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8 December 2021

The New Statesman’s best books of 2021

The year's essential reading in 20 titles.

By New Statesman

Non-fiction

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge

Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

This is a blistering and provocative defence of meritocracy – the single word almost all democratic politicians swear by, but never debate. Wooldridge, the Economist’s political editor, provides an erudite survey of many cultures over several centuries to remind us how meritocracy’s core idea – that your place in society should be a reflection of talent and effort, not determined by birth – is both revolutionary and recent. He sees meritocracy as an organising ideal rather than something that has been satisfactorily achieved, and rails against the ability of the privileged to purchase educational advantage for their children. He deplores, too, outbursts of arrogance from meritocracy’s winners. Wooldridge also adds some thoughts for the Labour Party; it has lost its moorings on meritocracy and marooned itself in the process.

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Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth

Faber & Faber, 368pp, £20

Where does consciousness come from? How can science explain what it is like to be you? Does free will exist? In lucid, engaging prose the neuroscientist Anil Seth brings together neurobiology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and philosophy to reach radical, provocative conclusions. His research suggests that we do not perceive our surroundings directly, rather our brains are constantly making and refining predictions about the world. In this way, reality is a controlled hallucination, as is our experience of having a stable, unified self. This book is awe-inspiring and humane: Seth believes there is comfort in seeing ourselves more clearly and understanding that consciousness is finite. In the end, there is nothing to be afraid of.

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Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson

Bloomsbury, 512pp, £25

In DH Lawrence, as Frances Wilson shows in her subtle and penetrating study, exquisite sensitivity co-existed with unrestrained megalomania. He saw himself, she says, “as a figure of allegory”, believing that life, or his at least, was a “piece of supreme art”. In this light, the wavering line between his fiction, his friendships, his journeying and his loves makes a sort of sense. As he travelled from his Nottinghamshire coal-mining town to London, Italy and New Mexico, forming – and often brutally breaking – loves and friendships (as in the case of Katherine Mansfield and Ottoline Morrell) he was being simultaneously inexcusable and true. Wilson is no uncritical admirer of either the man or his books, but she is a compelling advocate of complexity and of Lawrence’s right to try to “shape the world to his will”.

Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis by Bruno Maçães

Hurst, 240pp, £18.99

In a sweeping, intelligent and often unpredictable survey of the pandemic age, the former Portuguese minister and now jet-setting consultant and NS writer Bruno Maçães surveys the world to come. How might we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic – “a radical and uncontested change to collective life” – and what are the prospects for civilisation in the face of environmental breakdown? Maçães is sceptical that the ideas and institutions that have shaped the economic and political orders of the 20th century will ensure our survival and flourishing under these conditions. Indeed, he predicts the return of geopolitical conflict and international competition over access to resources essential to green technologies.

A short book on a big subject, Geopolitics for the End Time is essential to helping us make sense of the morbid symptoms of the present and the alarming prospects for the future.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £10.99

After her divorce, Deborah Levy experienced a creative renascence and resolved to write her memoir while “in the storm of life” rather than at the end of it. In the third and final instalment of her “living autobiography”, she reflects on how a woman constructs an identity for herself when she no longer has the scaffold of the traditional family home. Approaching her 60th birthday, Levy finds herself in Paris, attending ramshackle dinners and dancing in nightclubs. She wonders why women’s desires are so often sublimated in literature and art, as in life. A sense of the absurd, coupled with a gift for a striking image, runs through this singular, generous exploration of writing and womanhood.

Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson

Vintage, 336pp, £20

“The males of many species of earwigs have two penises.” This is just one of the eye-opening facts found in the biologist Dave Goulson’s latest book. He uses such examples to reveal, at a micro level, the wonders of insects and, at a macro level, demonstrate the interconnectedness of the climate and biodiversity crises. We exterminate “bugs” without ever considering their role in the world, and this lack of consciousness imperils our civilisation and the survival of the natural world. Enlightening, urgent and funny, Goulson’s book is a timely call for action.

Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy by Adam Tooze

Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

“Never before,” writes Adam Tooze, “had there been a collective decision, however haphazard and uneven, to shut large parts of the world’s economy down.” Shutdown is the story behind the action taken during the coronavirus pandemic. Tooze, a historian and NS writer, explains that “for the last century we have been riding our luck”. He shows how Covid-19 struck at a time when the world was already being destabilised by economic slowdown, nationalist and authoritarian resurgence, US-China tensions, and the climate crisis. An admirable work of synthesis and original analysis, from the pre-eminent diagnostician of our age of discontents.

One of Them: An Eton College Memoir by Musa Okwonga

Unbound, 224pp, £8.99

In the first memoir of life at the United Kingdom’s – and perhaps the world’s – most famous private school, the writer and poet Musa Okwonga lifts the lid on what life at Eton College is really like. The combination of beautiful prose, honest self-reflection and a keen critical eye makes this an essential read.

As Okwonga writes, Eton has shaped the world and in particular British politics (a third of our postwar prime ministers have been Old Etonians, including the incumbent) – and not all of that has been to the good. But one unalloyed positive to Eton’s existence is this author and this book.

Postliberal Politics: The Coming Era of Renewal by Adrian Pabst

Polity, 160pp, £14.99

We are where we are, says the politics professor Adrian Pabst, because neither left nor right has found the right balance between community, government, capitalism and technology. The things that were supposed to bring us together are pulling us apart and, he writes, as we wait for “postliberalism” to arrive, things will get worse before they get better. Not that Pabst is resigned: there are ways of thinking and changes that can make things better – from mutual funds to greater local power. What’s more, such adjustments can be made regardless of political affiliation.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 272pp, £16.99

In our age of the flagrant lie and cynical intolerance, we miss George Orwell as never before, but seem further away than ever from his sensibility. In Orwell’s Roses, the American author Rebecca Solnit gives us an Orwell for our times: a guerrilla gardener as attentive to the life growing around him (the roses of the title were planted in his Hertfordshire garden in 1936) as he was to the mendacious fictions that threatened both political and earthly plurality. Solnit’s reappraisal of Orwell’s writing and its contexts is a beautiful act of literary rewilding, and a powerful plea for the recultivation of a political imagination that takes life, all life, as its starting point.


Fiction

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £14.99

Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel looks as if it might be dressed-up reportage, or a mood piece with a point to make. Then it gets to work on you. A single woman, Japanese but raised in Europe and a recent New York resident, moves to The Hague to take up a fixed-term contract as an interpreter at the international criminal court, where her first case involves a deposed African dictator on trial for war crimes. She tries to convince herself that she can achieve a kind of autonomy, a presence in the moment unaffected by her institutional affiliation or personal blinkers. She becomes involved with a married man, and soon discovers that language can be as slippery at the dining table as in the deposition room.

Kitamura’s own language is measured with extreme care, to maximise a sense of the complex, ambiguous and multiple, and the sense that working in a foreign city is a metaphor for modern rootlessness and for life itself. The further we are drawn into her character’s world, the less we feel we know for sure – an effect that proves spellbinding.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Bloomsbury Circus, 224pp, £14.99

Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel about the internet and human connection, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is perhaps the best piece of fiction yet written on the absurdity of social media and its shared language, its twisted self-righteousness and its hypnotic hold over users. The unnamed narrator of this fragmentary novel is, like Lockwood, an American humorist and Twitter super-user celebrated for her surreal posts. She travels the world speaking on panels about online life until she gets a call from her mother. Her younger sister is pregnant but the foetus has a rare congenital disorder. Inspired by real events in Lockwood’s family, the story follows her protagonist as she is wrenched from the online world and forced to confront real issues pertinent to her sex: abortion, childbirth and motherhood.

The novel’s first half contains very little in the way of plot or character exposition and the reader needs a passing familiarity with meme culture to understand it fully. But once you acclimatise to Lockwood’s mode of storytelling, it’s a pleasure to inhabit her strange brain.

Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson

Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99

Rebecca Watson’s debut novel is a recognisable and gripping account of contemporary life, told in a surprising and inventive style. Set over the course of one day, Little Scratch gets inside the head of a 20-something woman who is processing a sexual assault. She wakes up, watches people on the train, hole-punches at her desk and has sex with her boyfriend, all the while fighting the urge to scratch at her legs – the physical manifestation of her trauma. Watson’s prose is arranged architecturally across the page in columns or zigzags. Our thoughts, the book reminds us, have a steady rhythm, however unsettled we may feel.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

Robert, an Englishman living in Berlin, is struggling with his debut novel when he encounters Patrick, a ghostwriter who claims he is being pursued by agents of the same Russian regime that killed his former employer, an exiled oligarch. Robert is in search of a plot; Patrick has a good one. But is the tale the truth or a spy-game fantasy – and who owns it? Like his superb short story collection, Mothers, Chris Power’s first novel deconstructs itself in tight, intelligent prose, an autofiction thriller that is as unsettling as a Michael Haneke film – and just as stylish too.

The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen

Fitzcarraldo, 248pp, £12.99

The Netanyahus, an appendix reveals, is a deliriously embellished account of an anecdote told to Joshua Cohen by the literary critic Harold Bloom before he died in 2019. It is the story of when Bloom was asked to organise the visit of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, “an obscure Israeli historian”, who was being interviewed for a lecturing post at Cornell University. Netanyahu shows up with his unruly children, one of whom is Benjamin, Israel’s former prime minister. Narrated by “Ruben Blum” – an economic historian at “Corbin college” in New York state – Cohen’s sixth novel is a campus farce in which lectures sit next to domestic slapstick. It is an original and often hilarious exhibition of Cohen’s thrilling powers of invention.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20

“When we were new.” So begins Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, his first since receiving the 2017 Nobel Prize. Klara and the Sun is a portrait of innocence and its inevitable loss, as told by Klara, an “artificial friend” purchased to comfort Josie, an ailing teenage girl. Moved from a shop floor to a single-parent household, Klara must decode not only the basics of human interaction but also specialised talk of being “lifted”, a process that seems to have some relevance to her intended role in Josie’s life. Ishiguro deploys his favoured mode, the retrospective narrator with a firm grip on the information pipette, so while Klara is modelled in some ways on Lucy Snowe, from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the reader possesses no perspectival advantage. We know as little about the customs of this unspecific future as Klara does, and the plot is constructed to yield the things that matter as slowly as possible.

The result is an achievement in the uncanny, a fusion, of sorts, of Ishiguro’s two most celebrated books, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. This is an ideal equation for a writer who, over the course of 40 years, has exhibited no interest in the concept of the familiar.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

Granta, 199pp, £12.99

Gwendoline Riley’s follow-up to her 2017 novel First Love is her best book to date – taut, tart, funny, frightening and infinitely insightful. It is the portrait of a spiteful braggart of a father and, more extensively, of an agonised, passive-aggressive mother, Helen. The narrator is Bridget, an academic in her early forties who is expert at revealing the flaws of others without acknowledging which parental defects she might have inherited. The atmosphere is Englishness at its most strained and awful: bickering, evasion, chirpy shorthand (just as Venezuela becomes “Ven”, so Helen becomes “Hen”). Calling a spade a spade, staring things in the face, becomes increasingly hard to pull off – but not, Bridget believes, for her.

Without recourse to any of the established tricks of the unreliable narrator, Riley gradually exposes what Bridget might get right about Hen, her limitations and intractability, while at the same time showing how she misses the point. Over five parts, the book unfolds in an exquisite blend of tragedy and comedy whose epilogue – Bridget’s future – the reader is left to imagine with a grimace.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Viking, 160pp, £12.99

“You look like you got hit by a bus, and you dusted yourself off, and did it again for the hell of it. You look like you’re wondering when the next time you can get hit by that bus is.” This is how Isaac describes his friend, Open Water’s unnamed protagonist, as he watches him fall in love. Nelson’s elegant debut novel, narrated in a sensuous second person, tells of two south-east Londoners who begin a relationship. As they grow closer and realise that love can be a destructive force – particularly when you’re young, black and constantly let down by the world – the novel’s intimate mode becomes sharper and altogether more devastating.

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Fourth Estate, 160pp, £10

A boy lies in his sickroom, a patch on his lazy eye: when Joe Coppock hears the rag-and-bone man Treacle Walker pass under his Cheshire window, this astonishing little fable begins. Garner’s vivid, direct language brings together narrative drive with the mysteries of physics, Iron Age ritual and British comic book culture. Like all Garner’s work, this novel is rooted in the real, but shows us another world that is there before us, if only we would look. At just 160 pages, Treacle Walker is a small miracle – a perfectly formed tale that stands on its own yet is always in dialogue with Garner’s astonishing body of work.

Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner

Peninsula Press, 192pp, £9.99

The third novel by Isabel Waidner, a German-born British writer, is a politicised call to arms against prejudice – but it’s wildly funny too. Sterling, our protagonist, is a non-binary migrant cleaner. One morning they get caught up in a bullfight in Camden and are arrested. On trial, Sterling is faced with a system that works against them at every turn. So in come their friends, who outwit football players and borrow a time-travelling spaceship to help out. The themes of the book, which won the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize, are serious, but the author’s voice is resolutely warm. Inventiveness, Waidner insists, is the best way to combat injustice.

[See also: The best children’s books for Christmas 2021]

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special