It’s strange looking back on something nobody wanted: a full year of pandemic. Doesn’t 2021 feel like it’s been dragging on forever? Despite everything, it’s been a very significant one for me personally and professionally. My second novel Scent came out (followed by the author, which wasn’t the plan but it’s all good); I was awarded Best Reviewer of Literature in the 2021 Saboteur Awards and the Literary Sofa turned ten years old in September. It’s hard to say without sounding cheesy but I’m really moved by the support and validation I’ve received from so many people in so many ways. When things seem this grim, it’s great to be reminded how many lovely and generous people are out there. THANK YOU!
It’s been a very stimulating and rewarding reading year but today’s post on my favourite fiction is only half the story because I read far more non-fiction than usual and many of those titles made a big impact on me. I’ll be doing an equivalent length non-fiction post in the new year.
As you have a million of these Best of 2021s to flick through I’m going to keep the reasons for my choices brief – you’ll soon see why if you read them! Every book I feature on the Sofa comes highly recommended but these 11 had something that made them my personal standouts. Hopefully I’m helping some of you with your Christmas shopping – if so, please support independent booksellers.
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM – Yaa Gyasi *MY TOP NOVEL OF 2021*
Back in the summer I said I didn’t think I’d read a better novel this year and that was true. Transcendent Kingdom combines wit, emotional power and scientific enquiry to extraordinary effect. I found the neuroscience angle particularly fascinating; as a story of family, (not) belonging and grief, it’s very moving, and it says a lot about America. And if all that wasn’t enough, the writing is stellar.
DETRANSITION, BABY – Torrey Peters
I certainly wasn’t the only one to buy this because it appeared on the Women’s Prize longlist, where it firmly belonged both on principle and merit in my opinion (I’d have put it on the shortlist actually). Entertaining, empathetic and hugely illuminating – this novel made me reflect; it answered questions I’d never been able to articulate and made for some of the most stimulating book conversations I’ve had this year.
I have friends and neighbours of East African Asian origin so was not completely unaware of the trajectory shared by the characters in this novel, but I had never read a fictional treatment of the subject. Neema Shah’s novel burns bright in my memory for the sense of place, emotional power and even-handed humanity. Up there with Andrea Levy’s Small Island and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota.
LOVE IN FIVE ACTS – Daniela Krien translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
I love Daniela Krien’s writing (she’s been described as the German Sally Rooney – a comparison I don’t really get apart from their huge success), the realistic way she writes about women and especially about sex. And it illustrates the important point that we’re all different and want different things – and that’s okay. This novel is cleverly woven, frank and insightful and I’ll be first in line for her next book.
THIS IS YESTERDAY – Rose Ruane
As someone who likes seeing the entirety of women’s lives captured in fiction (nothing interesting happens after 40? Right…), I really gelled with this story in which we see memorable protagonist Peach in both adolescence and middle age, in a really cool, left-field way. There are some intensely relatable observations. I should be over getting misty-eyed about the emotional connections fiction can create with the reader, but it’s one of the reasons I love my job.
THE ART OF LOSING – Alice Zeniter, translated from French by Frank Wynne
I’ve been banging on about this multi-generational family saga, so eloquent on Franco-Algerian relations and the state of modern France, for five years since I read it in the original. At this point all I have to add is that I’m delighted it’s available to English-speaking readers and hope that it will attract a wider audience after its huge success across the Channel.
THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS – Leïla Slimani translated from French by Sam Taylor
I was completely drawn into this first volume of a trilogy inspired by the author’s own family history. It’s a virtuosic portrait of a family thrown together and torn apart by the stresses of immigration and post-colonialism (France/Morocco in this case) and having to navigate two cultures, which I’ve noticed is a dominant theme among the books on this list. Hoping to make it to France to buy the second one.
ALL MEN WANT TO KNOW – Nina Bouraoui translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
This was the first novel I’d read in French in over a year due to the pandemic and as that was starting to drive me crazy it’s not surprising that this was the one that finally restored my ability to read normally. This autofiction in fragments of a woman physically and psychologically caught between Algeria and France and facing up to her sexual identity has a poetic lucidity and huge emotional clout. (It’s also the only book I’ve ever been asked to read from in French by people I’d only just met!)
THE MERMAID OF BLACK CONCH – Monique Roffey
This was the worthy winner of the 2020 Costa Novel Award. I absolutely loved the Caribbean setting and voices, its charming magic realism (something I’m not generally into), sensuality and romance. It’s a moving story with both playfulness and depth. Reading this transported me during the winter lockdown which I found extremely difficult; it might be just what you’re looking for right now.
NOTHING BUT BLUE SKY – Kathleen MacMahon
This novel takes a handful of unfashionable ingredients including a privileged white middle class social setting and a morose, self-important middle-aged male protagonist and, I think, shows that books should always be judged on their individual merits. MacMahon writes with great elegance and the insight of experience. It also provides a holiday in Catalonia – I felt like I was walking up and down the beachfront deciding where to eat dinner.
THE PERFUME THIEF – Timothy Schaffert
When a friend put me onto this novel I could hardly believe it: set in Paris, queer main character called Clementine who has her own perfume shop. So far, so similar to my novel Scent, but it was clear from the outset they’d be very different. This is a late contender as I read it very recently: despite the setting of the Nazi occupation and terrible events, Paris is Paris, and the novel exudes glamour, mystery and sensual gratification beyond the olfactory. Clementine is a unique and endearing protagonist and there’s something satisfyingly modern – yet not anachronistic – about the queer representation. Did I mention she’s over seventy?
I’d love to hear about your favourite reads of 2021 and your thoughts if you’ve read any of my choices. Otherwise, I’m off to write my book and live my life for a while and will be back in early-mid January with my 2021 Non-Fiction picks. If dark, sexy and French fits the bill for anyone on your gift list, signed copies of my novels Paris Mon Amour and Scent can be ordered from my local independent BookBar – (any excuse to show up and drink their excellent coffee). I hope the rest of the year brings you something you need – there’s always books.
Hi there – I love your roundups and often pick one or two, they are much appreciated! I read Transcendent Kingdom and thought it was masterfully done. I’ve never read anything like it that combines science and religion, family and grief so well. I also like to read takes on life in the US by recent immigrants. It gives an added dimension to discussions of race/class there.
Thanks, Jen. Nice to be appreciated! We MUST catch up soon – this is such a good book to discuss.
I have The Mermaid of Black Conch on my TBR pile. I like the sound of This is Yesterday… just bought it for my Kindle! x
Have read only two from your list – Transcendent Kingdom and Kololo Hill – and enjoyed both.
What a weird coincidence with The Perfume Thief but a good illustration of how, even with the same basic ingredients, no two authors will write the same book.
I’m delighted to see Kololo HIll included in your Books of 2021. It’s a wonderful story.
Hello, I stumbled upon Literary Sofa and have been enjoying your articles. I just read the first few pages on Amazon and love it 🙂 I hope to find Transcendent Kingdom in the bookstore later. Thank you for your recommendations! They are lovely.
Hi Alicia, thanks for your message! Always lovely to hear from new visitors to my Sofa. Not sure what exactly you read on Amazon, but I hope you find TK and enjoy. Shouldn’t be a problem as it’s been hugely successful in the UK and US.