The best books of 2021


In a year when a step forward seemed frequently followed by two steps back, a sense of stultification – not to mention existential dread and pure horror – could be offset by some remarkable works of art. In his annual round up, Neil D.A. Stewart picks fifteen new works of fiction and non-fiction that conjure new worlds and new ways of being. Here are some of the best books of 2021

The best books of 2021

Transfigurations of various sorts figured strongly in my favourite books of 2021, a year in which various kinds of stasis butted up against the potential for deep and striking change.

She has fused the best of both into a short book that is devastating in its emotional clout

In her new novel Burntcoat (Faber), Sarah Hall had a finger on a certain kind of pulse. Lockdowns, infections and impassable territories figure prominently in the story of a sculptor coming to terms with catastrophe both personal and cultural. In the past I’ve preferred Hall’s stories to her novels, but with Burntcoat she has fused the best of both into a short book that is devastating in its emotional clout and whose prose, always capable of making you pause to reread her beautiful sentences, is somehow at once both precise and oblique.

Shorter and sharper still, Natasha Brown’s Assembly (Hamish Hamilton/Little, Brown) has at its heart the dilemma of how to exist meaningfully in a world which at every turn critiques you, both overtly and in many insidious ways, for simply existing. Brown’s narrator has reached a shocking conclusion, but Assembly is subtle rather than overplayed. A slender, devastating debut, whose power is so rare that it should not really be a cliché: it changed how I see the world.

Sarah Hall, Shon Faye and Claire Vaye Watkins

The world itself has changed in Joy Williams’s very welcome return to the novel, Harrow (Profile (2022)/Knopf). Crisis and catastrophe have consumed much of America and beyond, as teenaged Khristen flees a very peculiar finishing school to the dubious safety of a onetime conference centre, now home to aged wannabe terrorists (and one exceptionally precocious 10 year-old) pondering how to strike against an all-consuming capitalist monster no-one’s frightened of anymore. Williams’s prose is exceptional, her insights bizarre and always compelling: in a just world she’d be a superstar.

Jacqueline Harpman

This year I also very much enjoyed a reissue of the late Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (Vintage), reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Natural Way of Things, but with a sliver of science-fiction strangeness all its own; Torrey Peters’s important Detransition, Baby (Serpent’s Tail/One World) whose moral comedy of trans manners does what the novel should, bringing news from the frontiers of lived experience; Rebecca Watson’s Little Scratch (Faber/Anchor), whose inventive prose-poem formatting mimics its central character’s distracted, leapfrogging thoughts as she makes her way through what seems like the most mundane of days, but which turns out to have a dark heart. Spare in a different way, Dennis Cooper’s I Wished (SOHO Press) sees the author return to the subject – the obsession – of his early work, the love of his juvenile life, around whom he previously spun an entire cycle of novels. The effort to work through trauma, to exorcise a persistent ghost, itself now seems to haunt Cooper’s writing, and at the heart of I Wished, once it has tried and failed to refigure the facts through a series of ever odder metaphors, comes the simplest, sweetest retelling – the truth? – of the story. The antithesis of the grotesquerie of Cooper’s best-known works, it’s one of the most startling pieces of writing this ever surprising author has yet produced.

More ghosts: hidden rooms, interstitial spaces and unwittingly shared dwelling places figure throughout A Shock (Granta/New Directions), Keith Ridgway’s new novel. This is a wonderfully (South) London novel, discernible in his characters’ speech patterns and their regular, er, haunts around Camberwell, Peckham, Burgess Park, and a pub known only as The Arms. The novel progresses in linked stories, from a lonely woman so desperate to be invited to her younger neighbours’ house party that she burrows a hole in the wall between their flats, and taking in laconic hookups, bust-ups between friends, the travails of the teaching profession, and much more. The best episode is a ghost story told in the flattest of present-tense prose, as if the narrator is a kind of CCTV, an all-seeing eye that, it becomes clear, is looking away at crucial moments. The result is very unnerving, the oddest episode in a book that delights in strangeness and will reward repeated readings.

From many London households to just one, the vacant, dilapidated House of a debut novel from Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless (Cipher Press, having a terrific year). Something terrible has happened to the three young women who once broke in to the property: two of them are convinced the other committed the most appalling act of violence, and the third never made it out alive. It’s a very British, very 2021 horror story, and as it becomes clear what the House represents, that key makes the book more, rather than less, scary (though from the start it is properly frightening). A novel – and a subtext – that does what the best horror should, and haunts.

She argues instead for trans joy, and that the expansion of trans rights would benefit all of society

In nonfiction, standout book of the year was The Transgender Issue (Allen Lane/US edition forthcoming), in which Shon Faye elegantly dismantled the discourse around trans lives – in the media, invariably led by non-trans commentators. Sidestepping familiar divisive and petty talking points, she argues instead for trans joy, and that the expansion of trans rights would benefit the whole of society.

Blake Bailey’s Roth biography

Philip Roth tried several times in his life to find an appropriate biographer. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Blake Bailey, author of Philip Roth: The Biography (Allen Lane/W.W. Norton), cast a terrible pall on what proves part biography, part lengthy conversation with its subject. There’s lots of scurrilousness to enjoy here for literary gossip-hounds, along with the – to me – eye-opening establishment of how very much Roth’s novels, from barely passable screeds to the three or four that are the pinnacle of American letters, are drawn from the author’s life. The “authorised version” is a double-edged sword, however, and while it’s undoubtedly thorough, I’m not convinced there isn’t a cooler, less partial (and less problematic) biography yet to come.

A fictive writer takes on a similarly poisoned chalice of a biography project in A Lonely Man (Faber/FSG), the first novel from Chris Power. Is the biographer, Robert, being used by his subject, or is Patrick, with his wild tales of pursuit by the Russian mafia, being exploited for his story? Combining an exploration of the writer’s somewhat vampiric craft with a joyful deployment of classic espionage-novel tropes, this is a smart page-turner with emotional heft: for all the crime-novel trappings, A Lonely Man’s finest moment is a beautifully written extended scene based around a memorial service.

Rachel Yoder, Joy Williams and Chris Power

Whether Claire Vaye Watkins’s father truly was involved with the Manson Family, whether or not she herself abandoned her newborn baby and hapless husband to go and “find herself” in dangerous places, the ostensibly autobiographical I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (Riverrun/Riverhead) has the grip of the best story you might hear after hours at a dive bar. Either “Claire” is a seriously dark avatar of a furiously imaginative author, or the admirably, alarmingly candid teller of her own life story, in which sensible plans and good choices seem very much the exception to the norm. The notion of a new mother so shaken up by the birth of her first child that she simply absconds will be anathema to some readers, no doubt, but there’s a kind of bravery in it too. “Claire” would have much to discuss with the purposely unnamed central character of Rachel Yoder’s similarly provocative Nightbitch (Harvill Secker/Doubleday), the set-upon mother of a similarly small infant, who starts to worry – or fantasise – that she is turning into a dog. There has been a good crop recently of what used to be called magical realist fiction, and Yoder’s book is at once a series of observations on motherhood, femaleness and societal expectations, and a fantasy of transfiguration which leads, ultimately, to a kind of feminist utopia. It’s a 2021 take on an Angela Carter fairytale – or a Motherland with monsters.

Finally, a change of tone. Hilary Leichter’s Temporary (Faber/Emily Books) starts as a satire on the gig economy, with our narrator a temp constantly sent on new and increasingly peculiar assignments: from office clerk to head of the company she’s been assigned, she goes on to stand in for a pirate, a bank-robber and even sillier things. This is a comic novel with a very intelligent core to it, and one of the few books in my life to make me laugh out loud more than once. And in 2021, we did need a laugh, didn’t we? C

Civilian recommends independent UK retailers BookBar, Book Hive, Burley Fisher Books, Golden Hare, Ink84 Books, the London Review Bookshop and Pages of Hackney.