)
I seldom read books when they first appear, but there were two slim volumes that especially impressed me this year. Burntcoat (Faber) by Sarah Hall is in the vanguard of a new genre of pandemic/lockdown fiction: the connections between isolation and creation are laid bare in a disquieting dystopia of the not-quite-now. Small Things Like These (Faber) by Claire Keegan, on the other hand, casts its gaze backward, to Ireland in 1985; its balance of crystalline language and moral seriousness makes it profoundly moving.
Author of Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Bloomsbury)
I sometimes suspect that I was actually found abandoned in a tree, adopted and raised as a family secret. Amos Tutuola, Gabriel García Márquez, DO Fagunwa, Shahrnush Parsipur and other exponents of tree anthropomorphism are perhaps the outsiders in the know. Now they are joined by Elif Shafak in The Island of Missing Trees (Viking) with her integrative literary sensibility, and the genre sprang back on its feet, tender and savage by turns in a Greco-Turkish-Cypriot historic setting. The rigorous questioning of nation and identity, given my incessant preoccupations, made it a truly therapeutic literary meal.
Author of The Magician (Viking)
I enjoyed Hugo Hamilton’s The Pages (Fourth Estate), narrated with verve and ingenuity by an actual book, a novel by Joseph Roth, which got saved from the Nazi bonfire and then taken on a picaresque journey across the Atlantic and back to Germany. I also enjoyed the social historian Patrick Joyce’s Going to My Father’s House (Verso), a haunting meditation on Ireland and England, war and migration, Derry and Manchester. I admired the originality of his observations and his tone of melancholy, calm wisdom. I love John McAuliffe’s Selected Poems (Gallery) for the way that ordinary things are rendered and rhythm handled so deftly and artfully.
My generation is very much marked by Dennis Cooper’s George Miles cycle: in the 1990s, everyone read these books; I was awed by them. For many years, Dennis took a break from novels to focus on theatre and film. He’s back with I Wished (Soho Press), which is classic Dennis Cooper: intricate, funny, destabilising and totally unforeseen. Wolfgang Hilbig is apparently one of the most acclaimed German writers, but was new to me. I’ll confess I fell for the blurb on the back of The Interim (Two Lines Press): the great László Krasznahorkai calls him “an artist of immense stature”. As soon as I started reading, I had to agree. This novel, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, is comic and terrifying and profound.
Author of The Island of Missing Trees (Viking)
This year, reading Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here (Bloomsbury) was an unforgettable journey. Sethi wrote this book after being the victim of a horrible racist attack on a train from Liverpool to Newcastle. The genius of the author is how she takes the narrative of hatred and discrimination hurled at her and turns it upside down by “going back to where she is from” – the landscapes of the north. Through long walks in nature as she finds a true sense of belonging, connectivity, renewal and hope, so do we, her readers. I found it not only deeply moving but also quietly transformative. Another read that stayed with me this year has been Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s fabulous Thin Places (Canongate). Born in Derry, at the height of the Troubles, the author’s voice is piercingly honest, movingly heartfelt. There is so much soul and knowledge and compassion, it gave me shivers.
Author of Burntcoat (Faber)
Sea State (Fourth Estate) by Tabitha Lasley completely took me by surprise. Part memoir, part investigation into oil-rig culture, part critique of gender and class dynamics, it’s incredibly compelling, often dark as the drilled-for product. Lasley infiltrates this masculine offshore industry, with its dangers, profit and comradeship. She also explores female loneliness and desire, accommodation of a male-designed world and the spaces where women hold power. Reissued this year with impassioned praise from fellow authors such as Marlon James, Patricia Lockwood and Max Porter, Mrs Caliban (Faber) by Rachel Ingalls is a work of true verve and imagination. Along with her suburban housewife and lab-tested reptilian lover, Ingalls deftly, wittily and rather incredibly liberates readers from the awfulness of convention to a state where weirdness and otherness are beautiful and right.
Author of Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
After the joy of discovering that one of your favourite authors has a new book out can follow a peculiar kind of anxiety, because what if you don’t like it as much as the others? I needn’t have worried with Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Faber). It is stunning, in all senses. Assembly (Hamish Hamilton) by Natasha Brown left me winded for how clever and sad and beautiful and spare it was. Truly the perfect novel. And I adored Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days (Bloomsbury), which I read in November and will end the year by listening to her read, as audio. Because it’s Ann Patchett, one time through isn’t enough.
Caleb Azumah Nelson
Author of Open Water (Viking)
This year, I loved Transcendent Kingdom (Viking) by Yaa Gyasi, the story of a family of four who travel from Ghana to Alabama to make a new life for themselves. Through the course of the novel, the family’s history begins to unfold, illuminating stories that have gone unspoken for generations. It’s a brilliant novel, with not a word out of place. I also really enjoyed Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood (Fitzcarraldo), a collection of short stories from an unforgettable, searing voice. They occupy a hallucinatory landscape, often veering into the surreal, and each pulses with an electric energy.
Author of Matrix (Heinemann)
I have been in headlong love with Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious and subversive mind since her memoir Priestdaddy, but her first novel, No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury), sent me reeling. Everything about this book, from its structure to its prose to the way it hits a reader unawares in the second half, is testament to Lockwood’s wicked genius. Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch (Fourth Estate) by Rivka Galchen flew a bit under the radar, but it is a wise meditation on the kind of hysterical scapegoating we see so often in the age of the internet, though based on a historical fact: that the mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler was once accused of witchcraft. I loved this book intensely when I read it this summer and have thought of it nearly every day through this strange autumn. I’ve been thinking deeply about anagogical literature recently and very few living writers write so achingly toward God as Kaveh Akbar. Real faith, Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell (Chatto & Windus), “passes first through the body/ like an arrow”; each of the poems in this collection finds its target.
Author of Sankofa (Virago)
My favourite nonfiction book published in 2021 was Otegha Uwagba’s We Need to Talk About Money (Fourth Estate). It’s a memoir that shows how money has affected every stage of Uwagba’s life, from growing up on a council estate, to winning a scholarship to a private school, to negotiating her salary when she entered the workforce. Uwagba is particularly nuanced about class and race. My favourite novel published in 2021 was Our Lady of the Nile (Daunt) by Scholastique Mukasonga. It’s set in the 1980s, in a Rwandan girls boarding school. It follows all the girlish intrigues, of who is the most popular, who is the prettiest, but this is no Malory Towers. Looming in the background is the coming genocide. Both playful and sinister, this is an excellent read.
Author of Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Picador)
Anyone with a mother ought to read My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (Granta), a novelist of uncompromising brilliance. It mines the same narrow, dangerous territory as Beryl Bainbridge and Ivy Compton-Burnett: the dysfunctional family unit. Riley homes in on the failing relationship between a mother and daughter, anatomised by way of astonishingly precise dialogue, alongside angular, razor-sharp sentences that delineate an entire emotional landscape. Ouch and wow. There’s a similar marvel of ventriloquism in Adam Mars-Jones’s Batlava Lake (Fitzcarraldo), a story about war and soldiers delivered by the hopeless, weirdly endearing Barry, which builds to a blindsiding final paragraph.
Author of China Room (Harvill Secker)
Barbara Ehrenreich is an incisive diagnostician of societies and in Had I Known: Collected Essays (Granta) she is clear-eyed on the ways in which the American working class has been politically abandoned and culturally demonised. Much of the analysis applies to our own country. On the novel front, I could not recommend more strongly Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta): flinty, bracing, exquisite.
Author of Cloud Cuckoo Land (Fourth Estate)
In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane), David Graeber and David Wengrow offer an engrossing series of insights into how “the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull”. They re-inject humanity into our distant forebears, suggesting that our prevailing story about human history – that not much innovation occurred in human societies until the invention of agriculture – is utterly wrong. I could have lived in the first hundred pages of Piranesi (Bloomsbury) by Susanna Clarke for ever. It’s a dream of a novel. Zorrie (Riverrun; published early next year) by Laird Hunt is a tender, glowing novel that is just as beautiful as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Author of Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca (Bloomsbury)
These days, I seem to read mostly female novelists from the colder parts of North America. You can’t get much farther north than the Ontario of Mary Lawson’s icy, compelling stories of calamity and redemption. A Town Called Solace (Chatto) keeps you breathless with anxiety, then relief and finally even joy. I felt the same total engagement with Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen (Arrow). She reconstructs in beautifully simple detail the story of Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, and her struggle to protect Jane in life and death. It is also an unforgettable account of an unremembered life.
Author of The New Age of Empire (Allen Lane)
David Harewood’s documentary Psychosis and Me was an eye-opener for his honesty in reflecting on his experiences in the mental health system. His book Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (Bluebird) is one of the most powerful testimonies to the impact of racism I have ever read. In a similar vein, Guilaine Kinouani’s Living While Black (Ebury) highlighted the severe problem of racism in the psychological professions that has hallmarked so much of our experiences in the UK, an unfortunate experience we have in common with our American cousins. I had been looking forward to learning more about one of the most important US civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Keisha Blain’s Until I Am Free (Beacon) did not disappoint.
Author of The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate)
Double Blind (Harvill Secker) by Edward St Aubyn is about nature, science, rapacious capitalism, psychoanalysis and human folly, and it is both moving and so funny I had to stop every few pages to wipe tears from my eyes. Nobody’s Normal (WW Norton) by Roy Richard Grinker is a compassionate, well-researched chronicle of the historical stigmatisation of mental illness. Since “normal” is a social construct, why can’t we change it? I love how Katie Kitamura can channel a mind and in Intimacies (Vintage) it is the mind of an unnamed interpreter living in The Hague, interpreting for a former president on trial for war crimes.
Author of The Mermaid of Black Conch (Vintage)
Still Life (Fourth Estate) by Sarah Winman gets my vote, not just for its mastery and sweep (Tuscany, the East End of London, war and beyond war, old gay ladies, young men) and the overarching theme of the power of love, but for its talking parrot as character, Claude. Claude gets some of the best lines. Also, Fortune (Peepal Tree Press), by Amanda Smyth, another historic novel, a clandestine love story set amid Trinidad’s early oil drilling years in the 1920s. I also loved English Pastoral: An Inheritance (Penguin) by James Rebanks, out in paperback this year. His family have farmed the same land for 600 years. We’ve lost so much, but Rebanks gives us solutions and myth-busts; a poignant and sad book we need in a time of climate emergency.
Author of Magpie (Fourth Estate)
My two favourite novels of the year were Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Meg Mason, for being hilarious, moving and utterly humane, and Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto). The label “masterpiece” is far too liberally applied these days, but I did think Galgut’s book was deserving of it. In nonfiction, I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Money (Fourth Estate) by Otegha Uwagba, which challenged me to rethink my relationship with my finances and did so in a witty, intelligent and surprisingly touching way.
Author of The Echo Chamber (Doubleday)
Kevin Power’s long-awaited second novel, White City (Scribner), was a triumph. There’s not enough humour in contemporary fiction but Power brought the laughs and the pathos to this account of a young Dubliner, reared with privilege, who gets involved in a dodgy land deal in the Balkans. In nonfiction, I was impressed by Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (Oneworld), a scholarly, compassionate and courageous examination of a subject that’s sparked an unhelpful civil war within the LGBTQ community. Unlike those of her online counterparts, Joyce’s arguments are well researched, soundly made and avoid the toxicity that mars so much conversation on this topic.
Author of A River Called Time (Canongate)
Keeping the House (And Other Stories) by Tice Cin is a truly beautiful debut. A mistress of deftly sketched characters that become whole humans in a few lines, Cin tells stories of working-class, inner-city life steeped in truth, emotion and vulnerability. She is one of a new generation of writers who see the splendour of these streets and articulate it with great majesty. Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms (Vintage) is written in a classical style that’s no less incisive for its formality. From the first paragraph, I was hooked. Tension drips through every scene and Hamya depicts London so well. There’s quiet, raw power in this book and its author.
Author of Everyone Is Still Alive (Phoenix)
I like a novel to grab me and The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate) by Ruth Ozeki gave me very peculiar dreams for a long time, as though it did not want to release me to other things. I enjoyed the robust style of Empireland (Penguin) by Sathnam Sanghera, an illuminating examination of the “toxic cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia” that still hugely influences our life today. Erudite and reassuring, Four Thousand Weeks (Vintage) by Oliver Burkeman persuaded me to accept that my time on Earth is finite so I should therefore not fritter it away in overwork and overwhelm.
Author of Razorblade Tears (Headline)
Her Name Is Knight (Thomas & Mercer) by Yasmin Angoe is a dazzling, suspenseful tale of international intrigue and revenge with a protagonist who is as deadly as she is beautiful. A feared assassin, Nena Knight soon finds her latest mission to be her most dangerous as it puts her life and her heart at risk. Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala is a quirky, cosy mystery full of humour and heart with a clever heroine who is as talented in the kitchen as she is at a murder scene. A fantastic debut. The Heathens (Little, Brown) by Ace Atkins is pure, uncut, US southern noir with a modern social media twist. Few writers know the tortured soul of the south better than Atkins and he is at the top of his game here.
Author of We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 (Head of Zeus)
Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber) has really stayed with me. For all its wit and style, it has a deep seriousness about the world. Rooney has an old-fashioned belief that the novel can be a place in which the question of how we should live is continually at play. Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto) sustains the same moral purpose while being funny, angry and absurd all at once. Paul Muldoon had a remarkable year. His conversations with Paul McCartney for The Lyrics (Allen Lane) spark endlessly fascinating reflections on the relationship between life and creativity. And his new collection, Howdie-Skelp (Faber), is dazzling, moving, profound and playful.
Author of Bessie Smith (Faber)
I loved Neil Bartlett’s Address Book (Inkandescent). It took me back to all the addresses I’ve lived in - the lesbian squat in Vauxhall, John le Carré’s house in Hampstead! Brilliantly written, interweaving seven different characters across various times, Bartlett’s precise storytelling pulled me in. I’m glad we have him. He is a pioneering chronicler of queer lives. Ian Duhig’s New and Selected Poems (Picador) is a must have, must read gathering of the best of his work. Always fascinating, Duhig is poetry’s best chronicler of both ordinary lives, strange lives. His eclectic and effervescent work draws on folklore and myth to tell the stories we never get to hear. Duhig is interested in everything. He makes his reader sit up and take stock. I was inspired by the beauty and the power of the fabulous collective 4 Brown Girls Who Write – their poetry reminds me of the strength and exhilaration of a collective voice. Beautifully produced by Rough Trade Books, each of the four poets produces a standalone pamphlet that comes to form part of an incredible whole. The perfect stocking pressie. I was touched by Michelle Zauner’s cathartic memoir about losing her mother, Crying in H Mart (Picador). Zauner writes about food, music, grief and love candidly, bravely.
Author of A Lonely Man (Faber)
Two novels that stunned me this year involve characters overwhelmed by the force of another’s personality. The narrator of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta) reckons with her parents, one dead, one ailing, who emerge as both spiteful and pitiable. Riley is an immensely talented writer whose sentences cut like knives and she doesn’t flinch when blade meets bone. Similarly dauntless, in Second Place (Faber), Rachel Cusk abandons the distinctive style of her Outline trilogy for a new voice. When M invites L, a painter she admires, to her remote coastal home, psychic combat ensues. It’s a profound book and a funny one, which hasn’t been mentioned enough.
Author of Acts of Desperation (Jonathan Cape)
After the past few years, when even the most ignorant among us took to slinging around virology terms as though we knew what we were talking about, I’ve found myself drawn to accounts and oral histories of the Aids crisis. Let the Record Show (Farrar) by Sarah Schulman is profoundly moving, as most are, but also does the important work of reasserting the place of women and people of colour in the history of Act Up. Paul (Granta) by Daisy Lafarge is a mesmerising novel about a young woman’s trip to France and ensuing entanglement with a man whose grotesque secrets begin to surface. It moves at a pace it feels Lafarge invented herself. It’s enviably, coolly intelligent without ever becoming ironic or snide and just one more exposition of Lafarge’s many gifts following on from her poetry collection Life Without Air.
Author of A Calling for Charlie Barnes (Viking)
Three great pleasures for me this year came from reliable sources. Jo Ann Beard’s essays in Festival Days (Little, Brown) are some of her finest. Dana Spiotta’s novel Wayward (Virago) is razor-sharp on any number of things, above all the insoluble ravages of time. Then there were three writers new to me whose books were both reinvigorating and enlightening: Angélique Lalonde’s Glorious Frazzled Beings (Astoria), Miriam Toews’s Fight Night (Bloomsbury) and Casey Plett’s A Dream of a Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press).
Author of Animal (Bloomsbury)
Magpie (Fourth Estate) by Elizabeth Day is that rare novel that moves and taunts like a thriller, but also envelops and comforts like Middlemarch. I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to read it in fancy bars for ever. As for The Right to Sex (Bloomsbury) by Amia Srinivasan, I cannot say enough about this book. How crucial. How brilliant. How absolutely gratifying to see a mind at work like Srinivisan’s, handling the profane and the erudite with equal clear, unflinching diamond prose.
Author of Empireland (Viking)
My novel of the year would be A Calling for Charlie Barnes (Viking) by Joshua Ferris, a hilarious skewering of the American Dream by the man who must be the funniest writer we have. I also really appreciated The Anarchy (Bloomsbury) by William Dalrymple, out in paperback this year, which does a great job explaining the East India Company, responsible, more than anything else, for Britain’s involvement in the subcontinent. And Imperial Nostalgia (Manchester University Press) by Peter Mitchell, which explains how the delusions of the Raj continue to shape our national psychology today.
Author of The Tick of Two Clocks: A Tale of Moving On (Virago)
The sensitivity of Susie Boyt’s story of family love, Loved and Missed (Little, Brown), wrings the heart: it shows tenderness to each, makes you care for all… a gentle masterpiece. The Promise (Chatto) by Damon Galgut is a remarkable tale of four generations of one South African family and of the country itself. Like his earlier books, which I have also enjoyed, it reveals him as a master of human complexity. No wonder it won the Booker. Mothering Sunday (Scribner) by Graham Swift was not published this year, I know, but was picked up by me at the secondhand stall of Didcot Parkway station. It’s now released as a film. Reading it, I discovered a total gem: not a word out of place, not a false sentiment. Can the film be as good?
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