As mentioned in my previous post, my One Outstanding Read of The Year for 2021 was Maryam Diener’s Beyond Black There is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad (2020), a work of fiction written in the first person, a novella that stays true to the life of Iranian poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad.
Heartfelt, illuminating, inspiring, a beautiful telling of an exceptional life.
Top 10 Fiction 2021
If you’ve seen that post, you’ll have seen that I read books from around the world, so no surprise that my Top 10 Fiction reads come from 9 different countries. In no particular order, but grouped thematically, here are my favourite fiction reads of the year, click on the title to read the original review:
Native Wisdom and Legacy from the Antipodes
1. Potiki by Patricia Grace (NZ) (1986) – First published in New Zealand 35 years ago and now published in the UK as a Penguin modern classic, the timeless narrative of Potiki is a demonstration of the clash of cultures, of the native against the coloniser, of the attempt to maintain a way of life that is perceived as backward against the encroachment of a capitalist driven greed that is willing to use whatever means necessary to get what it wants.
Through thoughtful character creation and storytelling around Hemi and Roimata’s tangata whenua (family) and their circumstance, it infiltrates the cultural differences and attitudes that exist and how the actions of those in power with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.
A tour de force, I absolutely loved it. A classic indeed.
2. The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) (2019) – Coincidentally, shortly after reading Potiki, I picked up the award winning Australian contemporary novel The Yield, which tells a layered story of the Aboriginal connection to the land, their language and customs.
A story told in three voices and narrative perspectives, Grandfather Poppy’s voice speaks from the past, sharing words in a dictionary he was creating. Threaded throughout the text, his words preserve a culture, they are evidence that a civilisation existed, one that was threatened with extinction. His granddaughter has returned from abroad and is trying to save the family from eviction. And the Reverend’s letters from the 1800’s which shed light on the past.
African Appreciation and Perspective
3. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon/US) (2021) – With a not dissimilar theme, set in an(y) African village, Mbue’s characters are named after actual cities and towns. It is the 70’s and the inhabitants are suffering ill health from the effect of pollution of the water table, so they decide to address the local leadership.
The story, narrated through different members of Thula’s family and the collective “we” of her friends, follows each generation’s attempt to seek justice and retribution, and the increasing complexity of resistance, as the narrative moves from the past up to the present.
An allegory for all those without political influence living with the damaging effects of the disrespect of the land, the Earth, of not seeing her as the Mother or our connection to her; it’s an absolute must read, sure to become a classic.
4. The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda/UK) (2020) – this was hotly anticipated given her debut novel Kintu was my One Outstanding Read of 2018 and equally brilliant in its character formation and storytelling. Definitely a favourite author.
Set in Uganda, it is the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, as she becomes aware of a mystery surrounding her birth. Of a silence. Her grandmother tells her she has “the original state” of the first woman in her, part of the enigma she will come to understand.
As with Kintu, Makumbi steps beyond colonial influence, almost entirely removing it, to tell an authentic, far reaching story of a primeval culture and its women. In the US, it’s titled A Girl Is A Body of Water.
5. The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia (Nigeria/Canada) (2021) – Set in Nigeria, as the story begins we meet two women Nwabulu and Julie, who will pass days imprisoned together waiting for their families to respond to a ransom request.
The alternating narrative returns us to the beginning, to their separate, contrasting lives, that lead them to this drama, while exploring the influence and impact on them and all women, of Nigerian society’s elevation in importance of “the son of the house“.
It is a clever, very human exploration of class, family lives disrupted, parental influence, the tenacity and resilience of women, of their ‘survive and thrive’ instinct as they navigate a man’s world.
A riveting and insightful read, and an exceptional new literary voice.
Irish Reflection and Resistance to Conformity
6. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2015) – This was my very first book of the year, and one I chose because I adore and still think about and implore people to read her work of nonfiction Handiwork, the first of her books I read in 2020. I was curious to see what Baume’s fiction would be like and what a joyful and unique encounter it has been.
We meet a hermit-like 57 year old man (except I read the whole novel intermittently imagining I’m reading/seeing through the eyes of a character more like Baume) and OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog who he has taken in, who he is thinking and talking to, in this second person “you” narrative. As we get to know him, we learn how out of character that was and the trouble it has caused, while following his road-trip attempt to flee the situation and himself (+ dog) altogether.
It’s a slow unravelling, beautifully written and cleverly constructed journey, with a surprise twist, that was pure joy to read. Reflective, poignant and daring, it’s one you’ll keep thinking about long after reading.
7. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2017) – I can’t help it, she’s become one my current favourite authors, so I end the year reading the 2nd novel by Sara Baume and again have an impression of reading autofiction.
26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and moves home, then a week later into her grandmother’s abandoned, neglected (for sale) home. She’s taking time out, but rather than mope about, takes charge of her situation, starts an art project and tests herself on works on art, remembering.
It’s a novel about a young woman in a transition, learning something about herself, with the shadow and memory of her grandmother over her, healing from life. Extraordinary.
And very pleased to hear a new novel Seven Steeples is due out in April 2022!
Women in Translation
The year wouldn’t be complete without fiction from other countries in translation and though I didn’t read during August’s WIT Month, I did still read a few titles throughout the year and these three really stood out as firm favourites. And not surprisingly, they’re from my three favourite independent presses!
Women Wait for Their Men & The Empty Nest Unhinges Her
8. Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (France) tr. Adriana Hunter (WWI) (2021) Peirene Press – an utterly compelling novella, set in the closing days of WWI that delves into the lives and perspective of a young woman Jeanne and her daughter as they wait for her injured husband to return. He’s been rehabilitating in a facial injury hospital and has forbidden her to visit. Now he returns and we witness the change.
Unlike many war stories, this is not about the active participants, but the unseen, unheard, rarely if ever spoken about, aftermath. Written with profound empathy and courage, it’s intense, riveting and unforgettable.
Inspired by Lozano’s contemplation of The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – it’s the circular loop of the anti-hero story, the inner journey of the one who waits; revealing the way that contemplation and observation reveal understanding and epiphanies. In her notebooks she observes the familiar and unfamiliar around her, sees patterns, imagines connections, dreams and catastrophises. Wild is the Wind.
Odysseus, he of the many twists and turns. Penelope, she of the many twists and turns without moving from her armchair. Weaving the notebook by day, unravelling it by night.
Pure fun, slightly quirky, lightheartedly philosophical, many unexpected laugh out loud moments. Loved it!
10. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italy) (2008) Europa Editions – Last but certainly not least, the only Ferrante novel I had not yet read, and the shortest (so if you haven’t ventured yet perhaps try this before the My Brilliant Friend tetralogy). With the film due to hit the screens, I wanted to read it before being tempted to watch.
For me, The Days of Abandonment was Ferrante’s most intense reading experience, while this novel lulls the reader into a deliciously, false sense of anticipated joy, especially for any women approaching the empty nest era of life and dreaming of an idyllic Mediterranean beach holiday. It’s a story that zooms in on another ‘moment in life’, transition, where freedom and longing clash with frustration and resentment, as subconscious memories (and perhaps unbalanced hormones) project themselves onto the present, inappropriately, dangerously.
It’s both reminiscent and inviting, until it’s disrupted, Ferrante writing is so evocative in creating a sense of place and mood, and getting into the dark shadow mind of her characters.
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Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the above, or share any of your own favourite reads of 2021 in the comments below!
Next up Top Non Fiction Reads of 2021…