Books of the year 2021

Here then are my best books of 2021 – which I’m limiting to books published in that year.

(Of books read for the first time and not published this year that I loved, I’d mention Sandra Newman’s wondrous The Heavens, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, M John Harrison’s Climbers and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.)

Looking at this stack, I see some powerfully good writing, some fine novels and short story collections and memoirs variously entertaining (Royle) and painfully exposing (Dochartaigh). Overall, it seems quite a middle-of-the-road selection, and if it seems to me slightly disappointing then perhaps that’s because all but one of the books are by writers I have already read, and so fully expected to enjoy. (Some of the writers, it has to be said, I know personally to a greater or lesser degree: Claire Fuller, Gavin McCrea, Chris Power, Nicholas Royle.) 

So let’s say it wasn’t particularly a year of great discovery for me, which is a shame, and something that only really occurs to me as I write this round-up. Books can offer reassurance and comfort, and they can offer the thrill of the new. They are something you can settle into, or something that can unsettle you as it broadens your understanding of the world, and of reading as an endeavour and an experience. Newman’s The Heavens – the only one of those four ‘old’ books mentioned above that was by a new-to-me writer – surprised me as it unfolded, which is perhaps even more rare than surprising you from the off, with a rollicking premise or an unprecedented, irrepressible voice.

The one new-to-me writer on the ‘best of new books’ pile is Kerri ní Dochartaigh, whose memoir Thin Places I read in its entirety on the penultimate day of the year – so it’s possible that it benefits from recency. I didn’t completely love it from the start – there is a tendency, especially in its prologue, towards purple prose, and imagery that seems to be scattered into the prose too incautiously, like herbs in cooking – but it settles into its telling and the rationale of its narrative approach becomes more convincing the clearer it becomes.

The book is the story of a life lived under the shadow of the Troubles and the trauma induced by it, even when the author flees from her home town of Derry. She has a petrol bomb thrown through her bedroom window at the age of 11, her best friend is brutally murdered at the age of 16, her family breaks up and disintegrates, she experiences abusive relationships, addiction and suicidal thoughts. All of this is approached through what might be termed nature writing, as is common elsewhere, but this is done very much in the abstract, through the experience of remembering or recasting experience, rather than trying to take us through the experience as they might have happened. It is contemplative, rather than immersive. It helps, too, that Dochartaigh frames her story through a consideration of the damage that Brexit has done and is still doing to Northern Ireland. She looks outward, and onward, as well as inward, and back. There is repetition in the prose, but this takes the form of slight, extended echo, rather than insistent stuttering. If the writing is intended or effected as a process of healing, then that is because she uses language to stitch sentences – not to close wounds but to fashion bandages. You can see the work the words are doing.

The novel that surprised me the most – that felt most like a discovery – was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, which weaves and leaps with the strangeness of its voice, weirder and more vivacious I think that in Pond, her debut. It is a – possibly – autofictional account of a life lived in thrall to books, with quite simple anecdotes put through the wringer of this way of telling: swerving and recursive, like a childish Beckett making itself sick on sweets. This (non-) story then takes a capricious and absolutely unpredictable left-turn into an account of a ludicrous fictional character called Tarquin Superbus. I said in my original Twitter response that it left me in a state of energised perplexity – “I want to read it again, to see if I can understand it. But I don’t want to understand it” – and although I haven’t yet reread it, I have picked it up and glanced at it, and I do still very much want to reread it.

For the first time in 2021 I built a Twitter thread responding to all the books I finished (you can start it here), with the idea that this would help me with my monthly reading round-up blog posts, though unfortunately it replaced them rather than aided them. I only got as far as May, and then stopped. There were of course reasons for this, but I’m not yet sure how I will proceed next year. 

As I’ve said before, this thread, and those posts, only offer a partial account of my reading: they are the books I read from cover to cover, and there are plenty of books I thoroughly enjoyed that I didn’t read completely, most obviously essays and short stories. It is noteworthy that the two short story collections that show up in this pile are ones that lend themselves to reading in full: Brandon Taylor’s phenomenally good Filthy Animals because of the linked stories following a trio of characters that thread through the book, and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies because of a more subtle narrative development that means the stories seem to kind of drift into autofiction towards the end, or rather seem to abandon plot development for a more thematic cluster of concerns. Read out of sequence they might seem rather the less for it. I wrote about Caldwell’s book here.

The continuation of my A Personal Anthology project (now approaching two thousand individual short story recommendations) means that I read lots and lots of short stories, but these rarely get mentioned. It would be great to think of a way to make this happen.

My job teaching Creative Writing at City, University of London, means that I also read a lot to work out what books I want my students (undergrad and postgrad) to be reading. This means I half-read a lot more books than I read in full. I half-read a lot of creative non-fiction this year, as I worked up to the launch of the MA/MFA Creative Writing, with its non-fiction strand. You can read about my selection process here.

I’m starting 2022 with a side-project to read Finnegans Wake a page a day in a group read organised by Paper Pills aka @ReemK10, and I have one other idea that may or may not come to fruition. Looking at my 2021 reading I feel the lack of a big classic in there – a Middlemarch, Proust or Magic Mountain. Another Mann is a possibility (Buddenbrooks or Joseph and his Brothers), and with every year that passes the fact of not having read Anna Karenina seems to loom more darkly. Two immediate work reading projects mean that I can’t think about that now.

Finally, my reading is always at odds with my writing. I am close to finishing a first draft of a novel that should have been done a year ago, but then I tell myself that I wrote a book-length poem in 2020 (Spring Journal, which you can still buy of course from the publisher, the brilliant CB Editions), and I launched a postgraduate degree in 2021, so perhaps 2022 will be the year it gets submitted. 2021 did also see the shortlisting of a story of mine – ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ – for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, which was thrilling. You can find the story in its initial publication in The Lonely Crowd, and listen to it read brilliantly on Audible.

One comment

  1. JacquiWine

    A really interesting selection of books, Jonathan, and I’ve enjoyed following the Twitter thread on your 2021 reading. Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies made my list of ‘recently published’ highlights too, along with Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living. I really like the way Intimacies builds, almost synergistically, with each individual story. And Levy I’d be happy to read on pretty much anything. (Real Estate is in my TBR pile, and I’m hoping to get to it soon.)

    Happy New Year to you! Wishing you all the best for 2022.

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