Books of the Year 2021: Part Four

We’re on the final straight which is chock full of novellas crammed into October and November thanks to my new found (relative) freedom Cover image for Matrix by Lauren Groffwhich included a week in Edinburgh and another short break in London.

I was in two minds about accepting my first October pick. Lauren Groff’s Matrix is a reimagining of the life of Marie de France which didn’t seem quite up my alley but I was proved wrong. Ugly, lanky and illegitimate but with royal blood running through her veins, 17-year-old Marie is sent to a destitute abbey by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine with whom she is in love. She has no belief in God, is angry and wants nothing more than to return to court but she’s accomplished and practical enough to restore the abbey’s fortunes, winning both loyalty and fear from the women she regards as her daughters who stifle their doubts and worries about the projects provoked by her visions. Marie’s vivid story is told in almost stately prose, lit with flashes of gentle humour. Given my reluctance to read historical fiction, I’m surprised at how much I loved this accomplished piece of storytelling.

I swore I wouldn’t read a pandemic novel then ended up reading two in quick succession. The first was Sarah Hall’s Cover image for Burntcoat by Sarah HallBurntcoat which neatly steers clear of our own pandemic, telling the story of a sculptor who survives the novavirus but knows that her time is limited as she contemplates the loss of her lover just as they were beginning to explore a life together. Halit had returned from a foray for supplies during lockdown badly beaten and infected by a mob intent on looting. Years later, as her symptoms reassert themselves, Edith sets about assembling the national memorial she’s been commissioned to deliver. Hall tells Edith’s story in a long series of short, richly textured paragraphs, often completing them with an image or an idea which stopped me in my tracks. I found it powerful, moving and oddly comforting.

Cover image for Oh William! by Elaizabeth StroutOctober’s third favourite was Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! which renewed my acquaintance with the eponymous narrator of My Name is Lucy Barton who has unexpectedly bumped into her first husband a year after she’s been widowed. William has his own problems and is about to accumulate more: his wife has left him, taking their ten-year-old daughter with her. Before she went, Estelle gave him a subscription to a genealogy website which delivered a bombshell. He asks Lucy to accompany him to Maine where he wants to meet the family he had no idea he had, a trip which will unsettle them both.  As ever, Strout’s writing is subtle, her characters complex and her themes are deeply human, although it has to be said that while I love Lucy but my heart belongs to Olive.

My second pandemic novel was Sarah Moss’ The Fell, a sweet surprise as Summerwater was published less than 18 Cover image for The Fell by Sarah Mossmonths ago. It takes place over a single night during last year’s November lockdown when Kate breaks quarantine desperate to be outside. She and her son live in the Peak District next door to Alice. They’ve looked out for her through the pandemic knowing that she’s shielding but now they’re social isolating. Kate longs to escape her constant money worries and the rehearsals of her many mistakes, leaving the house at sunset without her phone, intending to return before long but then she falls and a long night of worry, regret and fear begins. The Fell’s narrative flits in and out of its characters’ heads as the night unfolds, the perfect device for a novel set during lockdown when many of us spent so much time with our preoccupations.

Just two November favourites, both novellas appropriately enough given Novella November co-hosted by Rebecca and Cathy whose praise for Claire Keegan made me read Small Things Like These. Set in 1985, it follows timber and coal merchant Bill Furlong Cover image for Small Things Like These by Claire Keeganwho finds himself faced with a moral dilemma. Bill has lived in New Ross all his life. His illegitimacy marks him out but he’s done well thanks to the generosity and kindness of Mrs Wilson, his mother’s employer. On the Sunday before Christmas, he delivers a load to the local convent and makes a dreadful discovery. There’s long been gossip in the town about the young girls taken in for ‘training’ in the convent laundry, often pregnant when they arrive, but the people of New Ross have looked the other way. Keegan tells her story from Bill’s perspective, a decent man well aware that life would have been very different had it not been for Mrs Wilson. In its lyrical yet spare descriptions and in its empathetic compassion, Keegan’s writing reminded me of both Colm Tóibín’s and John McGahern’s, two of my favourite writers.

My last 2021 favourite is Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s My Monticello, set against a backdrop of race riots and climate change, perhaps an appropriate choice for the year of COP26. Johnson’s debut follows Naisha who, with her grandmother, boyfriend and assorted neighbours, flees Charlottesville heading to Monticello, home to her ancestor, Thomas Jefferson and his manyCover image for My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson slaves. At first, the group stations itself at Monticello’s welcome pavilion, unwilling to breach this bastion of the nation, but as the days wear on they make their way up the hill to the house. The tensions that play out between them resolve themselves into a cooperation which is at first wary then generous. Johnson handles her subject deftly, telling her story in vivid prose against a backdrop of social disintegration, pulling the thread of suspense taut as the novella edges towards its conclusion.

And if I had to choose? Impossible as ever but it’s a toss up between Assembly, Whereabouts, Luckenbooth and Lean Fall Stand.

Thanks to those who’ve stuck with me through all four posts. There’ll be a couple more reviews this week but most of the rest of this year will be about looking forward to the bookish treats on offer in January 2022. Meanwhile. If you missed the first three instalments of my 2021 reading highlights and would like to catch up they’re here, here and here.

34 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2021: Part Four”

  1. I’ve just finished Burntcoat and thought it was so powerful in so few pages. I started Oh William a few months ago and must get back to it….. meanwhile I have the Moss and the Keegan on order from the library, very much looking forward to both. Thanks for another great year of reviews, Susan – wishing you a wonderful festive season and see you in 2022! X

    1. I was so impressed with Burntcoat, Liz. I’m sure you’ll love the Moss and Keegan. All three are brilliant examples of the power of the novella. Thanks for your kind words – I hope you have a lovely Christmas and New Year xx

  2. Great choices once again. I have Matrix in my TBR pile and hoping to read it over Christmas. I recently finished Small Things Like These and I’m still wondering how I’m going to write a review that does justice to it.

  3. Sounds like I’ll need to move Assembly up the list.
    I usually publish my ‘best of’ on Dec 30/31 (and read right up to the last moment). I’ve had a quick look over what I’ve read this year – a couple of stand-outs but not as many books that I’ve been pushing on others.

  4. As always, I really enjoyed the “round-up” & look forward to catching up on my clicks for the other three sections. I have several of these works sitting on the shelf (so many books etc) but the only one I’ve actually read is Oh, William, which I’d definitely put high on my own “best of 2021” list. Although I’m a fan of Lauren Groff’s (I’ve read a couple of her previous novels) I’ve been a little resistant to The Matrix, as I have difficulty seeing this particular writer doing a medieval setting. Your reaction to it, echoed in lots & lots of glowing reviews, is convincing me that I’m mistaken and should give it a shot. I was only vaguely aware of Keegan’s Small Things but you’ve made it sound so interesting I’ve decided to give it another look!

    1. Pleased to hear you’re reconsidering Matrix. I felt exactly the same about the period setting but I’m very glad I got over that. And the Keegan is a beautiful piece of writing.

  5. I read Small Things Like These yesterday afternoon, what an excellent little novella I was very impressed. Oh William and The Fell are both very much on my radar. Another great selection of books.

  6. I’ve seen so many of these books enjoyed by others – not necessarily my cup of tea but I appreciate reading about them, even if I only end up recommending them to others. Thanks for the round-ups!

  7. Small Things Like These snuck onto my wishlist when you and a few others all reviewed it in #NovNov. So by my reckoning you’ve now added three to my pile in the last week – I’m kinda glad your Best Of series is over! Now I have to gird my willpower to resist your lookahead… 😉

    1. I spotted Matrix on Obama’s books of the Year, too. We’re in good company! Both Small Things and Assembly are gems in very different ways, aren’t they. I can’t wait to see what Brown comes up with next.

  8. Having resisted it for so long, I feel I need to steel myself and read the Keegan, mostly because so many writers have named it as one of their books of the year in the broadsheets. I know I’ll love the style, but it’s the topic that worries me….

    Thanks for all your reviews this year, Susan. Wishing you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead!

    1. If it’s any consolation, Jacqui, Keegan handles her subject with sensitivity and compassion.

      You’re welcome! Reading and blogging have helped keep me grounded through the past two years, not least the virtual social contact with other bloggers. Have a lovely, restorative break and here’s to a better year in 2022.

  9. Like you, I was unsure about the setting for Matrix, but I should have known that Groff would pull it off.

    I’m saving that Elizabeth Strout. I’ve been thinking about collecting up her books to keep on hand for rereading (although I don’t have that many authors’ complete works on hand in such a small storage space): her worldview warms me.

    Have thoroughly enjoyed reading through your favourite picks: here’s to 2022!

    1. Ah, I have a patchy record with Groff plus that period setting but I’m so glad I overcame my reservations.

      Strout’s one of those quietly brilliant writers, isn’t she. I’m so glad she’s finally broken through to readers her in the UK.

      And thank you, Marcie. Wishing you the very best for 2022, in reading and in life!

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