Books of 2021: from Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel to Sabba Khan's graphic memoir

Looking back at a year of books that opened a window into important issues across the planet

Books of 2021 include works by Sally Rooney, Yassin Adnan and Sathnam Sanghera
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Trying to draw broad conclusions about a year in books is fraught with peril, but it’s been fascinating to witness just how many of this year’s best titles have eschewed escapism for something more realistic and contemporary.

From Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Beautiful World, Where Are You to Sabba Khan’s graphic memoir The Roles We Play, the most urgent writing in 2021 not only considered our place in the world but opened a window into important issues across the planet.

Here, across five genres, are the books we’ve loved this year.

Best literary fiction

South African author Damon Galgut poses with his book 'The Promise' during a photocall for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction-shortlisted authors, at London's Southbank Centre, in October 2021. AFP

It might sound obvious to suggest that the Booker Prize winner was one of the standout literary novels of the year, but the way The Promise by Damon Galgut perfectly skewered 40 years in the life of one white South African family, through and after apartheid, was genuinely remarkable. Incredibly perceptive on privilege, sometimes pessimistic yet also enjoyably sardonic, Galgut was a worthy winner of the Booker at the third time of asking.

The Promise wasn’t quite the literary event of the year though; that particular accolade went to Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney’s follow up of sorts to the hugely popular Normal People. Once again featuring two young people battling with the meaning of life, this time Alice and Eileen have moved on from university dramas into the "real" world of political upheaval, work and the climate crisis. Stylistically braver than Normal People – some sections are a series of emails – it confirmed Rooney’s place as one of the English language’s freshest talents.

Copies of Sally Rooney's 'Beautiful World, Where Are You' on display at Waterstones bookstore in Piccadilly, London, in September 2021. EPA

Not all authors have the visibility of Rooney, so it was really cheering that Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men gradually grew in stature throughout the year. The British-Somali author’s fictionalisation of the story of a Somali sailor hanged for a crime he didn’t commit in 1950s Cardiff really struck a chord, and rightly so. A tragic tale leavened by the way Mohamed brought to life the Welsh city’s vibrant, cosmopolitan docklands, full of hope and possibility.

Best thriller

John le Carre's final novel 'Silverview' was published posthumously in Britain in October 2021. The novel centres around an unlikely friendship between a former city banker and a Polish emigre in a seaside town. AFP

This time last year, John le Carre obituaries were being written, but we got to enjoy one last spy caper from the finest thriller writer of the 20th century less than 12 months later. Silverview was classic le Carre and a fitting ending to his career; a bookshop owner meets a Polish emigre who turns out to be an old friend of his father’s – and a former British spy in the Eastern bloc. He soon gets embroiled in secrets that go right to the heart of the secret service, and there’s a superb subtext investigating post-colonial Britain’s continued delusions of grandeur.

Another posthumous thriller took centre stage with the return of Scottish author William McIlvanney’s relentless crime-fighting hero DC Jack Laidlaw. When McIlvanney died in 2015, he left an unfinished handwritten manuscript of Laidlaw's first case, and fellow Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin took on the challenge of completing the case. The Rebus author was the perfect man for the job; fashioning a compelling origin story for a character who would become an inspiration for so many crime writers, including Rankin himself.

From Scotland to India, and though Megha Majumdar’s A Burning wasn’t a thriller in the classic sense, the way it dealt with the trial of a young girl innocently caught up in a Kolkata terrorist attack was as much a propulsive page-turner as a biting social and political commentary on the country in which she grew up. Published right at the start of 2021, it was one of our favourite novels of this year, no matter which genre.

Best science fiction and fantasy

'Bewilderment', a novel by Richard Powers. Photo: WW Norton via AP

Blame climate change and the pandemic, but increasingly science fiction and fantasy are broadening out from genre silos. Certainly having Richard Powers’ Bewilderment on the Booker shortlist was evidence of this, his brilliant exploration of a father-son relationship as imagined and realised in other worlds was, naturally, an insightful and important commentary on our own.

Talking of eco-thrillers, Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel Hummingbird Salamander was set in a near future of climate crisis and drone patrols, where a cybersecurity consultant becomes embroiled in a world of criminal wildlife traffickers and endangered species. A celebration of the wonder of nature it might be, but it’s also a warning that the crises these novels like to speculate about are actually with us right now.

Speculative fiction didn’t get much more entertaining this year than P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, A Master Of Djinn. Set in an alternative, steampunk-esque version of early 20th century Egypt, where djinn live and work alongside people, in Clark’s hands Cairo became a modern, multicultural and forward-thinking city full of magic and mayhem. Most of it happening when a murderer comes up against special investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi from the superbly named Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Great fun.

Best non-fiction

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
by Sathnam Sanghera. Courtesy Penguin UK

Our favourite three non-fiction books this year all made powerful points on the effects of colonialism, racism and migration. Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera was a quite brilliant deep dive into how British imperialism has not only shaped the world but the whole way Britain regards itself. It ended the year as a superb documentary too, as Sanghera found the perfect balance between breezy wit and furious indignation at his country’s “selective amnesia”.

When The National spoke to Sanghera and Anita Sethi, both made reference to Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s famous aphorism, “We are here because you were there.” Sethi’s remarkable blend of memoir and nature writing in I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain was a real accomplishment, as a race hate crime she endured became the starting point for a transformative journey of self-discovery, reclamation and determination across the landscapes of Northern England.

Another memoir crystallised some of these ideas in spectacular graphic form. Sabba Khan’s moving The Roles We Play explored her life growing up in England with parents from Azad Kashmir. In intricate detail, Khan dealt with ancestral ties and racial tension, the trauma of migration and the “beautiful complexity” of the family home. An architectural designer by trade, Khan discussed the importance of space, both physical and mental, and the diaspora experience. It wasn’t the most widely read memoir of 2021, but it was one of the most perceptive.

Best Arab fiction in English

Lebanon's Hoda Barakat, author of 'Voices of the Lost'. Photo: Ipaf

It’s a testament to the power inherent in fiction that many of the most important insights into the ongoing trauma in Syria have come from novelists. This year, Leri Price’s translation of Samar Yazbek’s 2017 novel Planet of Clay felt long overdue. Its depiction of a constrained young girl living in a collapsing city, forced to turn to her imagination to find succour and freedom was, said US National Book Awards judges, “a lyrical and moving portrait.”

Syria was also implicitly referenced in Hoda Barakat’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning Voices of the Lost, translated by Marilyn Booth. Comprising mainly of letters from migrants or asylum seekers from unnamed countries in the Arab world, each letter falls into the hands of another migrant. This chain impels each character to tell their own story of isolation – and these were stories demanding to be heard.

Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan; Translated from the Arabic by Alexander E. Elinson. Courtesy Syracuse University Press

Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan (translated by Alexander E Elinson) was an excoriating takedown of political corruption in Morocco – but a darkly comic ride through modern-day Marrakesh too. We called Hot Maroc a “rich, panoramic portrait of a fascinating city”, its misfit protagonist who turns from slum child, to university student, to villain and then security services operative always an intriguing proposition.

Updated: December 20, 2021, 5:11 AM