It’s time again for Tim (aka #LibrarianHusband) and me to give you our top ten books of the year for 2021. As always these are selected from books we read this year – 95 for me and about 50 for Tim. And as always it was such a hard decision. I had thirteen on my longlist, but was determined to reduce it to ten, so three beloved books were taken out.
One of my books – Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – was an audio book, so I’ve mocked up an actual book in the photos. And Tim and I shared one book in our top tens – Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. The Gloaming by Melanie Finn is called Shame in the UK.
If you’re interested in buying any of the books in Tim’s or my lists then, I’ve set up a Bookshop.org list, so that UK readers will be able to buy them easily while supporting UK independent bookshops. Readers in other countries will have to find the books themselves, but I do urge you to use your local independent or Bookshop.org rather than Amazon.
My Top Three (in no order)
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
It’s not possible to say too much about what happens in the novel without spoiling things, except: a white middle-income family, rent a remote airbnb holiday home a little way out of NYC for a week. Only a couple of days into their holiday the black, wealthy, owners knock on the door and say there is a power-outage in NYC and ask if they can they come in. Although the power in the holiday home is still on, the Internet and TV are down and so there is no way of checking what is happening in the rest of the world. I loved the mix of literary with horror with a pace that story that starts slowly and builds.
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J Ockenden
This book crept up on me until I absolutely loved it. An old hermit lives in a remote shack in the Italian Alps. He forgets things – has he already walked down the mountain to the shop or not? He meets a dog, and the dog begins to speak. It’s not whimsical, but this dog is funny; this dog made me laugh out loud. They’re snowed in over winter and when finally they can go outside again they see a human foot sticking up out of the snow.
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut
This calls itself a novel, but the character’s name is Damon, and it feels very autobiographical in the way that real life will meander and not really have any resolutions. Damon, the central character relates three journeys and experiences from a distant future point. As with The Promise (which won the Booker Prize) he slips between first and third person naturally, gracefully. There is very little dialogue, and a lot of wandering around, but for all that there is so much tension, so much anxiety for the reader. In the first journey Damon walks in Lesotho with a German he doesn’t know very well and discovers he doesn’t really like. In the second he meets a group of Swiss friends and travels with them through Africa, always on the edge of something that is never quite achieved. And in the third he travels to India with a self-destructive woman whom he finds he cannot handle. Magnificent.
And the rest:
The Gloaming by Melanie Finn (called Shame in the UK)
My perfect kind of novel. Beautiful writing, with every sentence crafted and considered, but with a gripping story and characters. In Switzerland, Pilgrim’s husband leaves her for another woman and shortly afterwards she has a terrible car accident, the consequences of which reach far across the world. She turns up in Tanzania, traumatised and guilty, waiting and watching for when her shame will catch up with her.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard
Oh my, this was so good. A cross between Under Milk Wood and Lanny. Welsh village life with all its death, desertion, gossip, madness, and joy. Lyrical and sometimes mystical its unnamed narrator goes out one moonlit night and remembers his past. The end is shadowy and shocking. It was first published in 1961 in Welsh, and this translation is by Philip Mitchell. How have I only just have heard of this?
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
I’d read this snippet of dialogue before, but hadn’t realised it came from this book, which is a collection of family pieces Jackson wrote for women’s magazines in the ’40s and ’50s. Jackson is being admitted into hospital for the birth of her third child:
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
. . .
“Husband’s name?” she said. “Address? Occupation?”
“Just put down housewife,” I said.
The whole thing is wonderful. Jackson is at her most observant and funniest. I’m sure it’s a highly idealised view of her life with young children (in fact having read both biographies about Jackson, I’d say it definitely is), but there are just so many perfect moments, so acutely observed.
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry
Filled with loners, edge-of-society types, and those trying to find their way, this short story collection is rich with unforgettable characters. The young woman waiting in the van for her boyfriend to come back from robbing a petrol station, or the character wooing a woman from Eastern Europe, or the man who is sexually alluring to women only in the house he inherited from his uncle – are all going to stay with me. Plus, Barry’s nature writing is stella. (This is a collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other.)
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash
Another short story collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other, and it was perfect! So many brilliant stories, brilliantly written. My favourites: In The Trusty, a convict on a chain-gang escapes and is double-crossed. In A Sort of Miracle, two lazy young men are embroiled in a plan to catch a bear. And in Three A.M and the Stars were Out, an elderly vet (in both uses of the word) visits his farmer friend who he was with in Korea, to help him deliver a stuck calf. They are all moving, witty, and I know this shouldn’t really matter with a short story – but a perfect length for reading to each other. (And I’d also recommend Rash’s collection, Burning Bright.)
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Oh my goodness, this book. What a book. Densely poetic, stuffed with ideas and knowledge, rather experimental in structure, enigmatic with much of the story. And heart-breaking. I listened to it (read in a beautiful slow Canadian drawl by the author) and I immediately bought a physical copy so that I could go back and reread sections.
Book 1 is Jakob Beer’s memoir, not finished because he dies in a car crash (easy to miss this and get confused). He describes in snippets of circular memories how when he was seven he was rescued by Athos after his parents are killed by the Nazis and his sister taken. Athos takes Jakob to Greece and hides him there before the two of them move to Canada. There is lots more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Book 2 is narrated by Ben – often writing ‘to’ Jakob – and details his life as the son of parents who survived the Holocaust.
It’s about love and memory, fathers and sons, inherited trauma and so much more.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
I loved this slow unfolding of the history of a marriage. Nothing but Blue Sky is quiet and thoughtful and very moving. I listened to the audio version, beautifully narrated by the Irish actor, Stephen Hogan. In the slight present-day story David has returned to Aiguaclara, a small Catalonian resort where he has holidayed for the past twenty years with his wife Mary Rose. Except that Mary Rose died in a plane crash about a year ago, and David has decided to return to this place – so familiar and yet now, without her, so different. David remembers his marriage, examines his and Mary Rose’s differences, what they each hoped for, and what they both loved. He recalls his own difficult childhood and Mary Rose’s family. There is nothing here that is surprising or terribly shocking, and I loved it.