2020 ended up being a decent year for the publishing industry, at least when it came to book sales. Perhaps we also learned to appreciate our bookstores and literary festivals, vital elements of our cultural life whose absence for much of the year was painful to bear. The loss of these forums for discovering new books caused publishers to delay the release of many titles until 2021. So we have a huge year of fiction ahead, which means I will focus here on books published in the first six months (with a brief nod to fall titles by Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead and a new novel by Sebastian Faulks, Snow country (Hutchinson), available September). I will also leave the first novels to Observer New Reviewsplendid debut film.
First of all, I am struck by the fact that two of the best American novels of the year are written by British people. Tahmima anam The startup wife (Canongate, June) is a brilliant and scathing portrait of America’s high-tech frat boys’ misogyny, and Jonathan Lee is quietly becoming one of the best young novelists on both sides of the Atlantic. His fourth book, The big mistake (Granta, June), is a powerful historical novel that is also a gripping mystery. When it comes to American novels by real Americans, there are We run the tides (Atlantic, February) from Vendela Vida, an evocative story of California, adolescence and pain. Also look for The compromised (Black Cat, March) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the lyrical sequel to their Pulitzer-winning debut, The sympathizer.
I’ve always thought that the Encore award, for the best second novel, is a very good thing. Debuts are easy compared to hard follow-up work, and yet 2021 has a positive trove of sophomore gems. Lisa Harding is quietly devastating to begin with. Bright burning things (Bloomsbury, March), which repeatedly reminded me of Shuggie Bath, a narrow and beautifully written portrait of motherhood and loss. It’s hard to believe it’s only his second novel, but 13 years later The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall returns with another dazzlingly clever postmodern gift. Maxwell’s demon (Canongate, February) is steeped in European high theory (think Calvin and Eco) and is enormously enjoyable.
Continuing with the second bombardment of novels, Fiona Mozley’s Hot stew (John Murray, March) is another absurdly good read. In the opening pages, he goes from a snail escaping from a pot of snails to a centuries-long history of Soho before settling down to tell an amusing tale of pimps and prostitutes, property and posterity. Olivia Sudjic’s second novel, Asylum road (Bloomsbury, January), carries echoes of Deborah Levy and Rachel Cusk. It is a book about love and history, trauma and identity. Venetia Welby’s exquisite and hallucinogenic Time to dream (Quartet, April) is set in the near future in which we have lost the battle against climate change. Finally, there is Francis Spufford, whose debut, Golden Hill, it was one of my favorite books of the last decade. He followed it up with another outright success. Perpetual light (Faber, February) It’s a high-concept job, think Kate Atkinson Life after life and Paul Auster 4321. This is a bomb that fell on London in 1944, of parallel lives, of what could have happened.
This year, I have wanted books of wide and spectacular imagination. Spufford’s masterpiece certainly scratched that itch. I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the sun (Faber, March) yet, but I have a feeling it will be equally visionary. Here are a few more that will be balm in the depths of a Level 4 winter. Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (William Heinemann, January) reminded me of one of my favorite novels, that of Georges Perec Life: a user manual. Set in an Edinburgh apartment building, it traverses decades to tell the tale of the curse that haunts No. 10 Luckenbooth Close and its eccentric inhabitants. Courttia newland’s A river called time (Canongate, January) is a vast and wildly ambitious work of speculative fiction that wonders what the world would be like if slavery and colonialism never existed. By CJ Carey Widowland (Quercus, June) is a clever and gripping piece of alternate history set in the postwar reign of Edward VIII. Finally, and this may sound strange as a novel to provide an escape from the miseries of 2020, I loved Christopher Wilson’s daring yet deeply moving. Hurdy gurdy (Faber, January), the story of great Brother Diggory as he tends to plague victims in 14th century England.
In translation, I read two magical Japanese novels. First, there is Lonely castle in the mirror (Doubleday, April) by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel). Part Miyazaki’s fairy tale, part teenage romance, it’s strange and beautiful: imagine the offspring of The chronicle of the chord bird and The Virgin Suicides. Maki Kashimada’s Touring the land of the dead (Europa Editions, April), translated by Haydn Trowell, asks if the places are haunted by their own past. Charco Press publishes books of excellent quality. Now Julian Fuks, whose Resistance was a great success a few years ago, he returns with another intricate and generous São Paulo novel, The Family, Hope and Despair called Occupation. It is again translated, impeccably, by the great Daniel Hahn. Latest from Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts (Bloomsbury, April), was originally composed in Italian, which the author only learned in recent years and was later translated back into English. It gives a new and strange texture to the work of this extremely talented writer.
A few last books to look forward to in a year that has a lot to recover. By Niven Govinden Diary of a movie (Dialogue, February), his sixth novel, is also the best so far. Smart, sexy and cinematic (in many ways), it is a love letter to Italy and the cinema. Speaking of ekphrasis, Max Porter brings us The death of Francis Bacon (Faber, January), a luminous novel composed of seven paintings described in prose that seeks to avoid the border between literature and visual arts. I also loved The lamplighters (Picador, March) by Emma Stonex: lighthouse keepers, ghosts, widows at war. It is a wonderfully clever and atmospheric story. By Marika Cobbold On Hampstead Heath (Arcadia, April) is a softer affair. A mystery and an elegy for the death of old-fashioned journalism, it is a book that will gladden your heart. The same, eventually, is true of Gwendoline Riley. My ghosts (Granta, April), about the relationship between a damaged girl and her horrible parents. Finally, the great Jon McGregor returns with his fifth novel, Lean Autumn Support (4th Estate, April). It is a genuine masterpiece: balanced, multi-layered, and filled with the most astonishingly beautiful prose. If 2021 is as good as his novels, we have a lot to look forward to.
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