Best books 2021: our writers pick the year’s best novels, from Patricia Lockwood to Torrey Peters

·6-min read
 (Composite)
(Composite)

As the year draws to an end, we asked our critics and writers to tell us about the one novel that they’ve loved the most this year.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro (AP)
Kazuo Ishiguro (AP)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel is a science fiction that tells of a bright and uncommonly observant AF or “Artificial Friend” called Klara, who yearns for human companionship. One day a teenage girl picks Klara out from among the other life-sized robots on display in a store. Then it all goes wrong. In lesser hands, a fable about robot love and loneliness might verge on the trite, but Ishiguro is a master prose stylist, who brings a light touch to weighty themes of social isolation and alienation. Ian Thomson

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My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley (Adrian Lourie)
Gwendoline Riley (Adrian Lourie)

Gwendoline Riley is a genius and My Phantoms is her best novel to date. The mordant tale of a dysfunctional relationship between fortysomething Bridget and her mother, Hen, this might also be an ideal Christmas gift for your mother if she has a sense of humour. There is one group of readers who won’t enjoy the book and that’s the action junkies amongst us. Anyone who has ever found love and family in fiction riveting will, in contrast, adore My Phantoms. Don’t take my word for it, a reviewer of an earlier Riley novel said she handles “language like she invented it”. Alex Peake-Tomkinson

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Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Torrey Peters (publisher handout)
Torrey Peters (publisher handout)

With Detransition, Baby, one of the first trans novels to attract a mainstream audience, Torrey Peters became the first trans woman nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. An open letter attacking her place on the longlist backfired, propelling the book onto bestseller lists. In Peters’ stylish New York comedy of manners, a trans woman, a cisgender woman and a man who has detransitioned come together over the chance to reinvent parenting. This nuanced portrait of trans feminine culture riffs on Sex and the City to challenge taboos around family, gender and relationships. Funny, irreverent, compassionate, it marks a watershed in queer literature. Madeleine Feeny

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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Hafsa Zayyan (Bhavin Bhatt)
Hafsa Zayyan (Bhavin Bhatt)

Hafsa Zayyan’s debut as co-winner of the #Merky Books New Writers Prize was delayed in the pandemic but well worth the wait. Jumping between the stories of young, successful lawyer Sameer in present-day London and widower Hasan in 1960s Kampala, under the merciless rule of Idi Amin, Zayyan bridges their stories through the shared experience of displacement and belonging. She tackles the literary treasure trove of exile and connects the notion of home to the people from a home left behind. The result is a raw and sincere imagination of the immigrant experience that paves the way for more brilliant young writers to share their stories across borders and beyond. Syraat Al Mustaqeem

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Mrs March by Virginia Feito

Virginia Feito (handout)
Virginia Feito (handout)

Virginia Feito’s debut, about a paranoid housewife who starts to suspect her novelist husband is writing about her, is a gorgeous, gothic delight. I never quite knew if I liked Mrs March, felt sorry for her, or was a bit scared of her, but I was completely absorbed in her world and devoured the book in a couple of sittings. A bit Shirley Jackson and a bit Daphne du Maurier, it’s an elegant, claustrophobic psychological portrait of a woman struggling with an almost non-existent sense of self. Elisabeth Moss has already snapped up the screen rights and will play the lead role - I can’t wait. Jessie Thompson

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Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Meg Mason (Grant Sparkes-Carroll)
Meg Mason (Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

Let me add my voice to the chorus of praise for Meg Mason’s darkly funny, deeply empathetic novel. Martha has just turned 40 and her marriage to the dependable Patrick is imploding; her relationship with the other love of her life, her younger sister Ingrid, has become similarly fraught. Returning to her parents’ messy, bohemian home in west London, she starts to come to terms with the reality of her separation, and of the unnamed mental illness (Mason marks it with a ‘—’) she has grappled with since adolescence. Martha’s self-lacerating internal voice is entirely believable, and Mason’s portrayal of sisterhood is among the most authentic I’ve read. Katie Rosseinsky

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Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford (PA)
Francis Spufford (PA)

Francis Spufford resurrects five children who died in a World War II bomb attack in New Cross in 1944 and imagines their lives unspooling in tandem with British post-war history in this utterly glorious feat of imaginative storytelling. It’s a state-of-the-nation novel that reflects deeply on the changing social fabric of London as each character’s life changes dramatically throughout the decades, but it’s also a playful, quasi metaphysical meditation on fiction’s capacity to be both untrue and capable of bringing entire worlds into being at the same time. Pure pleasure. Claire Allfree

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Sunset by Jessie Cave

Jessie Cave (handout)
Jessie Cave (handout)

I had my heart broken (in the best way) by comedian and podcaster Jessie Cave’s debut novel. Sunset is about sisterhood, love and terrible grief; we follow our numb, nihilistic heroine Ruth, who is trying to piece everything back together after the sort of tragedy that sometimes makes it almost too painful to read (no spoilers here). She makes plenty of mistakes; her misery is at times ugly and very raw. Yet when it’s funny, which is often, it’s very much so, and the characters are rich and real. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to recommend it to everyone I knew - especially my two sisters. Phoebe Luckhurst

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No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood (publisher handout)
Patricia Lockwood (publisher handout)

No One Is Talking About This is probably the best literary evocation of online life I’ve yet read, capturing the arch, ironic, attention deficit scroll in all its 24-hour vacuity. And then, about halfway through, an IRL event punctures this chuckle-with-recognition read into a moving book about love – the ‘This’ of the title – in the very physical world of caring for a profoundly disabled baby. Even more gratifyingly it achieves this within the space of just over 200 pages – although I suppose it’s fair to hope that Patricia Lockwood, the ‘poet Laureate of Twitter’ might have a way with brevity. Prudence Ivey

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Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny (Lexey Swall)
Katherine Heiny (Lexey Swall)

The plot sounds like a stereotypical romcom – schoolteacher Jane moves to a tight-knit place in Michigan and falls for a charming but commitment-shy man called Duncan, only to find out that he’s slept with every woman in town. But the way Katherine Heiney tells this story is completely original, acutely observed and an unmitigated joy to read. Over 17 years we follow their relationship through some unpredictable and often heartrending twists. Heiny wears her considerable talent lightly, her writing creates a sense of place, is frequently hilarious and also able to make you cry with a few carefully chosen words. Too often, female protagonists can fall into types but Jane defies this. Even the subplots are brilliantly drawn, full of believable, complex characters. It lifted my mood and I missed the characters once I had finished – I highly recommend it. Susannah Butter

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