Like many others, my reading patterns in 2020 altered considerably, both in terms of the volume (a big drop) and the types of books I found myself drawn to. Whilst I haven’t quite managed to get back to my pre-pandemic reading levels, I discovered some fantastic books in 2021. Here are my favourites:
Perhaps my favourite read this year was The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (2020). Wood’s previous novel, The Natural Way of Things, made one of my earlier ‘best reads in’ lists. The Weekend has a very different feel, but is again centred around women. Three women in their seventies meet following the death of the fourth of their friendship group, Sylvie; over the course of several days clearing out Sylvie’s house, the knots and intricacies of a decades’ long friendship are revealed. Through Wood’s spare and compassionate prose, what remains unspoken is as important as what is said. This short novel captured my heart; months after I finished reading, I found myself thinking about the characters, and what might have happened to them beyond the last page.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, but no doubt through coincidence of publishing schedules, I read two standout novels this year which directly involved mysterious pandemics. In Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind (2020), strangers find themselves thrown together in an isolated holiday home when a mysterious event appears to have brought down power – and connectivity – across the US east coast. I read this early in the year and looking back now, this novel holds a dreamy, surreal quality in my memory; at the time of reading, the astute social observations and the gorgeously witty writing had me spellbound.
I loved fierce, belligerent, don’t-give-a-toss narrator Jean in The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean Mckay (2020). Even more so, I loved Mckay’s depiction of Sue the Dingo. For anyone interested in non-human sentience this is an innovative, fascinating and deeply humane novel, exploring the possibilities of communication between human and non-human animals not only philosophically but linguistically.
Another Australian novel that stood out was The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (2020). Arnott’s fractured narrative is set against a non-specific backdrop of ecological and societal breakdown, beautifully interlaced with speculative elements (one coastal community depends upon its relationship with a giant squid, whose ink has particularly valuable properties). Arnott is brilliant on ambiguity; in this world there are no true winners or losers, and character assumptions are continually overturned.
Amidst another year of extreme weather and more evidence of the unfolding climate breakdown and biodiversity crises, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) was an important book for me. If you’ve ever lain awake at night thinking how the hell do we get out this mess, Robinson’s at times hopeful, at times heartbreaking, and inspirational novel offers one pathway forward. A reminder that humanity does have the knowledge and resource to create a healthy and equitable world, for humans and for non-human animals, if only we can find the political will. See also: wildlife cruises by solar powered airship (sign me up, please).
My non-fiction reading continued along a general vein of nature and wildlife writing; I’ve found the balance between fiction and non-fiction reading has shifted to a more even split over the last two years, no doubt in part influenced by research for various writing projects.
Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here (2021) was written in the aftermath of Sethi experiencing a vicious racist attack, and weaves reflections on place, nature, identity and belonging against the backdrop of her hiking journey across the Pennines. A beautifully written and deeply moving memoir which unpicks our connections with each other, with the natural world and our place within it, and reinforces the importance of nature as a source of solace and strength, if not always healing, when we are most vulnerable.
Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (2018) is another passionate memoir, chronicling the creation of an urban wildlife garden amidst a sea of cement; a book about loss, recovery, finding chinks of hope in the midst of the biodiversity crisis. This was a source of inspiration which I’ll be taking into my gardening efforts for the next year and beyond.
Finally, I saved myself a fiction treat for the end of year. I have loved Megan Abbott since discovering her 2016 novel You Will Know Me, which explores competitive teenage gymnastics. Her new book The Turnout (2021) takes on the hothouse of the adolescent ballet world and did not disappoint. This meticulously unfolding psychological thriller is a great reminder that character is at the heart of all the best stories.
I’m saying goodbye to 2021 with a stack of new books that I can’t wait to get stuck into. Here’s hoping reading – among other things! – is on the up again next year, and wishing you happy and inspirational reading in 2022.