Today I am finishing off my end of year favourites list with the best new books that I read this year.
It also happens to be eight years since I started blogging with that very naïve goal of not buying any books until I’d read all 746 in my possession!
So, first things first. It’s another year done and how far on am I in that crazy challenge? Well, 2021 has been a pretty solid reading year! I started the year at Book No 446 and my most recent review was of Book No 390, so a whopping 55 books ticked off that long, long list! Coincidentally, I read 55 of the 746 last year too!
By early next year, I’d dearly love to make it to the halfway point in my challenge, which would be Book No 373. That means reading 23 books from the 746 during the next few months. Keep your fingers crossed that I can stay away from shiny new books and Netgalley for a while!
As a treat for my 8th birthday, I’m going to pick 8, rather than 5 of my best new reads of the year. Cheating? Maybe, but I’m celebrating!
The Promise by Damon Galgut
I absolutely loved this exploration of South Africa through the history of one family, which uses the ingenious device of centring each of its four sections on a funeral.
The novel begins in 1986, with the death of Rachel, a 40-year-old Jewish mother of three on a smallholding outside Pretoria. The drama of the novel turns on a promise that her Afrikaner husband, Manie, made to her before she died, overheard by their youngest daughter, Amor: that Manie would give their black maid, Salome, the deeds to the annexe she occupies. Manie has no intention of doing so, nor do the rest of the family, but this is a promise that Amor cannot forget.
As well as being a sprawling family saga about a dysfunctional Afrikaner family, Galgut weaves three decades of South African socio-political history into his tale in a strikingly subtle way. Structurally, the book is fascinating, but even more impressive is the cinematic manner in which his narrative voice travels, skipping from person to person without ever losing focus. His third-person narration darts between characters, mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence and at times, the authorial voice steps in to make a point of his own. A very well deserved Booker winner.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
I found Oh William! an absolute joy to read, despite not having read its predecessor My Name is Lucy Barton. In this novel, Lucy, now 64, is mourning the death of her beloved second husband and finds some welcome distraction in revisiting her relationship with her first husband, William Gerhardt, the philandering father of her two grown daughters. William is also experiencing unhappy changes in his life, and calls on Lucy to help navigate them.
The novel is written in a conversational, relaxed style, with Lucy digressing, going off on tangents, correcting herself and reiterating points she has made before. The novel is written in such a way to seem that Lucy is talking directly to the reader. There is an episodic nature to her reminiscences that is not chronological, so gradually a picture is built up of the relationship that Lucy and William share. The novel becomes a portrait of a friendship and a marriage and explores themes such as how the past is never truly past, the lasting effects of trauma, and the importance of trying to understand other people despite their essential mystery and unknowability. A beautiful read.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Following on from her elegiac novella Foster, Claire Keegan has again crafted a short, powerful narrative which thrums with a powerful emotional force.
This slight story which explores the impact of the Magdalene laundries is as lyrical as poetry and has the depth of a full-length novel, yet its very brevity is what makes it so impressive. It is perfectly formed and perfectly executed. As a story of faith and hope, it explores how loss can be transformed into tenderness, and of how hope endures. Almost unbearably poignant, Small Things Like These is a stunning achievement.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
It’s not often a book comes along that feels truly original, but Ní Ghríofa’s stunning prose debut is just that. The Ghost in the Throat was the An Post Irish Book Awards Nonfiction Book of the Year; was listed as a Guardian Best Book of 2020; was shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize; longlisted for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2021 Gordon Burn Prize and won the the James Tait Black Biography Prize.
In a hybrid of essay, memoir and autofiction, she weaves the story of how the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh wrote her famous poem Airt Uí Laoghaire in the 1700s, with her own story as a struggling young mother who becomes obsessed with this woman and her work.
A Ghost in the Throat is a stunning exploration of the changing nature of women’s place in society, the untold stories of women that litter our history and the importance of finding your own voice.
Mrs March by Virginia Feito
Mrs March is married to the famous writer George March. His latest bestseller features an ugly and unpleasant prostitute and when someone suggests to Mrs March that the character is based on her, her paranoia grows and her grip on reality starts to slip.
This is a wonderful character study of a mind in freefall and also a chilling exploration of the darkness that so many of us hide underneath a veneer of respectability. The novel references Woolf, Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson and is equal to all of them. Feito has created an unforgettable character and a disquieting and compelling reading experience. It’s amazing to think that this is her debut novel.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor
I’ll say upfront that Jon McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers. I have read and loved all his books since falling for his debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. At first glance, Lean Fall Stand seems like a departure for him, an action-packed adventure set in the Antarctic. The opening section reads like a film-script, as the Antarctic trip goes horribly wrong when a storm strikes in the first pages and the ensuing battle for survival is described in a propulsive, arresting style. The novel then takes a sharp turn in both tone and dynamic as it hones in on the story of Robert, a survivor of the accident who has suffered a stroke.
The rest of the novel explores Robert’s agonising journey to recover from his stroke, the toll it takes on his wife Alice and his attempts to get to grips with language again. Robert’s difficulty with language became the focus for an exploration into what happens when words and language are beyond reach, for whatever reason.
Lean Fall Stand is another subtly powerful novel from one of our best writers.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado’s account of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ‘petite, blond, Harvard graduate’ lover is a horrifying but enthralling exploration of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship.
This is a memoir about two young, ambitious writers whose passionate relationship sours when one begins to subject the other to emotional and, at times, physical cruelty. However it plays structurally with the idea of what a memoir is, telling the story through short chapters all titled ‘Dream House as…’ and uses wit, inventiveness and a series of narrative tropes — including classic horror themes — to create an entirely unique piece of work. The judges of the Rathbones Folio Prize, which it has just won, called it “a compelling memoir, a striking piece of storytelling, and a work of art” and I couldn’t agree more.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott
Dead Girls is a difficult read, but an important one. Like the blunt title suggests, Dead Girls explores the unsolved murders of three young women during the 1980s, all of whom were of a similar age to Almada herself. The murders of Andrea, Maria Luìsa and Sarita were spread across different provinces of Argentina, highlighting the issue of femicide in a country where murders of and violence against women are horrifically commonplace. By writing about the aftermath of these killings, the grief of the family and the unanswered questions surrounding the crimes, Almada shines a light on a society and a political system where violence against women goes not only unpunished but generally unnoticed.
By placing herself into the fabric of their lives, she creates a subtle but intense narrative in which she pays a moving tribute to the lives that were viciously cut short. These deaths were not only allowed to happen, but have gone unpunished and Dead Girls is a stark, lyrical and moving piece of journalistic fiction.
So, those are my books of the year for 2021. Here’s to a great year of reading in 2022 and the hope that I it doesn’t take me another eight years to read all the 746!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!