Bookish Stuff

Top 7 Fiction Reads of 2021

It’s that time of the year when I look back at all the books I’ve read and highlight some of the standouts for me. This is also my way of shoving recommendations down your throat. Unlike previous years, the only reading ‘challenge’ I set myself this year was the Goodreads one, and even then, it was a modest number of 48 books which I achieved around October {I think}. At the time of writing this post, I have read 68 books – a combination of novels, short story collections, nonfiction, and poetry collections. My first installment of top reads is dedicated to fiction. Books that made me cry, laugh, feel deeply, and think:

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

I read my very first Lahiri at the start of the year and immediately ordered her backlist and also, pre-ordered Whereabouts. Unsurprisingly, I got to Whereabouts before any of the others and I loved this book so much. This isn’t a book with a plot. Rather, it’s an exploration of solitude, loneliness, and a single woman in her forties making her way through a city. It feels intimate, is an ode to solitude in a busy world with a thread of melancholy permeating through the book. Lahiri’s prose is simple and draws you in. Yet, it’s in the simplest sentences you find beauty.

Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Yet another lyrical and heartbreaking read this year was The Death of Vivek Oji. The book begins with the knowledge that Vivek Oji is dead. What the reader doesn’t know is how or why. This book was a compassionate exploration of gender identity, sexuality, and growing up in a society where you are not allowed to be who you are with tragic consequences. While the book is full of sadness, there is also a sense of optimism in the form of being loved and finding yourself. Emezi’s prose is absolutely exquisite and draws you in.

So: If nobody sees you, are you still there?

Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji

Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

A debut novel about grief and home, and an ode to Sydney. What’s not to love in this one? Kavita Bedford’s Friends and Dark Shapes follows an unnamed narrator coping with grief following the death of her father. The book is written in vignettes and snapshots and takes you on a tour of Sydney but also, into the narrator’s mind. The prose is again captivating and sad and beautiful. I read this at a time when I was struggling with my own grief, albeit not that of a parent and I teared up several times while reading it.

Loneliness is not something we should feel any longer in this age of constant connection, and we feel cheated when the signs reveal themselves. We crush its existence, trample its edges.

Kavita Bedford, Friends & Dark Shapes

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The Booker prize winner for 2020 was a delightful, heartwrenching, and beautiful read. Despite the title, Shuggie Bain focusses not just on Shuggie who struggles to be a ‘normal boy’ but also his mother, Agnes and her love affair with alcohol. The compassion with which Stuart has written his characters is extraordinary and as a reader, you want to hold them all and make things better. A whopping 400-page book that can be consumed within a weekend because of how compelling it is! Shuggie and his family will stay with me for a long time.

She was drinking to forget herself, because she didn’t know how else to keep out the pain and the loneliness.

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne

I read Cherry Beach when I was on holiday down the South Coast in April. It was a character sketch and a compassionate and beautiful exploration of mental illness, relationships, love, friendship, and loss. Set between Melbourne and Toronto, this book was another one of those unputdownable books in a year when it was hard to focus. McPhee-Browne’s prose is brilliant and I can’t wait for her next novel.

Grief is thick, and I didnt know this until I was in it, struggling to get to the edge or at least find a way to thin it out, with water or vinegar or air.

Laura McPhee-Browne, Cherry Beach

Beautiful World, Where are you by Sally Rooney

Rooney’s much-awaited novel after Normal People was another favourite, barring the ending, for me. I know Rooney is polarising but I really do enjoy her writing. Beautiful World, Where are you is a millennial novel and looks at the world through the eyes of her four Irish characters. There is social commentary, philosophy, existential dread, and messy relationships – all of which are typical Rooney. For me, it’s immersive. With the writing style of this book, I found I was a fly on the wall, observing each character intimately, while also being in their head. Such is her writing! Reflective, poignant, and beautiful.

So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are you

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

A novel in verse, and so different from a lot of what I’ve read in terms of style. The biggest question it asks – how do you grieve the death of someone if no one else knew about your relationship? This book was exquisite and compassionately explored the pain Ana experiences after the sudden death of her lover, Connor. It hit me hard so many times and I found I understood Ana’s pain. Read this book to understand the pain of not being able to grieve openly, of loving someone despite all the narratives society prefers, of not being chosen. Crossan is a genius to manage to convey all this in verse form.

I want him to tell me our love shattered you. 

I want him to tell me that if you were alive

you would have picked me 

eventually

Sarah Crossan, Here is the beehive

Other honourable mentions for the year include Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna, Love Objects by Emily Maguire, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and One Hundred Days by Alice Pung. It’s always hard to choose your favourites but these have been the ones that have stayed with me and will stay with me in the years to come.

Tell me, have you read any of these? What were your favourite fictional reads this year?

Stay tuned for my favourite nonfiction and short story/poetry installments in the coming days.

Until next time,

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