The Best Books I Read In 2021 | Part One: Fiction

This is my seventh annual round up of books I’ve enjoyed. The emphasis is on things I read rather than what was published. Although the publication of the lists is consistent, the format is not. This year I’ve tried to name my favourite three books and a short list of others I loved and recommend to others.

Top three

1. No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

A poem and a tragedy wrapped up in all the poems and tragedies of its age – the time of the dictator, the portal and – after its publication – the plague.

There is no book I read this year – fact or fiction – that surprised me more than No One Is Talking About This. I want to read it again and again. Beginning it tentatively, afraid of the newness and the modernity of the structure, I was worried that I wouldn’t connect, that it would be too important and self-involved to let me in. But then it swallowed me whole, and part of me is still there in it. It’s magic was there from the first sentence: 

She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.

And this (followed by the author reading it aloud):

Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole. It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if their collective blood had made a decision. As if they were a species that released puffs of poison, or black ink in a cloud on the ocean floor. I mean, have you read that article about octopus intelligence? Have you read how octopuses are marching out of the sea and onto dry land, in slick and obedient armies?

2. The Netanyahus, by Joshua Cohen

A fictionalised-stranger-than-fiction-true-story about a monster in the shape of a family that calls at a house that is un-equipped to deal with it. 

Whatever you think this book may be, it will surprise you. The experience of reading it is like being on a runaway train that’s gathering speed. Only about halfway through as the pace starts to feel dangerous do you realise you are trapped, it’s going too fast to get off.

I’m grateful for the brevity of this format. It’s pointless to try and describe it to other people, you just have to recommend it.

Some favourite passages: 

So many of my former students—especially those from my last stretch of teaching—were so tolerant of others’ psychosocial fragilities and resentments as to become intolerable themselves, junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with nearly every remark, finding bigotry and prejudice everywhere.


The history of every people is also a history of its craziness, and the more science becomes a religion, the more religion must pretend to be a science, desperate for all logical explanations.

3. Klara and the Sun, by Kashuo Ishiguro

An AF – artificial friend – tells her story as she is bought as companion to a girl with a terminal illness, in a world which is close to coming apart.

Ishiguro plays the amazing trick of telling a story so vivid and strange that you feel like you have implanted memories from it mixed up with your own. Sitting in a shop window waiting to be bought, trying to navigate something as simple as a field when your perception can’t process the complexity of the long grass. It doesn’t explain itself or all of its world, but you are there, looking through the eyes of a machine.

Some favourite passages: 

what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom, and I saw it was possible that the consequences of Morgan’s Falls had at no stage been within my control.

The trouble is, Chrissie, you’re like me. We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there. Nothing inside Josie that’s beyond the Klaras of this world to continue.

‘Hope,’ he said. ‘Damn thing never leaves you alone.’ He shook his head almost resentfully, but there was now a new strength about him.

Other fiction I loved this year: 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The guards had been forced to undergo sensitivity training and were furious about it.

A women’s prison novel by the San Francisco writer, Rachel Kushner, self-described “world’s leading expert on ten square blocks of the Sunset District, the west section of the Great Highway, a stretch of Market, a few blocks in the Tenderloin”. It set a theme for the fiction I read this year. Something that sounded like a worth literary premise that turned itself into a thriller and left me resonating with its power.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

I’d always wondered how Virginia Woolf could be so flippant about the 1918 Spanish flu in her journal, slipping it in as a joke between Lytton Strachey’s sore finger and Lady Murray’s invitation to lunch, when the death rate in parts of London was higher than it had been in the trenches and people who had been well at breakfast were dead by bedtime and deadly as plutonium to everyone who saw them in between, but I think I understand it now. When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook.

This year, stories about being marooned in the cold North held a gripped imagination. Oddly, and in the wrong I order I watched the TV series The North Water (and then read the novel – see below) and, later, The Terror (which I’m reading now, at the time of writing this post). Contemporary where the previous two are historical, Cold Earth felt related in place and themes; a suspense story that builds to an almost unbearable pitch of tension by the end. Told in the form of letters from the six members of an archaeological expedition to Greenland, it shows people losing their grips on their various certainties when a pandemic begins and they lose contact with home. The isolation and the fear read like emotional prophecies of the current pandemic (it was published in 2010).

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

“There are two kinds of marriages,” Barbara said. “The ones where you’re privy to how messy they are, and the ones where you’re not.”

A high concept alternate history yarn and political thriller that works on so many levels: “What if Hillary never married Bill?”

I read this on holiday (a holiday I never really expected to be able to take in 2021) and it was everything I’d want from a book to read on the beach: the character and voice of the fictionalised Hillary Rodham feel completely real, the clever play with alternative timeline is familiar and unexpected. You find yourself rooting for Rodham, of course, but she doesn’t present as simple hero – the twists in the story playing out alongside our remembered reality without losing sight of the evolving complexities and contradictions of the politics of race and gender in the last 50 years.

The North Water, by Ian McGuire

Drax shrugs. ‘I do as I must. Int a great deal of cogitation involved.

It’s the end of the era of sail and the boom years of artic whaling are coming to an undignified end. A boatful of lost souls and one very dangerous sociopath head into the ice with various plots and hidden agendas crammed on board with them. 

I read this after watching the TV adaptation. The book was very similar I could see how well the production had adapted the text. It’s a great thriller, but the character of Drax – a bundle of needs and urges and violence wrapped up in the shape of a man –  was the thing that set it apart. There’s a sickening plainness to his evil that makes him utterly believable. Colin Farrell did a superb job of playing him.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

Of course they’d never heard a noise like that before. You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it. You could fairly say that their lives could be divided into two: the period before they’d heard that noise and the period after.

A simple premise, a brilliant realisation. A family are on holiday in a remote cottage when the owners arrive unannounced saying the power is out in the city – it begins as an awkward situation and twists into the end of the world.

The feeling. Then the dread of something coming grows more intense. We know more than the characters, but are still unable to see the full facts. And what’s happening begins as a known dread, becomes mysterious and then as it becomes truly known is too horrible to comprehend.

That’s all the fiction for this year, folks. The non-fiction and business books will follow shortly.

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