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17 November 2021

Books of the year

New Statesman writers and guests choose their favourite reading of 2021.

By New Statesman

Hilary Mantel

In the 1990s Musa Okwonga was a Ugandan scholarship boy at Eton, the school that turned out scores of politicians as well as Bertie Wooster and Captain Hook. His memoir, One of Them (Unbound), sheds light on the present disconnect between those who govern and those who suffer the consequences.

Claire Keegan’s novel, Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber), wastes not a word in its depiction of a small Irish town guilty of collective blindness about the nuns who run a “training school for young women”. Keegan is an exquisite writer, who can enclose volumes of social history in one luminous phrase.

Ian Rankin

Hyde by Craig Russell (Constable) is set in 19th-century Edinburgh, where a detective called Hyde must hunt a ghoulish, possibly occult serial killer while wrestling with demons of his own, including mood swings and blackouts. It’s an ingenious slice of gothic that does something new with the Jekyll and Hyde trope. Hyde is the best Scottish crime novel of 2021, according to the McIlvanney Prize, but I won’t hold that against it…

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In The Beresford by Will Carver (Orenda Books) a maze-like boarding-house becomes a scene of carnage as the tenants are dispatched in grisly fashion one by one. What is going on and who can bring an end to the bloodshed? Carver writes in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, but with added grue. Shocking, compulsive and persuasive. It’s one hell of a ride for those of a mind to jump aboard.

Bernardine Evaristo

Joelle Taylor has produced one of the most astonishing and original poetry collections of recent years. C+nto & Othered Poems (Westbourne Press) is a partly autobiographical exploration of the lives of butch lesbian counterculture. It challenges imprisoning notions of womanhood by celebrating and foregrounding those who face a hostile society when they are only being true to themselves.

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Also taking us into new literary territory are two impressive debuts. Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin) zooms in on the lives of young black men on the south London housing estate of his own childhood; while Caleb Azumah Nelson’s first novel, Open Water (Viking), is a short, poetic and intellectual meditation on art and a relationship between a young couple, which also has Peckham and south London as its primary backdrop.

Ed Smith

I read Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus) and The World According to Colour by James Fox (Allen Lane) in tandem – it was like watching two great and complementary half-backs in rugby. Jones drives his story upfield. Empires come and go, religions form and break up, ideas clash and mingle – 1,100 years, 16 sweeping chapters, 700 pacey pages, and. . . he’s done it, arms aloft, he’s scored under the posts. Masterly, muscular and direct – Gareth Edwards in full flow.

In contrast, Fox glides into intellectual spaces; colour becomes a philosophical feast – astrophysics, the origins of civilisation, a palette of moral associations. Though dazzling, everything has a point: when Fox shoots, he scores. You never see it coming, then suddenly all the pieces fit together as though they were meant to be – Barry John, running into space.

Philip Pullman

In 2009 Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary, a densely researched and entirely thrilling examination of the difference between the two kinds of thinking typical of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Now comes his new book, The Matter with Things (Perspectiva Press), which takes that basic idea much further and demonstrates, with an immense range of learning and beautifully clear prose, how important it is to be aware of the whole and not merely the parts, how analysis should come after insight and not before it, how right-hemisphere thinking, with its openness to experience, is a better guide to reality than the narrowly focused, rule-based way the left hemisphere regards the world.

I have spent a decade absorbing the vision of McGilchrist’s previous book; I shall be happy to spend the rest of my life with this one, and still be learning things when I get to the end.

Damon Galgut

Most of my reading is retrospective, which is to say I don’t read a lot of stuff that’s been recently published. I like to wait for the dust to settle. But Claire Keegan’s new novella, Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber), is absolutely exquisite. Her work is exceptional.

I really liked Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber). I think she’s a marvellous writer. She used the scenario of an unnamed plague and the lockdown it sets up to create a psychological mystery. We’re probably going to get a whole new genre of Covid fiction opening up, and Hall is right at the vanguard.

Marina Warner

As we lived isolated in lockdown, I found Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (Faber & Faber), about an “Artificial Friend” destined for “a slow fade”, uniquely poignant as well as prescient. The pandemic cut short the run of The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree (Camden Arts Centre London), but the curators, Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark, produced a feast of a book exploring the visionary tradition across continents and centuries. In Swirl of Words/Swirl of Worlds: Poems from 94 Languages Spoken Across Hackney (Peer), the poet and editor Stephen Watts draws us into hear the city’s magnificent hubbub.

David Hare

Ninth Street Women (Back Bay) is 700 pages long, so you need lots of time – not just to read but also to think. Mary Gabriel recreates that extraordinary moment in the 1950s in Greenwich Village when Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner were all young painters who came upon unforeseen fame and fortune. The book is both entertaining and inspiring.

Raven Leilani, in her debut novel Luster (Picador), makes fun of super-smart people being perverse. I’m not sure I wholly understood her intent, but oh my goodness, the writing is beautiful.

John Gray

The book that engrossed me the most this year was Continents of Exile (Penguin Modern Classics), the 12-volume memoir of the Indian-born writer Ved Mehta (1934-2021), who lost his sight at the age of three after suffering from meningitis and went on to try to live as far as possible as a fully sighted person. The series seems to me one of the supreme works of modern autobiography. Much of it has to do with a sense of homelessness, but Mehta’s story is full of the joy of life. I followed him through his early years with his family in India to a school for the blind in Arkansas, then to Pomona College in California, Balliol College, Oxford, Harvard and his 33 years as a writer for William Shawn’s New Yorker. Mehta’s turbulent romances and years of psychoanalysis, his travails building a house on an island off the Maine coast and the hidden side of his father that came to light at a New York party complete an absorbing account of an astonishing life.

Mark Cocker

Great field guides are a rare species but at their best they are portals to a richer relationship with the rest of life. It is exceptional that two such groundbreaking books have appeared in a single year. Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop, and Paul Brock’s Britain’s Insects: A Field Guide to the Insects of Great Britain and Ireland (both Princeton University Press) are models of compression, synthesising a mountain of fresh data in an easy-to-use format. But they are also beautiful to hold and to ponder and each is a glorious piece of political advocacy for its chosen organisms.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

I was proud of the shortlist we judges chose for the 2021 International Booker Prize, but there were books I loved that didn’t make the cut. Among them were A Perfect Cemetery (Charco Press) – a collection of haunting, witty stories by the Argentinian writer Federico Falco – and Philippe Claudel’s Dog Island (Maclehose Press), a parable about modern migration that is also the kind of detective story that Mikhail Bulgakov might have written: visionary and darkly humorous.

My favourite novel of the year, though, is a re-issue, Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). A book as outrageous and clever as its teenaged heroine, it is fiercely gothic, constantly surprising and wildly funny.

Mark Haddon

I’ve been unwell for the past year and reading has been often impossible. Consequently I am more than usually grateful to the few books that drew me in and held me. The Prophets by Robert Jones Junior (Riverrun) is a gripping, luminous novel about the many tangled lives on a Louisiana plantation, centring on two enslaved teenage lovers, Samuel and Isiah. Reviews invoking Toni Morrison were absolutely justified.

The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb (Profile) is a thrilling history of our rapidly expanding understanding of the brain, made even better by having no theoretical axe to grind. It also explores the fundamental role of metaphor in neuroscientific theory – the brain is a system of hydraulics! The brain is a telegraph network! – and the unique challenges faced when trying to understand an object that is like nothing else in the universe.

Jason Cowley

I admired the cool, restrained style of Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies (Jonathan Cape), which probes the tangled emotional life of a young unnamed American-Japanese woman working as a translator at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. It is less a novel than an exercise in self-erasure, mysterious and compelling.

I loved Jonathan Bate’s Bright Star, Green Light (William Collins), a deeply romantic exploration of the work and parallel lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald, both destined to die young and both enraptured by beauty and beauty’s inevitable loss.

Ali Smith

It’s quite hard to get hold of a copy of Eileen Agar’s memoir A Look at My Life (Methuen). It was published in 1988 and I read it this year when I couldn’t get to London to see the Whitechapel retrospective of her work. But what a book. Spirited, funny, candid, as irreverent, textured and cornucopic as her art. It begins: “Head first I tumbled out of my mother in December 1899.” It ends: “I hope to die in a sparkling moment.” Agar makes a fleeting appearance, too, in Jennifer Higgie’s brilliant The Mirror and the Palette (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), which reveals an until-now hidden history of women’s self-portraiture and is pretty cornucopic itself, a gift that keeps on giving.

But my book of the year is a debut, a slim collection of poetry called Forty Names (Carcanet) by the young Afghani poet Parwana Fayyaz. “No one ever wanted to know/what the real story was.” As clear as unruined water, as courageous as a poet can be in these times, as haunting as the “brutal history” it records and as marvellously summoned as the lives it celebrates, it’s a calm reclamation and a tour de force.

Nicola Sturgeon

Spanning the globe and a century, Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday) is an epic tale of daring and adventure. The character and determination of two fearless women, living in different times but connected by fate, is as inspiring as it is entertaining. I hugely enjoyed this novel.

I love everything Colm Tóibín has written and The Magician (Viking) is another masterpiece. The rise of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Second World War are viewed through the eyes and experiences of the complicated and multilayered writer and Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann. Historical fiction at its best.

Preti Taneja

Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film (Dialogue Books) – a novel about cinema, age, gender, fame and creativity infused with the spirit of Federico Fellini and Luca Guadagnino – stole my heart this year. Set during an international film festival as a jaded director is about to launch his masterpiece – and told in the first person as an extended conversation over a few nights – it captures a sense of the fragility and intimacy of human endeavour, but also the silence and resilience needed to survive as a woman, a man, as lovers and as artists in a market-driven world. Lola Olufemi’s Experiments in Imagining Otherwise from the independent Hajar Press is also an extraordinary book – written with compassion, fearlessness and determination to imagine a more equal world into being. A joy to read and to think with.

Jim Crace

William Palmer’s In Love with Hell (Robinson) is a masterful insider’s account of how alcohol ruined and sustained the careers of 11 writers, including Kingsley Amis, Dylan Thomas and Jean Rhys (with whom I endured an intoxicating lunch in 1974). It is a both sad and joyful reminder of why the British pub is such a lure but also why, once trapped inside, it is mostly wise to stick to just a single pint. It also led me to the works of the greatest of all celebrants of bars and booze, Patrick Hamilton. Is there a kinder, wittier, sharper, tipsier novel than his wartime masterpiece, The Slaves of Solitude?

Alan Johnson

It’s amazing how eruditely Robert Douglas-Fairhurst manages to illuminate our history through a microscopic focus on one brief period. The Turning Point (Jonathan Cape) transports us to 1851. The book’s principal subjects are Charles Dickens as he embarks on Bleak House, and the Crystal Palace, first assembled in all its sparkling glory for that year’s Great Exhibition.

Since the publication of Failures of State (Mudark) in March the government’s maladroit handling of Covid-19 has been exposed by Dominic Cummings (willingly) and Matt Hancock (less so). No account can match this forensic analysis by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnot, who have presented us with a disturbing first draft of history.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 is the backdrop for The Turning Point: A Year that Changed Dickens and the World. Image by IanDagnall Computing / Alamy

David Reynolds

In Devil-Land: England under Siege, 1588-1688 (Allen Lane) Clare Jackson offers a bracingly revisionist view of our history in the century after the Armada. Viewed from across the Channel, “Angel-Land” during this century of succession crises, religious turmoil, civil wars, regicide and republican government looks like a “failed state” teetering between comedy and tragedy. You may not buy the whole argument, but after reading Devil-Land “this sceptered isle” and “demi-paradise” is unlikely to look quite the same ever again.

Paul Collier

The book that members of the Labour Party most need to read is The Dignity of Labour by Jon Cruddas (Polity). He understands why Labour has lost the trust of the working class: why isn’t he in the shadow cabinet? Turning from politics to ideas, the new book that I have found most insightful for my current research is Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain (Profile). It recounts how analogies between the brain and the fashionable technology of the era – ours being the brain as a computer – have repeatedly sent neuroscience down rabbit-holes.

Melissa Harrison

Literature lovers like me are fond of saying that reading promotes empathy; it feels true, though you might struggle to prove it. However, The Devil You Know (Faber & Faber) by the forensic psychiatrist Gwen Adshead with Eileen Horne has permanently recalibrated my empathy dial. As she helps offenders understand and take responsibility for their actions in the wake of terrible crimes, Adshead quietly, humanely shows us that people remain people, despite their actions.

In its aftermath I read Gordon Burn’s unforgettable Happy Like Murderers (Faber & Faber), about Fred and Rose West, and thought about the professionals tasked with working with them. I hope they were supported in turn.

Geoff Dyer

Harald Jahner’s Aftermath (WH Allen) is a transfixing account and subtle analysis of Germany after the Second World War has ended. A scrupulous investigation of the past, it reads, constantly, like a prelude to what is still unfolding. But the greatest joy this year has come from my belated discovery of the dark, light, unexceptional and exquisitely twisted world of Elizabeth Taylor, starting with A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel and continuing apace. A shame that the pretty and bland covers of the latest Virago reissues of this perennially under-rated writer do little to lure new readers into the skewed delights within.

Sue Prideaux

Locked down, I craved perilous adventure. Julian Sancton’s The Madhouse at the End of the Earth (WH Allen) delivered. The Belgica’s 1897 South Pole expedition is pure horror. Clueless captain, rat-infested ship frozen into the ice, scurvy, darkness, hunger, insanity. Last-ditch escape! Young crewmember Roald Amundsen assumes captaincy and dynamites a channel through the ice! No wonder he stuffed Scot. Terrific stuff.

So is Looking for Trouble (Faber & Faber), the memoir of the trailblazing war correspondent Virginia Cowles. Taking tea with Hitler, gossiping with Winston Churchill, eating reindeer with Finnish guerrilla skiing squads, reporting on everything objectively. Her writing is sparkling; her life, seen from envious lockdown, completely thrilling.

Roald Amundsen, the first mate of the Belgica on its 1897 South Pole expedition. Photo from Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Rowan Williams

For me the choice is already made in any year in which a new book by Alan Garner is published. Treacle Walker (Fourth Estate) is very much in Garner’s “late style” – spare and allusive (a wealth of folkloric hinterland), luminous and understated. It’s about seeing and healing; any more by way of summary would be useless. Nigel Tubbs’s Socrates on Trial (Bloomsbury) is also about these things, and is also built mostly through dialogue. It’s an impassioned challenge to the stupidities of current educational practice from the UK’s best educational philosopher, and it nails the basic problem as lying in our obsession with “property” – the myth of knowledge as something we own and trade. Human freedom is the liberty to learn, and, in the process, to be dispossessed of this fiction. Tubbs argues this with astonishing subtlety and nimbleness.

Colm Tóibín

Derek Mahon’s The Poems 1961-2020 (Gallery Books), published a year after his death, displays a rich talent, formalist and casual, witty and melancholy, minimalist and expansive. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber), written with precision and rhythmic care, is a story about an ordinary life in a small place and slowly becomes a brave and piercing exploration of a most difficult public matter. The Works of Guillaume Dustan Volume 1 (Semiotext) contains three short, engrossing novels that centre on sharp and accurate descriptions of gay sex, the sensibility and inner world of the protagonist emerging richly, by implication. This is a great book for gay boys on winter nights.

Gary Younge

Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men (Viking) is an elegant portrayal of life in the racial, cultural hub of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the early Fifties. Eschewing a simple morality play for complex vivid characters, it centres on the plight of Mahmood Mattan, who finds himself in the shadow of the hangman’s noose for a murder he didn’t commit. Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal (Guardian Faber) sat on my shelf for far too long because I thought I knew the story. I didn’t. At least, I had not sat with it beyond the news cycles for the length of time necessary to witness the full scale of the injustice unfold in a single narrative thread. A book that keeps you informed and makes you angry.

Joan Bakewell

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen by Linda Colley (Profile) is an account of how constitutions have come about through history and is written with Colley’s usual erudition, insight and style. She transforms what sounds like the dry matter of paper documents into an enthralling account of how warfare, national identity and colonial exploitation follow each other in the emergence of constitutions across the world. A work of thrilling scholarship.

Spike: The Virus vs the People by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja (Profile) tells how the news of Covid-19 first reached the world’s scientists, how the pandemic unfolded and how governments reacted and failed to cope. It reads like a thriller.

Colin Kidd

How many serious books on politics are pitch-perfect comic classics? Until this year I could think of only two: Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook and Christopher Hood’s analysis of buck passing, The Blame Game. But these are now joined by Michael Wolff’s Landslide (Bridge Street Press), an account of the last days of the Trump presidency. The humour in Luttwak and Hood derives from the authors’ wry subtlety of approach. Wolff, by contrast, is the vessel into which the Trump White House’s chaotic, Marx-brothers cast of panicked but competitively craven staff and hangers-on copiously leaks. Amid the anarchic din, however, Wolff demonstrates exquisite Groucho-like timing.

Frances Wilson

Two bespoke studies of literary prophets stand out this year. Alex Christofi describes Dostoevsky in Love (Bloomsbury) as a “reconstructed memoir” in which he blends Dostoevsky’s “autobiographical fiction with his fantastical life”. Crafted with novelistic skill, it is a book to fit the vast complexity of the man and his work. In William Blake vs the World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), John Higgs argues that we have absorbed Blake into our national consciousness without having the faintest idea of who he was or what he believed in. Higgs’s mission, to return to the cockney visionary and his essential strangeness, is Blakeian in its singularity.

Ian Leslie

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) consists of close commentaries on short stories by Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol, based on a creative writing course he teaches. Saunders approaches the stories as a fiction writer, not a critic, gently illuminating their mechanics without diminishing their magic or mystery – and crucially, the stories themselves are included. Saunders is warm, playful and acutely perceptive, and even when I disagreed with him I was grateful to him for making me pay such close attention to these inexhaustible works.

This year I re-read White Noise by Don DeLillo (Picador) and marvelled at its uncanny blend of ironic commentary on our media-saturated world with deeply felt lyricism about marriage and family. Above all, it made me laugh; few great novels are as funny.

Sandeep Parmar

Three books that redefine what life writing means this year are Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion (Granta), Fred D’Aguiar’s Year of Plagues (Carcanet) and Preti Taneja’s Aftermath (Transit Books, to be published in the UK by And Other Stories in 2022). Sy-Quia’s bold Künstlerroman mesmerisingly transports us across continents and through the longing of diasporas, arriving in England, a “deep bone-knowing country/Albion”. D’Aguiar’s electric prose vividly recounts a cancer diagnosis and treatment in the Covid year, a private suffering amid a collective one. Taneja’s brave and haunting retelling of the terror attack at London’s Fishmonger’s Hall in 2019 intermingles a clear-eyed understanding of the roots of terror with personal stories of those involved.

I’m also deep in Polina Barskova’s Air Raid (Ugly Duckling Press), translated by Belarussian-American poet Valzhyna Mort, which retells the Siege of Leningrad with breathtaking interventions into history, silence and the violence between

Peter Wilby

David Kynaston’s On the Cusp (Bloomsbury), the latest volume in his marvellous series on post-1945 Britain, recalls the state of the nation in 1962 when the country was outside the EU but aspired to join. He skilfully captures the sense of new horizons being glimpsed as Britons struggled to escape the long shadow of the Second World War. And the state of the nation now? For that, I turned belatedly to Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England (Penguin), published in 2018. Nothing has yet surpassed Coe’s evocation of the sour, restless, resentful mood that, in contrast to the spirit of the 1960s, led Britain to turn inwards.

Elif Shafak

Hassan Akkad’s Hope Not Fear (Bluebird) is an extraordinary story that deals with the urgent issues of our era, including the Syrian War, systemic torture and dehumanisation ongoing in countries where authoritarianism has taken hold. Akkad also takes on the tragedy of the refugee crisis, the pandemic and its social repercussions, and the layers of xenophobia, racism and inequality in societies. But it is also a story about resilience, renewal and humanism.

I also recommend Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden (John Murray), the director of the Bodleian Library. This fascinating and moving book should be read at schools and translated into languages all around the world. In a digital age that abounds with snippets of information, this is a glorious celebration of physical libraries and nuanced knowledge

Alexander McCall-Smith

A scientific meal this year: Richard Dawkins writes with admirable clarity and Jana Lenzová illustrates in much the same way. Their collaboration bears fruit in Flights of Fancy (Head of Zeus), a masterly investigation of all aspects of flight, human and animal. This is a beautifully produced book that will appeal across age groups. And as a second course, Madelaine Böhme’s Ancient Bones (Greystone) is a gripping account of how early hominids may have evolved in Europe: a controversial thesis, but one that could change our ideas of where we came from.

Stuart Maconie

I began listening to Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury) on audiobook at bedtime but soon found that it was simply too mesmerising, funny and strange to ever lull me to sleep. What begins as “fantasy” becomes, in a series of hints and echoes and rug-pulling revelations, a detective story, a satire and a witty take on male egoism. Daring and dazzling stuff.

Paul Morley’s writing has been delighting and exasperating me since his NME work in the late 1970s. His biography of Anthony H Wilson – TV presenter, music entrepreneur and evangelist, provocateur – From Manchester with Love (Faber & Faber) is by far his best book; the narrative of the man’s life keeps Morley’s wildly digressive style taut(ish). It is not just a “biog” but the story of a city’s history and culture and a unique and disappearing figure: the engaged working-class intellectual challenging the dominance of entitlement and privilege with wit and aesthetics.

Johanna Thomas-Corr

It was a wonderful year for novels about ugly mother-daughter relationships. Gwendoline Riley specialises in savage emotional reckonings and in My Phantoms (Granta) we hear the story of Bridget, who has been keeping her perpetually disappointed mother, Hen, at arm’s length ever since she left home. The dialogue is superb – there’s always a tragi-comic gap between what is being said and what’s really going on. I love Riley’s merciless wit. Jeremy Cooper’s Bolt from the Blue (Fitzcarraldo) breathes new life into the epistolary novel, with postcards charting 30 years of fraught relations between an earnest artist and her estranged mother, who is “miles more interested in sex than art”. Very little actually happens in either book and yet I was gripped by the way each depicts the psychological battlefield of mother-daughter relationships.

Daisy Johnson

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber) is a slim and beautiful masterpiece exploring art and relationships in a pandemic. I felt it surging over my head, lingering in my dreams, troubling me even when I wasn’t holding it. Hall has always had my heart when it comes to writing about sex and isolation, but here she surpasses even herself.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Viking) is another slight book which wrestles with relationships and art. The voice of the narrator feels almost Mrs Dalloway-esque as it moves around London, fluid and swift. Nelson has, with this novella, put down a new, exciting marker for what fiction can achieve.

William Dalrymple

Alex Renton’s Blood Legacy (Canongate) is a moving, timely, well-written and strikingly thoughtful book that makes an important contribution to the growing debate about the horrors that accompanied Britain’s empire-building. Renton’s remarkably honest analysis of his own family’s slave plantation papers and the darkness they contain highlights our continuing failure to acknowledge the extreme toxicity of so much of our imperial history. It makes a good counterpart to Sathnam Sanghera’s brilliant Empireland (Viking) and, like it, reminds us how deeply impregnated the British present still is with our half-forgotten imperial past.

Better to Have Gone by Akash Kapur (Scribner) is a forensic reconstruction of two deaths set against the background of the flawed tropical utopia of Auroville. It is beautifully written and structured, deeply moving, and realised in wise, thoughtful, chiselled prose. In River Kings (William Collins), the Scandinavian archaeologist Cat Jarman writes about the Vikings with great skill, clarity and narrative drive. Rather unfashionably, Jarman likes her Vikings violent, and her tale – replete with witches, human sacrifice, Greek fire and funeral orgies – is at least as lively as any Netflix Viking romp, and a great deal more intellectually satisfying.

Philippe Sands

In Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury), Carole Angier’s extraordinary detective work on the life of WG Sebald and her strikingly restrained prose combined to have me utterly gripped. I had not fully appreciated the extent to which Sebald’s novels drew on his own life and experiences, and those of others, causing me to wonder even more than I usually do – as a courtroom lawyer – about the fabulous interplay between fact and fiction. Who knows what is real and what isn’t? Utterly brilliant.

Melvyn Bragg

Colm Tóibín has written magnificent fiction and equally magnificent books about writers of fiction. His latest, The Magician (Viking), recreates as biographical fiction the life, thoughts and achievements of Thomas Mann. It is dark, beautifully constructed and, I think, as near as one author can get to entering the mind of another.

In Klara and the Sun (Faber & Faber), Kazuo Ishiguro boldly sets out to create an “Artificial Friend”. She is a robot with brilliantly realised human observations and, convincingly, emotions. It’s wonderful.

Gerry Brakus

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Amma, the seventh and final chapter of the photographer Vasantha Yogananthan’s stunning long-term body of work inspired by the Indian legend of the Ramayana, A Myth of Two Souls (2013-2021), published by Chose Commune. Yogananthan draws inspiration from the imagery associated with the myth and successfully brings this fascinating 2,000-year-old tale into modern life. In Amma, mixed media photographs layered with brightly coloured paint bring spectacular colour and life to what is already moving and evocative imagery. I’ve also really enjoyed Anna Ostoya and Chantal Mouffe’s Politics and Passions: The Stakes of Democracy (Mack), a charming booklet with textual collages using an essay by Mouffe, a political theorist, in which the writer critiques the politics of neoliberalism and warns of its dangers.

Indian myth and modernity: from Amma by the photographer Vasantha Yogananthan

Brendan Simms

This year marks the centenary of the partition of what were then generally called the British Isles, with borders east-west and north-south. This makes Charles Townshend’s The Partition: Ireland divided, 1885 1925 (Allen Lane) very topical. Paradoxically, as this engrossing book makes clear, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 – which established Home Rule parliaments in “the South” and “the North” – was intended by London not to divide the island but to keep it together. The British government planned a “home rule all round” solution that would enable the 26 counties to remain linked to the rest of Ireland as dominions within the empire. It didn’t turn out that way…

John Burnside

Jonathan Meades’s Pedro and Ricky Come Again: Selected Writing 1988-2020 (Unbound) is a feast of a book, running to more than 900 pages of Meades on everything from politics to mediocrity culture to lysergic acid. Utterly unmissable, wonderfully incisive and funny as hell. In complete contrast, Michael Bracewell’s Souvenir (White Rabbit) offers an impressionistic, lyrical and haunting elegy for a pre-digital London full of fleeting visions and near-hallucinations of lost time, just as the last echoes of modernism faded and the city slid into “a present age made of the future and the past, not the immediate”.

Rose Tremain

Damon Galgut is the most worthy winner of the Booker prize we’ve seen for many years. His novel The Promise (Chatto & Windus) turns around the pledge made by the Swarts, a white South African farming family, to grant ownership of a small house on their land to their long-suffering black maid, Salome. The pledge is never kept and the lives of the neglectful, quarrelsome Swarts fall into ruin. The book trembles in the hand with its political relevance. For a gripping re-read, buy Arnold Wesker’s The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel (Quartet), the story of how a production of Wesker’s play, The Merchant – masterpiece or dud? – was assassinated on the New York stage.

Rachel Reeves

Baroness Hale’s autobiography, Spider Woman: A Life (Bodley Head), is a reminder of the huge but incomplete progress made by women in public life over the past 60 years. The book tells some wonderful stories – of her childhood as a “swotty geek” in North Yorkshire, of a Fleet Street wine bar that banned women from ordering drinks, and of the origins of her spider brooch. Up close, I have been struck by Hale’s humility and intelligence; her practical feminism and commitment to the rule of law. Her intelligence comes from a family that valued scholarship. Her feminism comes from the experience of women being paid less, barred from some jobs and overlooked for others. And her commitment to the law from a deep sense of public service. The willingness to talk truth to power that she has shown is needed now more than ever.

Jonathan Coe

Sometimes the most necessary books turn out to be the ones you didn’t realise you needed. Before reading Patrick Wright’s The Sea View Has Me Again (Repeater) I had no idea that there was a hole in my life waiting to be filled by a 750-page book about an East German writer and his ten-year self-imposed exile on the Isle of Sheppey during the 1970s. But I was entirely captivated by this microscopic, discursive study of Uwe Johnson, a pioneering novelist who crossed the Iron Curtain but declined to fall at the feet of the capitalist West, opting finally to settle himself and his family in Sheerness, apparently on the basis that it was the closest thing he could find to East Germany without the Stasi. It is also a great book about the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, and not a page too long.

Kevin Barry

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is an Irish writer long based in Bucharest who writes short stories steeped in the Russian tradition. Trouble (Stinging Fly Press) is his first collection in 12 years and it is thrillingly good. Every sentence bears tension and weight, and in each story the narrative line feels so natural, inevitable, as if found rather than crafted. Rachel Kushner’s dynamic, incisive and glamorous prose style gives perfect expression to her reportage, essays and criticism, and The Hard Crowd (Jonathan Cape), her first non-fiction collection, is an exciting book. She is a brilliant scenester: she embeds, she writes from the inside out and gives us the true story, the real deal.

Scenester: Rachel Kushner writes from the inside out in The Hard Crowd. Photo by Ann Summa/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Michael Brooks

It would be easy to pick an important science book on climate change or the pandemic, but we’re miserable enough already, aren’t we? My favourite escape from the news cycle this year was Mustn’t Grumble by Graham Lawton (Headline Home). It has a simple but ingenious premise: we’re all a bit ill most of the time, so what exactly is going on with our bodies? Lawton covers the science behind 100 mild ailments, such as sore throats, dead legs, dark circles under the eyes and a cricked neck. It’s not important, but it is witty, compelling and deeply informed: the perfect guilty pleasure.

Melissa Benn

While never attracting a mass following, Vivian Gornick has acquired a kind of cult status among sections of the independent, literary-minded, feminist left. Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in our Time (Verso), a collection of pieces published over the past 40 years, ranges from essays on Herman Melville and Hannah Arendt to a consideration of the “self-absorption” and “emotional stupidity” of that famous trio, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, when it comes to the representation of women. Gornick never deals the simplistic, polemical blow; instead, she mines her own hard-won experience and profound and honest ambivalence about great writers (with great flaws) to illuminate their significance as well as our collective life and times.

Philip Hoare

I find it hard to recommend Michael Bracewell’s Souvenir (White Rabbit) because I wish I’d written it myself. He perfectly encapsulates the transition of pop and art from the mid-1970s to the early Eighties, when shops became clubs and clubs became utopias and “the notion of modernity itself [was] reaching critical mass”. Looking back to deserted London streets – the now shocking notion of there being empty property in the city centre – Bracewell wraps his Audenesque overcoat about him and asks, “Could pop stop?” His answer is this deeply elegant essay of revolt and style. There are no empty spaces to be filled with art or resistance now, and we are left with our dreams.

Roger Robinson

Hanif Abdurraquib’s A Little Devil in America essays (Allen Lane) are so engrossing and at times moving that I’ve already read some of the essays more than a dozen times. I have been a fan of his work since his last book of essays about the band A Tribe Called Quest called Go Ahead in the Rain. In his newest book the essays seem to bleed into the poetic (Abdurraqib also writes poetry) so the informative blends easily with ideas, moments and stories that move you. A new, poetic take on essays that, I think, changes the game in many ways.

David Kynaston

The astonishingly well-documented piece of autobiography Oxford Undergraduate 1960-3 (privately published, available through Amazon) by the Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane is not only a compelling slice of social history, but also a fascinating portrait of an intellectually and spiritually restless young man starting to make sense of the world. It is just one part of a remarkable multi-volume project, which I suspect will, in time, come to be seen as cumulatively a seminal work of autobiography. Occupying a different autobiographical terrain is Michael Chaplin’s enjoyable and sympathetic Newcastle United Stole My Heart (Hurst): 60 years of supporting a club whose troubles may be only just beginning.

Johny Pitts

I read a lot of high-minded literary fiction in 2021, but then, right at the end of it, along came Swan Songs (Repeater) by the Runcorn hip-hop artist Lee Scott: a bizarre B-movie of a book that feels fresher than anything I’ve read all year. It is a surrealist story written in raw prose, with flashes of moods and textures that call to mind Andrea Dunbar. You either know these working-class spaces, the precarity, or you don’t. For non-fiction I was impressed by Tharik Hussein’s Minarets in the Mountains (Bradt), a tour through the Balkans unearthing Islamic European history. I appreciated the depth of his research and the lightness of touch in his many fascinating encounters.

Marina Benjamin

I’ve picked books that stayed with me long after reading. Deborah Levy’s Real Estate (Hamish Hamilton), the final instalment of her lyrical autobiography, struck me as the best of the three. Tender, funny and exacting, it circles around the idea of what makes a home as its itinerant author hops from place to place. Josh Cohen’s Losers – the latest essay from the zeitgeist-nailing Peninsula Press – offers a sparkling analysis of Trump that manages to skewer its target using the most mellifluous prose. And I loved High as the Waters Rise (Catapult), the debut novel by the German poet Anja Kampmann, translated by Anne Posten. An inner story of tenderness and delicacy, it concerns an oil rig worker’s need to come to terms with the loss of his bunkmate and partner, and so emerge from an inarticulate grief.

I admired the way her simple, sensual language builds complex compound meaning – not unlike Levy – but here everything is layered and deeply submerged, the sea a metaphor, as ever, for all we cannot know.

Richard J Evans

The history book I’ve enjoyed most this year has been Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline). It’s a timely, well written and often entertaining look at statues that were pulled down not only in 2020’s wave of iconoclasm but in other places and at other times too, setting our inflamed “culture wars” in a broader context and injecting a much-needed dose of common sense into the debate. My other book of the year is Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine (Picador).

I vividly remember teaching her as an undergraduate in London in the early 1990s and was horrified recently to discover she had died so young in 2016. In Skybound, she reacts to her diagnosis of cancer by taking up gliding, soaring ever higher over the Welsh hills and eventually the Himalayas, transcending her illness in a text that is as poetic as it is inspirational.

Kit de Waal

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking) is an important book and that’s not a phrase to use lightly. It’s an exposé and a reminder of how conveniently the British have rewritten the past and buried the bones of their shame. The bones are, of course, still poking through the soil – dangerous, stinking, tripping us up – and many of us live today with the legacy of slavery and empire. Empireland is a necessary, uncomfortable and illuminating read. I loved Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber). It is funny, clever and desperately sad, with a very serious message running through it about our right to die with dignity and how that affects those around us. It’s also about male friendship, leaving and coming home, and unbreakable childhood bonds.

William Boyd

Two superb biographies appeared this year. One new; one a valuable new edition. Richard Zenith’s monumental and exhaustive Pessoa: An Experimental Life (Allen Lane) is the last word on this enigmatic modern figure: the TS Eliot of Portuguese 20th-century literature. No one is better equipped than Zenith to peel away the onion-skins of personality from this astonishing poet. And no one is better equipped than Donald Rayfield to write about Chekhov. His unsurpassable 1997 biography, Anton Chekhov: A Life (Garnett Press) has been republished this year with a mass of new, revelatory material. You finish Rayfield’s biography feeling that you knew Chekhov as a close friend. An astonishing achievement.

Michael Moorcock

Marshalling his exceptional skills of social observation and narrative, Britain’s finest modern essayist Iain Sinclair strikes south in The Gold Machine (Oneworld). Travelling with his daughter Farne, he conducts an elegiac dialogue between generations and sinks into the deep past, travelling back and forth in time through a rapidly changing Peru on the trail of the mysterious Arthur Sinclair. In fiction, also doing some time-travelling, Alan Warner’s Kitchenly 434 (White Rabbit) is a profoundly complex comic elegy for the lost illusions of the 1960s and an entertaining read, contemptuously impatient with the clichés of the rock and roll novel.

Culture clash: Ian Sinclair’s The Gold Machine is a journey into colonial history

Anjana Ahuja

Deservedly shortlisted for multiple prizes, Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador) chronicles the US opioid crisis through the rise and fall of the Sackler dynasty, who grew rich on it. The story begins with Arthur Sackler, a physician with a gift for selling who roped his two younger doctor brothers into business.

In the 1950s they bought what would become Purdue Pharma: it later sold OxyContin, a blockbuster painkiller with a slow-release formulation vulnerable to tampering. The Sacklers, better known for philanthropy, reaped billions as Americans succumbed to an epidemic of addiction and overdosing. Keefe turns a mountain of material (some delivered to him anonymously) into an addictive tale of greed, regulatory failings, expensive lawsuits and a cold lack of remorse.

William Davies

No doubt there will be plenty more books written about both Britain’s horrifying Covid experiences and the appalling track record of the Johnson administration, but Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (Mudlark), an early audit produced by members of the Sunday Times investigative journalism team, will surely go down as one of the most devastating and harrowing. When a prime minister specialises in distraction and avoidance of responsibility, books such as this – tracking the serial policy failures and tens of thousands of avoidable deaths – are an invaluable contribution to what’s left of Britain’s public sphere. If we’re to avoid becoming blasé in the face of epic failures, we must retain the capacity to be shocked, and this is a shocking book.

Lyndsey Stonebridge

In a year that has been so much about un-freedom, especially for women, Deborah Levy’s Real Estate (Hamish Hamilton) and Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Allen Lane), two books about new kinds of freedom, were especially welcome. Real Estate, published two months after the murder of Sarah Everard, is a wise, lyrical and wickedly nourishing affirmation of women’s rights to a home in the world that is not gated by the rules of men. Ypi’s deliciously smart memoir of her Albanian girlhood at the end of the Cold War is a brilliant disquisition on the meanings of freedom – its lures, false hopes, disappointments and possibilities – in our time.

Bruno Maçães

Amitav Ghosh begins The Nutmeg’s Curse (John Murray) with the story of the nutmeg, the spice from the Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia around whose production and trade the networks of modern capitalism may be said to have originated. Starting from the surface of today’s climate and geopolitical crises, Ghosh takes us back in time to the birth of a set of extreme ideas we take for granted but which now threaten the very continuity of the species.

The Nutmeg’s Curse is the creation of a literary mind, linking historical and philosophical themes through the small details and analogies that are the fabric of every good story.

Simon Winder

In our current state, so many major cultural events went unnoticed. One of these was Oxford University Press’s achievement in completing new translations of all 20 of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart novels. Here at last is the entire frenzied family saga: not just Germinal and the other great jeremiads, but also wonderful satires such as Pot Luck and The Conquest of Plassans and bananas erotic oddities like The Sin of Abbé Mouret. The fatalism can become unintentionally comic, but have any other novels been quite so crammed with prurience, grotesquery and crazed ambition, with such a sense of landscape (the sea, the fields, the city) as the malevolent crusher of human hope?

Katrina Forrester

It’s been a hard year for workers, but a good one for books about work and capitalism. Three stand out: Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work (Pluto Press) gives a perceptive philosophical account of what work is, what it does to us, and how we can reorganise it. Destin Jenkin’s The Bonds of Inequality (University of Chicago Press) tells the story of how debt, finance and racial capitalism are intertwined in America’s cities in an amazing history of bankers, bond markets and racial inequalities in San Francisco. And in Theory of the Gimmick (Belknap Press), Sianne Ngai exposes capitalism’s tricks in her mind-blowing study of the time- and labour-saving devices we call gimmicks.

Jonathan Powell

One book looking back and one looking forward. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking) is a salutary reminder of the dark side of our past. I spend my time trying to help resolve armed conflicts from Myanmar to Nigeria that are largely caused by the crass errors of our ancestors. It helps to understand how those came about. Klara and the Sun by the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber) tackles the key question of our future: how are we going to live with AI and how will it transform our lives in the most unexpected ways? Sometimes novels bring these challenges to life much better than non fiction.

Lea Ypi

Mark Mazower’s The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (Allen Lane) is a gripping story of the complicated (and unlikely) creation of the modern Greek state – but it is also so much more. With vivid detail, impeccable scholarship and great nuance, Mazower shows how the modern idea of the nation emerges out of the complex, sometimes random and often messy interactions between a plurality of agents – local, regional and imperial – each acting for different motives and in pursuit of contrasting purposes. An illuminating account of both the unifying power of myths about the past, and the dangers inherent when such myths are connected to political reality.

Musa Okwonga

The most compelling book I have read this year is Madgermanes, a graphic novel by Birgit Weyhe, translated by Katy Derbyshire (V&Q Books). It’s the story of people who arrived in East Germany from Mozambique in the 1980s to find work and maybe love, and who were, instead, confronted with racism in their new home and then heartbreaking indifference when many of them returned. Told from three perspectives, it’s a tale of grief, resilience, loss and hope. I loved it.

Olivia Laing

Everything that Philip Hoare writes is bewitching, and I fell hook, line and sinker for Albert and the Whale (Fourth Estate), a kind of treasure hunt in search of the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer and the wonders that he saw. As for fiction, nothing beat Second Place (Faber & Faber), Rachel Cusk’s tautly composed tale of creativity and power. I loved the debut novel Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (Jonathan Cape), too: a beautiful, furious encapsulation of Generation Rent. And I lost a good week to the Penguin reissue of Len Deighton’s spy novels. Top of the pile: SS-GB, his brilliantly grim counterfactual of Britain under Nazi rule.

In search of the artist: a self- portrait by Dürer, the subject of Philip Hoare’s Albert and the Whale

Thomas Meaney

Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus (Fitzcarraldo Editions) plunges the American campus novel to an ecstatic extreme. Fiction outfoxes history and leaves little doubt that Cohen is Philip Roth’s more original heir. Pierre Charbonnier has helped map the future of intellectual history with Affluence and Freedom (Polity), in which he presents not a history of environmental ideas, but an environmental history of ideas. The result is an extensive invigilation of modern political thought with the material world in the unavoidable foreground.

Erica Wagner

My book of the year is Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker (Fourth Estate). This seemingly brief tale is a hypnotic wonder, blurring the boundaries of time and spirit. Garner is 87 now; his latest book sparks against his earlier masterpieces, and is a glorious wonder in its own right. Here is real magic between hard covers.

Michael Rosen

I like it when people do the job for me of gathering together examples of language-use that I had noticed were absurd, excessive or extraordinary but didn’t bother to jot down. Some of the stuff in Amanda Montell’s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism (HarperWave) is about the linguistic lengths PR outfits will go to lure you into keeping fit or buying Tupperware. More seriously and tragically, there is thoughtful commentary on the lethal, self-destructive cults that led to notorious massacres. The book teases away at that old conundrum of whether it’s the language that’s doing the luring or our minds offering up fertile ground in which the cults can sow their seeds.

Jeremy Cliffe

The book that has stuck with me most is the novel Occupation by the Brazilian writer Julián Fuks (published by Charco Press in Daniel Hahn’s vivid translation). Fuks won fame with his 2015 hit Resistance, melding WG Sebald’s sense of a not-quite-dead past with Ben Lerner’s metafictional blurring of author and narrator. Now his alter ego Sebastian, a fellow son of Argentinian psychiatrists who fled to Brazil, returns to braid the stories of refugees in an abandoned São Paulo hotel with those of his wife’s pregnancy and his father’s illness. This meditation on life at its start and its end, on trauma and resilience, appeared in its Portuguese original in 2019 but is uncannily apt in a time of pandemic and new social and political fractures – in Brazil and globally.

Fintan O’Toole

Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (Faber & Faber) could be called a novella but it feels much more like an epic distilled down to a single potent essence. Within the story of an ordinary man – a coal merchant in a provincial town in 1980s Ireland – there is a deep family history, a finely etched portrait of a society, a glimpse into the heart of darkness that was the Magdalene laundry system, a moving reflection on moral choice and a quietly brilliant artistry. Colm Tóibín’s The Magician (Viking) uses the life of Thomas Mann to explore the complex relationships between intimacy and history, public and private lives, and the slippery nature of creativity itself. I found it mesmerising.

Vince Cable

As a John le Carré addict, I rushed to the bookshop to buy Silverview (Viking), his latest and last book. Nothing will ever match the Cold War spy novels written in his prime, but his later work illuminates themes of loyalty, betrayal and conflicting values in a modern context.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Granville (Canongate) is a beautifully written piece of “faction” about the hidden history of women whose achievements were overshadowed by domineering men, and the ugly history of early colonial settlement in Australia and the crooked men who became its heroes. Granville tackles her dual subjects without being preachy or worthy.

Richard Lloyd Parry

Tokyo Redux by David Peace (Faber & Faber), the third novel in his extraordinary Tokyo trilogy, has the qualities familiar to his admirers: formal boldness and complexity, a powerful sense of place, tenderness and humanity, and a gift for character. But it is also straightforwardly enjoyable – a murky crime mystery emerging from the slimy entrails of US Occupation-era Japan. Speak, Silence: In Search of WG Sebald by Carole Angier (Bloomsbury) is a biography hobbled by the non-cooperation of the subject’s widow and daughter, whose names don’t even appear in its index. It manages nonetheless to be a gripping account of the life and lies of one of the 21st century’s greatest authors.

Leo Robson

In a memorable year, two extraordinary books stood above the rest. Both are accounts of being the watchful, highly literate daughter of differently imperfect parents. Both are written by authors surely close to the peak of their abilities, with honesty, humour and ravishing phrase-making talent. One is a memoir with elements of invention, the other a novel that may or may not have an autobiographical basis. But for all these similarities, they are utterly different in tone, milieu and approach: Marina Warner’s Inventory of a Life Mislaid (William Collins) and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta).

Megan Nolan

Until I read A Calling For Charlie Barnes (Viking), Joshua Ferris’s virtuosic third novel, I couldn’t recall the last time a book caused me to both laugh and gasp aloud. Madly funny and bristling with intelligence, this is the story of a man in later life wallowing in the detritus of the American Dream and of the children witnessing his decline. I rarely enjoy adult novels told from the perspective of children for similar reasons that I struggle to watch child actors – there is an inevitable sense of artifice. Heaven (Picador), the first novel by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is a brilliant rejoinder to my reticence. This captivating, quietly devastating book is about the relationship between two school misfits. The same vulnerabilities that expose them to their tormentors allow them to see one another with a pure sort of attention.

Rose George

For pleasure reading, I want warmth and pace and narrative and a steady hand, not sentences that have their eyes on prizes. Will Dean, a man with impossibly luxurious hair who lives in a Swedish forest, is known for his Tuva Moodyson crime fiction series. Tuva, a deaf journalist, is a great character but her adventures can get repetitive. There is nothing repetitive about The Last Thing to Burn (Hodder & Stoughton), an astonishing standalone from Dean, in which a young Vietnamese woman lives an appallingly coerced life with a brute called Lenn. Dean gets the voices chillingly right, the tension rises as inevitably as the claustrophobic pressure draws in, and “Jane” is a woman who you want to triumph at whatever cost. This novel will make your skin crawl with fury at the insidious violence of men.

Michael Prodger

Cynthia Saltzman’s Napoleon’s Plunder (Thames & Hudson) is a thrilling – and chilling – account of cultural despoliation. With Veronese’s huge, purloined painting of The Wedding Feast at Cana at the centre of her varied narratives, she describes how Bonaparte looted Italy’s art to buff up his own glory. Pilfering aside, our current leaders are missing a trick. In The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein (Head of Zeus), Franny Moyle has gathered the relatively few facts known about the portraitist and combined them adroitly with the wealth of material about Henrician England to show how a Basel native became our great national painter.

Richard Seymour

Hannah Zeavin’s remarkable The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press) disinters the history of long-distance psychoanalysis. From Freud’s “self-analysis” in correspondence with physician Wilhelm Fliess, to the mass communication of psychoanalysis through radio, to suicide hotlines and the use of video-calling to treat patients during the pandemic. Psychoanalysis has rarely reflected on this history because from its foundations, when Freud was fascinated with telepathy, it was gripped by a fantasy of medium-less communication. But, Zeavin shows, the analytic relationship always needs mediation: ritual, appointments, money, all create the “distanced intimacy” across which the undercurrents of fantasy and transference flow. And what is true of the analytic relationship is also true, differently, of all relationships.

Simon Winchester

Two discoveries this past year, to charm and delight. Richard Zenith’s magisterial account of the life of the deliciously mad Fernando Pessoa (Allen Lane), who wrote books and stories under some 60 pseudonyms and left more than 25,000 essays in a locked cabin trunk, to be discovered in Lisbon and turned into Pessoa, one of the great literary biographies of the century so far. And while all America waits for the 86-year-old Robert Caro to complete the fifth and final volume of his stupendous life of Lyndon B Johnson (can he possibly manage, after 40 years at it?) we learn from a chat the name of his favourite novelist: no less than the almost forgotten master-storyteller Nevil Shute. I used to borrow his books from Boots – now they are near-impossible to find. Maybe Bob Caro’s unanticipated endorsement from across the Atlantic will help hasten them back, truly great yarns, every one.

Samuel Moyn

A civilisation scrubbed to be shiny requires sweeping the moral filth under the rug, as Eyal Press shows, though brilliant reporting and exquisite writing, in in Dirty Work (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, published in the UK by Head of Zeus in 2022). I was initially drawn in because the passages on armed drone operators pursue the obverse of my own argument in my new book Humane that the new forms of American war are increasingly “clean”. Hiding our unseemly requirements by foisting essential labour – animal slaughter and prison work, in Press’s other examples – on those who are often looked down upon for doing it does not mean we are morally uninvolved in tasks done in our name and for our sakes.

The New Statesman’s 20 Best Books of 2021 will appear in the 10 December issue

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand