Books of the Year 2021 Part 1

Although I mainly read translated fiction, this doesn’t mean I entirely avoid contemporary novels in English (though it would be fair to say I haven’t read a wide selection). Here are five of the best I read this year:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The third volume in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy is not only another valuable meditation on what it means to be a (female) writer, but also a though-provoking examination of growing older, a moment of reassessment. Levy uses her biographical ‘character’ as a metaphor for her own ‘character’ development: in writing herself she considers the self she wants to write. Similarly, she uses the practicalities of life – here focusing on the simple question, where is home? – to look more deeply into the choices we have and the decisions we make. Her rebirth as a writer since Swimming Home has been a pleasure to see.

Panenka by Ronan Hession

Leonard and Hungry Paul was such a runaway word-of-mouth success that I greeted Panenka with a little trepidation. Yet, few writers can write about ordinary life as well as Ronan Hession. Here, retired footballer Joseph is at something of a crossroads in his life, but does he have the courage to both face up to his mortality and to love again? Hession’s novels are filled with sly humour, yet the laughter is never directed downwards at his characters. Not only do we find ourselves on Joseph’s side, but on that of his daughter, and even of the regulars at Vincent’s pub. Every adjective we apply to Hession’s fiction – likeable, heart-felt, hopeful – may seem like faint praise but the sincerity of his work makes the reader equally sincere.

Tokyo Redux by David Peace

The much delayed third (and best) volume in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy confirms that he is one of England’s most important writers. In a novel which ranges over fifty years, Peace weaves together numerous strands of (possibly) the one story beginning with the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the head of Japan’s national railway, in 1949 during the American occupation. The other two years which feature are 1964, when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and 1989, when Emperor Showa, perhaps the last remnant of Japan’s World War Two past, died. Each section has its own voice, with Peace perhaps in less danger of verging into parody than he has been in some previous novels. Neglected as usual by all prize juries, it will be exciting to see what Peace does next.

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan’s third novel proves, beyond all doubt, that her emotionally raw debut and her dystopian follow-up only scratched the surface of her talent. Featuring the same marginal characters (including William Burroughs), it presents us with almost one hundred years in the life of a building. The historical recreation is vivid, but also laced with the spirit of fairy tale and myth. Characters are fully formed within pages and the loss the reader feels as we leave one behind is only alleviated by the introduction of another, equally fascinating. Another novel which should have won prizes.

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

American writer J Robert Lennon’s ninth novel has, sadly, not yet been published in the UK but is still well worth seeking out (it’s published by Graywolf Press in the US). It begins with the narrator checking into a guest house in the Subdivision run by Clara and the Judge – she’s not sure which is which, especially as Clara was a judge and the Judge is called Clara. Such Alice in Wonderland strangeness will only accelerate, from her electronic companion, Cylvia, an Alexa which gives her life advice, to the bakemono, able to appear in different forms but always intensely desirable and equally dangerous. And why does a small boy keep turning up? Behind it all we sense a puzzle to be solved, either by the narrator or the reader – or perhaps both.

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8 Responses to “Books of the Year 2021 Part 1”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Really interesting choices, Grant, partly because they’re quite different from those on other readers’ lists! I’m particularly pleased to see the Levy here as it’s nearing the top of my TBR pile – one for January or Feb, I think! I feel like David Peace’s book didn’t get the attention it probably deserved, which is a shame given his skills as a writer. His Red Riding books were remarkable, especially in terms of style with their propulsive staccato prose.

    • 1streading Says:

      Peace rarely gets the credit he deserves – perhaps because he lives in Japan. I love his football books which must be among the best ever written. He was planning to write a novel about Harold Wilson – I wonder if he will.

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    I also had Tokyo Redux on my list; like you, I felt it was a return to form after some rather irritating verbal tics in previous novels.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’m very attracted by Luckenbook, Grant, and also Levy who is turning up everywhere and getting such high praise. Perhaps I should have a change from older or translated books for a while!!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I never thought Tokyo Redux would come out, so glad both that it did and that it’s good. I’ve not read it but I had heard it was a return to form as Marina found.

    Did you write up L&HP? I’ll do a search. I’ve still not read it.

    • 1streading Says:

      No, only Panenka – by the time I read L&HP it had been well reviewed! I was also really pleased when Tokyo Redux finally appeared – and that it was so good!

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