2021 reading list: 20 anticipated books to look out for this year
The search for voice and identity as well as social and climate issues rule in this list of reads
A new year always brings with it the excitement of literary superstars returning with new books – and 2021 is no different, with the arrival of novels by Jhumpa Lahiri and Kazuo Ishiguro – but possibly more intriguing this year is the amount of novels that speak directly to the present and future; debut novels from Hafsa Zayyan, Zakiya Dalila Harris and Patricia Lockwood all grapple with fractured (and sometimes digital) worlds, race and identity. That’s also reflected in Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc and even Nadia Owusu’s memoir Aftershocks. It feels like 2021 will be the year the globalised 21st century is properly chronicled by disparate, talented writers who are finally finding their voice – and an audience.
It’s great to see Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lahiri writing novels again; one of the most adept chroniclers of the Indian immigrant experience in America is back with Whereabouts (Knopf, April 27), her first in English since 2013’s Booker-shortlisted The Lowland. This one is slightly different though. Set in an unnamed Italian city, the story follows a woman as she walks its streets on a journey through loss, hope and fury – which Lahiri wrote in Italian and translated herself.
Another literary heavyweight is back in March. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 follows an artificial being called Klara who longs to find a human owner. Klara and the Sun (Faber & Faber, March 2) is being touted as a tender but unsentimental look at what it means to love.
Before then, Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan returns with the magical realist The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Chatto & Windus, January 14). Australian reviews of this eco-drama, where a dying mother is a metaphor for a country beset by bushfires, praised its balance of vehemence and beauty. A wake-up call wrapped in a novel.
Similarly concerned with contemporary issues, Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road (Bloomsbury, January 21) is a piercingly clear look at a modern world grappling with immigration and history in post-Brexit Britain, through the prism of a couple on the verge of making life-changing decisions. Exploring otherness and the borders between men and women, nations and families, it’s edgy, unsettling and yet incredibly sensitive.
And if, after all that, you need a readable epic to luxuriate in, try Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday, May 25). A daredevil aviator on a mission to fly pole to pole goes missing in the 1950s after crash-landing on ice. Half a century later a troubled Hollywood star is slated to play her in a biopic – but becomes obsessed with finding out more about her life.
Shipstead’s tale of two women in search of freedom should be a cracker.
Arabic fiction in English translation
It might seem premature to be talking of prize winners already, but Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost (Oneworld, February 4) can already bask in acclaim; the Lebanese novelist’s profound story of six strangers looking back on an unnamed homeland torn apart by war won the International Prize For Arabic Fiction in 2019. Marilyn Booth’s beautiful translation builds on the fascinating structure; Voices of the Lost comprises a collection of confessional letters revealing dark secrets that have unintended consequences.
Staying with former IPAF nominees, Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc made the longlist in 2017, and this translation from Alexander E Elinson (Syracuse University Press, May 14) wittily conveys the dark humour in the original as Rahhal gets embroiled in the murkier depths of Marrakesh’s online communities, where politicians get mixed up with hackers and trolls. A really interesting insight into how young Moroccans live their lives, there’s fascinating social commentary alongside the satire.
Moving to Egypt, Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping (Two Lines Press, June 8, translated by Robin Moger) dives deep into Alexandria as a journalist, Seif, meets a mysterious exile who guides him through the more fantastical elements of Egypt post-Arab uprisings. All of which helps Seif work through his own traumas in this intriguing combination of the personal and political.
Before then, Sahar Khalifeh’s eagerly awaited My First and Only Love will finally be published on Tuesday (Hoopoe, translated by Aida Barnia) – 10 years after the original Arabic version told the story of Nidal, who returns to Nablus in Palestine and looks back on her country and life in the final days of the British Mandate. Weaving in exile, love and resistance, it’s a typically poetic and emotional take on Palestinian history from Khalifeh.
Finally, a couple of short story collections to look out for. The next in Comma Press’ brilliant Reading The City series is The Book of Ramallah (February 18). The anthology, edited by Maya Abu Al-Hayat, features 10 translated short stories from established and emerging Palestinian writers – including 2018 IPAF winner Ibrahim Nasrallah – looking at life in the West Bank. And on April 15, Packaged Lives: Ten Stories and a Novella (Syracuse University Press), from Iraqi-Kurdish author and activist Haifa Zangana, will be translated by Wen-chin Ouyang. Investigating the meaning of home and identity, Iraqis living in exile battle with being “caught between two worlds.”
A new year always brings exciting new authors, and we’re particularly looking forward to Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (Scribner, January 21), a powerful story of three disparate people in contemporary India who are brought together after a terrorist attack. Published early in the US (where Majumdar now lives), it became an immediate bestseller – a state of affairs likely to be repeated across the world.
Taking a similarly global view is Hafsa Zayyan; We are all Birds of Uganda (Merky, January 21) moves between 1960s Uganda and present-day London as it investigates racial tension, family, religion and identity through beautifully drawn characters. Zayyan, incidentally, was the first winner of rapper Stormzy’s Merky Books New Writers’ Prize.
Uganda also features in Neema Shah’s debut, Kololo Hill (Picador, February 18). Amid the expulsion of the Asian community by Idi Amin in 1972, Asha and her family have to leave “everything behind except the devastating secrets that threaten to tear them apart.” It’s a very personal story for Shah – her grandparents left India to build new lives in East Africa, her parents later moving to England.
You can imagine Stormzy also approving of Zakiya Dalila Harris’ first novel, The Other Black Girl (Bloomsbury, June 1). There was a proper publishing industry scrap for this book, which follows Nella and Hazel’s experiences of the sinister forces at play in the “starkly white” New York office in which they work. No surprise, then, that this important contemporary tale has already been optioned for a television series.
And there’s a similarly uncomfortable skewering of the modern world at play in Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury, February 16), the poet and memoirist creating a brilliantly irreverent protagonist whose internet persona comes into uncomfortable and poignant contact with real life.
We all have our resolutions, and if yours is to read or write more, start with George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury, January 12), a wonderful exploration of “writing, reading and life” in which the Booker Prize winner shows how fiction can change our sense of self.
The debates surrounding the effects of colonialism show no signs of abating; in fact, they’re becoming more polarised. So Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (Penguin, January 28) feels vital; a look at how most of the everyday elements of modern life (in Britain but transferable everywhere) have their foundations in hidden imperialism.
Staying in Britain, we’re really excited by Shrabani Basu’s The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer (Bloomsbury, March 4); a fascinating real-life tale of an Indian family who turn to Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle to help solve a mystery when their son is wrongly imprisoned for mutilating horses in an English village.
The memoir attracting all the interest is Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks (Hodder & Stoughton, February 4). She’s already lived an incredible life; abandoned by her mother in Tanzania when she was two, she grew up in Rome, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, Kumasi, Kampala and London – and it wasn’t long before such dislocation tore her apart. Aftershocks chronicles how Owusu put herself back together, her story also reflecting the globalised but fractured 21st century.
With climate change likely to be high on the political agenda, Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Penguin Random House, February 16) will probably be one of this year’s bestsellers. Subtitled “The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need”, it’s actually a hopeful, proactive book from an innovator who has the ambition (and means) to meet net-zero emissions.
Updated: January 3, 2021 12:21 PM