2021 turned out to be another excellent year of reading. Just like last year, I decided not to restrict the list to any specific number given that I had read 75 plus books.
Of the 21 books that made the cut, seven are translated works covering 6 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 19:2). This list is a mix of fiction by 20th century women writers, new books published this year, translated literature, novellas, a short story collection, a memoir and an essay collection. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.
So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2021, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…
THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)
A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.
A WREATH OF ROSES by Elizabeth Taylor
This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality. A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.
SATURDAY LUNCH WITH THE BROWNINGS by Penelope Mortimer
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly penned tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life. A woman and her five year-old son are locked out of a farmhouse in a remote French countryside, a seemingly innocuous family lunch swiftly culminates in a dramatic confrontation, a young woman on the brink of a miscarriage gradually reveals her true intentions. This is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.
MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi
An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.
HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)
Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it. The book charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion. Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and without mincing on details.
I IS ANOTHER by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)
I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship and picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales.
Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique. The book is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.
FUNNY WEATHER: ART IN AN EMERGENCY by Olivia Laing
A wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.
These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.
OLD NEW YORK by Edith Wharton
Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.
NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)
Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience. These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories.
Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else. Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.
THE LIGHT YEARS & THE REST OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard
‘The Cazalet Chronicles’, comprising five books (represented in the picture above by the first book The Light Years), is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.
Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature.
REAL ESTATE by Deborah Levy
Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality. When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own. The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.
A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths. Intelligent and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.
THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy. These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.
Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other. The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.
BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden
Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.
Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down.
CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett
Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.
It crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.
MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley
My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant and through her eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche. The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if she is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.
Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.
WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri
In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.
AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)
An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.
An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.
THE PROMISE by Damon Galgut
The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes – racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era – explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts.
But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I am happy this book won the Booker Prize.
ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)
Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body. Elena, a woman in her sixties, suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements. However, the real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita who was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide, but Elena is convinced it is murder.
What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.
A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)
Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.
JANE AND PRUDENCE by Barbara Pym
Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London.
As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.
That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2022 too. What were some of your best books this year?
Cheers and Merry Christmas,