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6 January 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:47am

The most anticipated fiction of 2021

The literary highlights of the year ahead, from family sagas to historical fiction.   

By Leo Robson

The year in which a book is published can be arbitrary at the best of times, and it’s clear we aren’t living through an ordinary year. A sizable number of titles that are coming out in 2021 were originally slated for 2020, and some have carried copyright pages to that effect. To present forthcoming fiction releases, therefore, as if they constitute a precise or cohesive portrait is even more of a stretch than usual.

Still, the majority of trends exceed any 12-month period – the taste for the saga, for example, which continues to show amazing durability. Jonathan Franzen has announced a saga-series – questionably entitled A Key to All Mythologies, and moving from the Vietnam War to the present day – of which Crossroads (Fourth Estate, October) is the first part. Also using the family unit to explore shifting mores are Damon Galgut, writing about South Africa in The Promise (Chatto, June), Sunjeev Sahota, covering India in China Room (Harvill Secker, May), and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who follows Fleishman is in Trouble with another, albeit larger-scaled, tale of New York life – Long Island Compromise (Wildfire, June).

Family dynamics of the narrower kind remain a hardy perennial, whether it’s father-son in Richard Powers’s Bewilderment (William Heinemann, September), mother-daughter in Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta, April), or mother-son-and-stepdaughter in Jessie Greengrass’s The High House (Swift, April).

The boom in historical fiction continues apace. The legacy of mid-century fascism looms in David Peace’s Tokyo Redux (Faber, June), Patrick McGrath’s Last Days in Cleaver Square (Hutchinson, May), Agustín Fernández Mallo’s The Things We’ve Seen (Fitzcarraldo Editions, March), and Red Milk by the Icelandic writer Sjón (Sceptre, May). The erasure of female experience is remedied in Jeet Thayil’s response to the Gospels, Names of the Women (Jonathan Cape, March) and Pat Barker’s latest rewriting of Homer, The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton, August), while Pip Williams’s Dictionary of Lost Words (Chatto, April), already a sensation in Australia, tells the story of a lexicographer’s dissident daughter.

Two writers celebrated for their debuts are making an overdue return with historical-feminist exercises: Maggie Shipstead, after eight years, tells the story of a female aviator in The Great Circle (Doubleday, May), and Rivka Galchen, after 12, visits the 17th century in Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (Harper Perennial, June).

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A number of the most exciting first novels come from writers distinguished in other forms, whether the story collection, as in the case of Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill (Faber, May) and Chris Power’s A Lonely Man (Faber, April), the story-cycle with Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19 (Jonathan Cape, September), poetry with Sam Riviere’s Dead Souls (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May), non-fiction with Lisa Taddeo’s Animal (June), or, in the case of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus), memoir, poetry, and the literary essay. Notable debuts from British and Irish authors deal with themes of trauma, ennui and authenticity: Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water (Viking, February); Rebecca Watson’s little scratch (Faber, January); Amber Medland’s Wild Pets (Faber, July); and Acts of Desperation by the NS columnist Megan Nolan (Jonathan Cape, March).

It’s a strong year for books that qualify as events. There are new novels from the authors of the two most popular British thrillers in recent memory: Paula Hawkins, who wrote The Girl on the Train, returns with A Slow Fire Burning (Doubleday, August), and Richard Osman has already written a sequel to The Thursday Murder Club (Viking, September). And it seems as if all the most garlanded English-language writers of the past decade are bringing out new books: Colm Tóibín surveys the life of Thomas Mann in The Magician (Viking, September), Colson Whitehead continues his historical accounting of black America in Harlem Shuffle (Fleet, September), Jon McGregor writes about an Antarctic expedition that goes wrong in Lean Fall Stand (Fourth Estate, February), and Edward St Aubyn tells the story of a group of friends in transition in Double Blind (Chatto, March), while Benjamin Myers is bringing out Male Tears (Bloomsbury, April), his first story collection.

Elizabeth Strout continues her Lucy Barton sequence with Oh William! (Viking, September), while Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Faber, May) and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star (Harvill Secker, August) mark their authors’ departure from a successful recurring character.

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Then there’s Klara and the Sun (Faber, March). The story of an Artificial Friend nervously awaiting her customer, it qualifies as that all-too-rare thing, a new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and appears to qualify as something even rarer: a new novel by a Nobel Prize winner that merits the description “eagerly awaited”. But it just so happens that Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel in 1986, is bringing out Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth (Bloomsbury, date to be announced), his first foray into fiction for almost 50 years.

Publication dates may change

See also: The essential non-fiction books of 2021​

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control