So many books, so little time.
There’s an abundance of brilliant new novels arriving in bookshops this year, including a wave of exciting debuts. We’ve put together our edit of the most unmissable fiction hitting shelves in 2021, from Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, to help you curate your reading list.
The Promise by Damon Galgut
Third time’s the charm: Damon Galgut has scooped this year’s Booker Prize, after previously being shortlisted twice before. Already described as a masterpiece in a ream of ecstatic reviews, his latest novel explores the fallout when a white South African family break a promise to a black woman who works for them.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
The long-awaited third novel from Sally Rooney is finally here. Featuring a young, prodigious and phenomenally successful novelist who hates fame (sounds familiar), it’s been met by a mixed reaction. Some, including our reviewer Claire Allfree, noted that Rooney’s writing feels newly self-conscious, seemingly disillusioned by the novel form. That, of course, won’t stop it flying off the shelves; the book received one of the biggest publication day launches since Harry Potter.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hypnotic, mysterious and melancholy: all the hallmarks of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel are here in his latest, even if it is a book about creepy AI robots moving into our houses. It’s narrated by Klara, an ‘artificial friend’ to frail Josie, with dashes of The Remains of the Day in its study of service, and Never Let Me Go in the questions it grapples with regarding science and the soul.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
In poet Patricia Lockwood’s Booker shortlisted first novel, a woman becomes famous because she once tweeted ‘can a dog have twins’. It begins as a razor-sharp satire of the surreal vortex of the internet and social media - described in the novel as ‘the portal’ - before being disrupted by a life-changing offline event.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
The most recommended book of the summer, and with good reason. Meg Mason’s novel about mental health, marriage and sisterhood is told in a singular voice of wry wit and blackly comic frankness. One of those ‘read it in one sitting and tell all your friends’ kind of books.
Luster by Raven Leilani
Zadie Smith used to be her teacher, but now Raven Leilani is thrilling readers with her own debut novel. Told in dry, direct prose, it follows Edie, a young black artist who becomes involved with an older white couple, and was named winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize earlier this year.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s gripping second novel is the frontrunner to pick up this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Telling the story of the divergent paths of two black twins, one of whom passes for white, it is both a compulsive pageturner and a book with important things to say about race and identity. HBO has already snapped up the screen rights for a reported seven-figure sum.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
A new book by Katherine Heiny is a very happy occasion, and her latest explores love and relationships in a small town. Like Elizabeth Strout after three shots of tequila.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The 2020 Booker Prize winner has been something of a crowd-pleaser, generally agreed to be a Very Good Book by critics and readers alike. Set in 1980’s Glasgow, it’s about a young boy coming to terms with his sexuality and trying to support his alcoholic mother. Bleak but brilliant.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
Sarah Moss’s slim novel about a set of holidaymakers stuck inside because it won’t stop raining reads like a set of immaculate, interconnected short stories. From the frazzled mum who feels lost when given the gift of an hour to herself, to a young couple setting themselves lofty sexual goals, it builds up to a picture of a confused, fragmented community.
Three Rooms by Jo Hamya
Resigned to renting forever and feeling guilt every time you buy a cup of coffee? You’ll want to read Jo Hamya’s urgent and intelligent debut, about a woman despairing at the nomadic life forced on her by an unstable jobs market and a broken housing system. She’s desperate to put down roots - and also mildly embarrassed about that. A vital look at the precarity felt by many millennials.
Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee
In this dystopian vision of the near-future, sea levels are rising, temperatures are rocketing, and everyone else is moving inland. Except for families given government grants to move to Margate. This story of a teenager’s seaside self-discovery set against the backdrop of collapse has been described as both a great coming-of-age story, and a warning.
The Lock In by Phoebe Luckhurst
This hilarious debut from the Evening Standard’s Features Editor will give you all the lols you need this summer. A highly relatable comedy about flatmates, hangovers and terrible landlords, it’s already been described as the most original rom-com of the year.
Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel
It’s 2009, and two art students arrive in Berlin from New York - one is consumed by grief for a murdered friend, the other is fascinated by Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and the ruthless world of fame. They find themselves renting an apartment from an oddball crime writer and seemingly becoming the inspiration for her next book. We’re sold already.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
A white family arrive at a luxurious, remote holiday home for a week of glorious disconnection, and disconnection is very much what they get. Within hours, their idyllic break is disrupted by a black couple knocking on the door with news of a power outage. They say the home is theirs and are looking for shelter; suspicion and panic begins to fester. You’ll race through this uneasy read.
Mrs March by Virginia Feito
This noir-ish debut is part Mad Men, part Shirley Jackson, and features one of the most beguiling narrators you’ll have read in ages. Mrs March’s immaculate life starts to fragment when someone assumes her husband’s latest novel - about a prostitute - is inspired by her. Elisabeth Moss is a fan, and is already set to produce a big screen adaptation in which she’ll play Mrs March herself.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Torrey Peters’ writing feels like a raucous gossip sesh with your cleverest and most quick-witted friend. With lightning pace and miles of wit, her Women’s Prize long-listed novel follows a trans woman’s search for motherhood, and ends up re-imagining what a family can be.
The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore
This year’s Desmond Elliott Prize winner has been described as the best historical novel since Wolf Hall - lofty praise indeed. It’s the debut novel from poet AK Blakemore, and takes readers back to the Essex Witch Trials of the mid-1600s, exploring historic misogyny and abuses of power.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
“Sally Rooney meets Michaela Coel meets Teju Cole,” said the New York Times of this debut novel from 25-year-old writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson, which tells the story of two Black British creatives falling in love.
Learning to Swim by Clare Chambers
If you loved Small Pleasures, last summer’s word-of-mouth hit, there’s good news: two of Clare Chambers’ previous novels have been reissued with gorgeous new covers. Fans of escapist family sagas will love Learning to Swim, about a bohemian family who end up in suburbia.
Jane is Trying by Isy Suttie
The first novel by comedian Isy Suttie, best known for playing Dobby in Peep Show, is about a thirty something woman with a lot on her plate, including but not limited to trying for a baby and understanding why everything makes her anxious. Difficult subjects are tackled with tenderness and Suttie’s characteristic funny knack for observation.
Heatwave by Victor Jestin
At just over 100 pages, this prize-winning French novel is a short, sharp shock of a read. An awkward seventeen-year-old boy on a camping holiday leaves his tent and is faced by something horrific - and then does nothing. Translated by Sam Taylor, who brought Leila Slimani’s debut Lullaby to English readers, Jestin has been described as the modern day successor to Françoise Sagan.
True Story by Kate Reed Petty
Stephen King, but make it feminist: this audaciously ambitious page-turner straddles genres to try and navigate memories of a traumatic sexual assault. Deserves to be read by many more people.
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
Rachel Yoder’s debut, about a young mother who seems to be turning into a dog, is getting critics excited. The spiritual successor to Angela Carter?
Everyone is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink
In her acclaimed memoir, The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about losing her brother after a tragic accident. Her first foray into fiction is marked by loss, too: protagonist Juliet and her family move into her late mother’s home after she dies.
The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
The latest novel from the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas focuses on one family who find themselves at the mercy of a social media storm. Inspired by Boyne’s own experience of an online backlash to his recent YA novel, My Brother’s Name is Jessica, it might be cathartic reading for anyone who is starting to get stressed out by Twitter.
The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill
This novel from Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill starts with a woman who can hear a low hum that causes her nosebleeds. Her husband can’t hear it, but she starts to find a community of others who can, and a story unfolds that grapples with conspiracy theory culture in modern America.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
There’s been a lot of praise for this book about a group of septuagenarian life-long female friends, who get together to clear out the home of Sylvie, who has recently died. A perceptive look at ageing and what keeps us connected with one another.
Men in My Situation by Per Petterson
Women are dominating the literary fiction market at the moment, but this latest novel from Norwegian writer Per Petterson offers a rare insight into male vulnerability, focusing on a man who finds himself increasingly isolated after a series of losses.
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South
These highly contemporary short stories explore how we use technology to avoid our own feelings (put the Instagram feed down). South is one to watch - her stories have been featured in the New Yorker, and The Atlantic has described this collection as “deft parables about the false protection of machines.”
The Making of Mrs Petrakis by Mary Karras
A woman flees war-torn Cyprus in the 1970s to begin a new life in London, opening a bakery that ends up becoming a hub for the Greek Cypriot community. An evocative mix of history, food and storytelling.