Books of the Year 2021: Part Three

Cover image for Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlaneBy May, things were looking up on the out-and-about front. H and I squeezed two holidays into three months, beginning with one in London in mid-May and Sussex at the beginning of July, which may explain the number of novellas in this post beginning with Ailsa McFarlane’s Highway Blue. When Cal turns up two years after walking out with no warning, Anne Marie is wary and with reason. Soon, they’re on the run, one of them having shot dead the man pursuing Cal. As they head south, Anne Marie reflects on her short marriage to a man she loves dearly but who has hollowed out her already troubled life.  An aching loneliness suffuses this bleakly beautiful novella, delivered in uncluttered, brief sentences from which the occasional gorgeous descriptive paragraph shines out.

I’ve been intrigued by Jhumpa Lahiri’s love affair with the Italian language since I read her memoir In Other Words, written in Italian, then translated by Anne Goldstein. Her elegantly slim novella, Whereabouts, was also written in Italian but this timeCover image for Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri translated by herself. It records a year or so in the life of a middle-aged woman who lives on the fringes of other people’s worlds. Her friends envy her quiet, self-contained life, their own filled with the bustle and mess of family. As she walks the streets she’s known all her life, she speculates about the people she sees, embroidering lives for them while they treat her with courtesy but little else. Lahiri slips small details into poetic, impressionistic vignettes so that we come to understand why her character’s life is so circumscribed. In its precise, understated beauty Whereabouts reminded me of Mary Costello’s Academy Street: high praise indeed from me.

May’s third favourite was Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time which follows one of three students who meet in Brussels while Cover image for Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangalon a trompe l’œil course so intense they emerge from it blinking in the light of a world they’d almost forgotten. Paula shares her small apartment with Jonas, the star of the course, barely registering each other for months so immersed are they in sheer hard grind. Kate, a young Scottish woman who will excel at reproducing the most precious of marbles for the rich, makes up the third of the trio. Years later, when Jonas is unable to fulfil a lengthy commission to reproduce the Lascaux cave paintings, he passes it to Paula and with it the chance to lose herself in this most ancient story. Rich in anecdote and erudition, de Kerangal’s novel wears its meticulous research lightly.

My June pick is another novella: Natasha Brown’s Assembly which weighs in at a mere 112 pages. Our unnamed Black narrator Cover image for Assembly by Natasha Brownhas a successful career in finance. This weekend she’s due to visit her white boyfriend’s childhood home. She’s met his parents before, eager to parade their socially liberal credentials, but this is the first time she’s visited their country estate, invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with family and friends. It marks a turning point, a moment at which she’s faced with continuing along the path that leads to assimilation or to reject all that the wealth and status of this family stands for. An extraordinarily impressive, confident and discomfiting debut, so powerful it left me a little breathless.

Leapfrogging July to August with Virginia Feito’s witty, gripping Mrs March, whose strikingly bright jacket with a hint of something nasty caught my eye on Twitter. Married to a successful novelist, Mrs March is beginning to worry about his latest Cover image for Mrs Marsh by Virginia Feitobook which seems to be an unflattering portrayal of her. Despite her fury, she arranges the celebration party for George’s success, passing almost unnoticed among his friends and colleagues. Snooping in George’s study, she spots a newspaper cutting about a young girl who is missing in the small town he and his editor use as their hunting base and jumps to a horrifying conclusion. Beset at every turn by the judgement and gossip of others, or so she thinks, Mrs March begins to unravel in spectacular fashion. Feito delivers her story with a good deal of sly wit but as her character’s grip on reality slips, the tone becomes more sombre. I loved it.

Just one more post to go in which there will be a few more novellas including two on a pandemic theme which I swore I’d avoid but that’s before I knew Sarah Moss had chosen to write on it. If you missed the first two instalments of my 2021 reading highlights and would like to catch up they’re here and here.

26 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2021: Part Three”

  1. Mrs March is a terrific read. I do love a narcissistic narrator! I have Assembly on my TBR so will look forward to reading it soonish. I have 10 days off work at Christmas but can’t go anywhere or visit family because the WA border (internal and external) remains shut but at least I can travel via books.

  2. Mrs March sounds like fun in a dark way! I think I must have missed when you posted about it originally so I’m glad you included it here – one for the wishlist!

  3. I remember wanting to read Assembly after your review, so I’ve just requested it from the library. And I’ve added Mrs. March to my favourites list!

  4. Lovely to see Whereabouts on your list, Susan. It’s one of my books of the year, too – certainly from the ‘recently published’ segment of my reading. Mrs March wasn’t for me, I’m afraid, but we had a great discussion about it in my Zoom book group last night! (I had a lot of sympathy for Mrs M and found her quite tragic despite the dark comedy of the narrative…it’s a great role for Elisabeth Moss.)

      1. No need to apologise at all. It’s an interesting book, just not for me, but some of the other members of the group loved it. We had a really interesting discussion about Mrs March as a character, especially from a psychological POV – and also about the setting. Some of us were thinking 1960s/‘70s while others felt it was more contemporary, early 21st C. An intriguing book.

        1. Absolutely agree about the period. I had the same sense as you but then wondered why when I’d finished it as there’s no explicit indication of that. I think its jacket sets you up for something pre-21st century. Glad to hear you had a good discussion!

  5. I think I say this every year, but I really enjoy the way that you briefly summarize your experiences IRL with your exploration of favourite reads throughout a given year.

    I’ve only read Whereabouts of this group, but I know I’d love them all. Maybe Assembly would be my next pick, for the pleasure of the puzzle-novel(la)?

    1. Thank you, Marcie. Hard to make memories during the locked down periods of the pandemic so tying life to books helped a little with that.

      Highly recommend Assembly. It packs quite a punch.

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