Books of 2021: eight new releases that critics loved
Remarkable reads from the past 12 months, featuring both novels and non-fiction
Klara and the Sun
The Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest is narrated by an “artificial friend” – a robot which provides companionship to lonely children. Klara starts out as a product in a shop window, and is then picked out by a teenager named Josie.
Through Klara’s non-judgmental consciousness, we come to understand that the world we are living in is both deeply chilling and strangely familiar: children stay at home all day, working on portable “oblongs”; fascism is on the rise; and parents pay to have their children’s personalities “lifted”. The book earned considerable praise for its unshowy prose and plausible rendition of robot intelligence.
“[Klara] is a robot with brilliantly realised human observations and, convincingly, emotions. It’s wonderful.” (Melvyn Bragg, New Statesman)
“Pulls off the clever trick of making a reader fall in love with a robot while warning against the encroaching impact of Big Tech on the individual soul.” (Claire Allfree, The Times)
“[Its] hushed intensity of emotion confirms Ishiguro as a master stylist.” (Ian Thomson, London Evening Standard)
Small Things Like These
This novella confronts the horror of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries – the Church-run establishments where, until as late as the mid-1990s, thousands of “fallen women” were incarcerated.
Set in 1985, the book opens with coal merchant Bill Furlong making a delivery to his local convent, and discovering a freezing, barely conscious girl talking incoherently about “my baby”. He is tempted to raise the alarm, but suspects such a course will harm his family. The novella tracks his anguished dilemma. Critics proclaimed it a profound and devastating work – though a few felt the ending tipped over into sentimentality.
“Keegan is an exquisite writer, who can enclose volumes of social history in one luminous phrase.” (Hilary Mantel, New Statesman)
“Its balance of crystalline language and moral seriousness makes it profoundly moving.” (Damon Galgut, The Observer)
“With deft, powerful economy it takes us to 1980s Ireland and a small town where big secrets are withheld – and where silences are often more brutal than anything said.” (Frederick Studemann, Financial Times)
Damon Galgut’s novel, which won this year’s Booker Prize, is a multi-generational saga about a well-off Afrikaner family who live on a farm near Pretoria. Manie, the patriarch, once promised the family’s long-serving black maid, Salome, that he would give her the deeds to the modest property she lives in. But neither he, nor his children, honour this pledge – and as various family members meet untimely ends, the betrayal comes to seem like a curse.
In their generally ecstatic response to the novel, critics singled out Galgut’s innovative narrative technique and his scathing deconstruction of white complacency.
“Damon Galgut is the most worthy winner of the Booker Prize we’ve seen for many years. The book trembles in the hand with its political relevance.” (Rose Tremain, New Statesman)
“The label ‘masterpiece’ is far too liberally applied these days, but I did think Galgut’s book was deserving of it.” (Elizabeth Day, The Observer)
“The Booker Prize-winner is a novel of substance. A complex, clever, wryly observant tale of one family’s decline amid a nation’s birth.” (Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times)
Edited by Simon Heffer Hutchinson
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries, 1918-1938
Henry “Chips” Channon was a handsome, snobbish, bisexual American who moved to England after the First World War, married a Guinness and became a Tory MP. In his diaries, which he kept all his life, he cattily pronounced on high society and recorded his sexual exploits.
When they were originally published, in 1967, the diaries were heavily bowdlerised; now, we have Simon Heffer’s unexpurgated three-part edition – of which this is volume one. Channon held many repellent opinions – he was anti-Semitic and hero-worshipped Hitler – but critics unanimously agreed on one point: his diaries are tremendous fun to read.
“The character that emerges from these diaries is, by turns, nosy, touchy, needy, conceited, snobbish, disloyal, wrong-headed voyeuristic, sycophantic and shifty – all of them qualities most helpful to a great diarist.” (Craig Brown, The Spectator)
“These are the uncensored, unvarnished thoughts of one of the 20th century’s greatest diarists. He is a little monstrous, but redeemingly self-aware.” (Iona McLaren, The Daily Telegraph)
Patrick Radden Keefe
Empire of Pain
This book tells the story of the family business behind OxyContin, the painkiller that kickstarted the US’s opioid crisis. The Sacklers, founders of Purdue Pharma, always knew OxyContin was highly addictive, but as Patrick Radden Keefe shows, they concealed this, and marketed their product as a miracle pill.
The epidemic it spawned caused hundreds of thousands of deaths – yet no Sackler has ever been prosecuted, and their multibillion-dollar fortune remains intact. The book, which won this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize, has widely been heralded as a fearless feat of investigative reporting.
“I couldn’t put [it] down, even though I already knew the details of the story. An elegantly written investigative narration… a portrait of greed, corruption and reputation laundering.” (Roula Khalaf, Financial Times)
“A meticulously researched, gripping and fury-inducing tale. Read it and rage.” (Tom Knowles, The Times)
“A terrific dynastic tale that begins with poor immigrants in Brooklyn and ends with entitled billionaires who whine about being social lepers.” (Ian Birrell, The Spectator)
Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel, like his 2001 bestseller The Corrections, is a portrait of a dysfunctional Midwestern family. Set in the early 1970s in a fictional Illinois town, it centres on five members of the Hildebrandt clan: Russ, a liberal pastor, his downtrodden wife and their children. The family’s crises are set against the backdrop of larger upheavals: the Vietnam War and changing mores.
Although several critics described this as one of Franzen’s best, praise wasn’t universal: some found the plotting cumbersome, and some of the younger characters a little one-dimensional.
“After all the attacks from people suspicious of high-minded white male authors of the old school, Franzen [is] the literary equivalent of those footballers who do all their talking on the pitch.” (James Walton, The Spectator)
“The joy of this novel is to be found in the warmth, humour and piquancy of its character studies… it’s his best book yet.” (Laura Battle, Financial Times)
“Wins us over with its array of social pratfalls and a cast of warm, well-drawn characters. It is a pure pleasure to read.” (Xan Brooks, The Guardian)
Gwendoline Riley’s novels are all rather similar: they are short, bleak, unsettling, written in the first person, and focus on the inner lives of women. Her sixth examines the strained relationship between Bridget, an academic in her 40s, and her twice-divorced mother Helen. The portrait of Helen, with her “expectant look” of “mulish innocence”, is brutal but funny: in her daughter’s eyes she is a pitiable figure, incapable of real connection.
Critics praised the novel for its mordant wit and the precision with which it dissects family dynamics.
“A distilled psychological tour de force from an exceptional writer. Riley has a mic’s ear for feeble gags, absurd catchphrases and pretension.” (Madeleine Feeny, The Spectator)
“Anyone with a mother ought to read My Phantoms. It mines the same narrow, dangerous territory as Beryl Bainbridge and Ivy Compton-Burnett: the dysfunctional family unit.” (Olivia Laing, The Observer)
“The dialogue is superb – there’s always a tragi-comic gap between what is being said and what’s really going on. I love Riley’s merciless wit.” (Johanna Thomas-Corr, New Statesman)
Realising that, like many British people, he knew relatively little about the nation’s imperial past, the journalist Sathnam Sanghera set out to educate himself. The result is this ambitious book, which analyses how empire worked and also sets out to understand its lingering impact on the country’s culture and politics.
Sanghera is an even-handed guide – he acknowledges the good as well as the bad of empire – and his book is fascinating. Reviewers praised his writing and his lack of dogmatism, but some said Sanghera was too determined to see the influence of empire in every aspect of national life.
“An illuminating examination of the toxic cocktail of nostalgia and amnesia that still influences our life today.” (Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Observer)
“I spend my time trying to help resolve armed conflicts from Myanmar to Nigeria that are largely caused by the crass errors of our ancestors. It helps to understand how those came about.” (Jonathan Powell, New Statesman)
“It’s so refreshing to encounter an author who isn’t so bloody certain about everything.” (Gerard DeGroot, The Times)