I’ve chosen my 15 fiction and 15 nonfiction favourites (coming up tomorrow) from 2021, along with a few poetry selections at the end of this post. Two of my picks are graphic novels!
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.
The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.
Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles: A love for their Colorado homeland inspires women’s environmental activism in a linked short story collection. Hope and perseverance are watchwords for Boyles’s characters, many of whom are single mothers or unmarried women. Nearly half of the stories center on a trio of feisty sisters. This reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s early fiction set in the Southwest. It got me eagerly awaiting whatever Boyles writes next.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…
Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain: I almost never pick up a thriller, but my love for McLain’s earlier fiction attracted me and I ended up loving this. Really, I can’t imagine a better take on the genre. Anna Hart is a detective who, fleeing tragedies from her past, throws herself into the linked mystery of three missing girls in California. The book is rich in atmosphere: McLain’s love of the coast and forests is clear, and the fact that the book is set in 1993 means that Anna has to rely on old-fashioned policework rather than technology.
In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.
Heartstopper, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman: This super-cute series was my summer crush. I liked this best of the first four. I admired how Oseman works in serious issues teens might face but has still created something so full of queer joy. While Charlie has been figuring out when to tell Nick he loves him, Nick has been working out how to confront Charlie about his anorexia. They learn that love doesn’t solve everything, but that a friend or boyfriend can be there to listen. Oseman really brings out the supporting cast in this volume, too.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.
Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers: As environmentally aware as The Overstory, but with a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. Neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist. Theo studies other planets that rival an ailing Earth, and another state allows Robin to reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo: This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and a fruit bat. Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
If I had to pick my novel of the year, it would be The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)
Field Requiem by Sheri Benning: Benning employs religious language to structure her solemn meditations on the degraded landscape of Saskatchewan, a place where old ways have been replaced by impersonal, industrial-scale farming. You can hear the rhythms of psalms and the echoes of the requiem mass. Alliteration pops out from lists of crops and the prairie species their cultivation has pushed to the edge of extinction. This is deeply place based writing. With its ecological conscience and liturgical sound, it’s just my kind of poetry.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is also just my kind of poetry.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.
Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.
The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.
Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!
- The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
- Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
- “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”
Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen
All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.
Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.
Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani
Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”
- Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
- While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
- Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.
Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.
- Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
- She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
- While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.
Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.
Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.
Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.
Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).
- “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
- “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
- An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.
Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti
I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”
Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.
- A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
- Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
- A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.