Review 31's Books of the Year 2021

by Review 31

Our end-of-year selection features two debuts: Sarvat Hasin’s contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which is praised for its ‘propulsive energy and a refreshing lack of linguistic reserve’; and Egyptian-American poet Moheb Soliman’s collection of poems on the theme of place and belonging. There are also more familiar names including Cynthia Ozick and Gwendoline Riley, whose ‘genius’ novel My Phantoms was criminally overlooked for the Booker. Other choices include George Saunders’ ‘warm and vivacious’ Russian literature primer, Frank Wynne’s ‘absolutely essential’ collection of LGBTQ writing, translator Polly Barton’s ‘thoughtful and erudite’ essay-memoir about language and culture, and Charles Boyle’s The Other Jack — ‘a book about what we talk about when we talk about books.'

Frank Wynne (ed.), Queer: A Collection of LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday (Head of Zeus)

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden report, after Sir John Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published in September 1957 after a succession of well-known public figures including Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, John Gielgud and Alan Turing, were convicted of homosexual offences. The committee consisted of 11 men and 4 women and Wolfenden suggested at the outset that, for the sake of the ladies in the room, they use the term ‘Huntley & Palmers’ after the biscuit manufacturers – ‘Huntleys’ for homosexuals, and ‘Palmers’ for prostitutes.

Queer literature was back then — and to an extent still is — kept in the biscuit tin with the lid firmly shut, consigned to a top shelf. Post-Wolfenden, practicing Huntleys were in less danger of public exposure, prosecution, disgrace and social ostracism but change, while welcome, has been slow. Now, sixty years on and long overdue, we have Queer: A Collection of LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday edited by Frank Wynne. A spectacular anthology of 900+ pages featuring 80 pieces of prose and poetry, short stories and essays and even — refreshingly — a graphic novel (‘Coming Out Story’ by Alison Bechdel), this generous Family Assortment celebrates love and lust, joy and sorrow, solitude and social isolation, and is an absolutely essential addition to the bookshelves of any household, gay or straight, with claims to literacy. It will appeal to readers anywhere on the broad spectrum of sexuality because (and I employ without irony an overworked critical phrase) it shows us what it means to be human.

Wynne is a marvellous editor and his short informal introductions to each piece add an amiable coherence to a collection that ranges from Achilles grieving the loss of his beloved Patroclus to recent work by young, queer, trans and non-binary writers such as the poet Keith Jarrett, Zhang Yueran and Niviaq Korneliussen. Some familiar names — Whitman, Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, Maupin, Hollinghurst, Hensher, Highsmith and Winterson — rub shoulders with many others entirely new to me, and I was particularly impressed by ’Smoke, Lilies and Jade’ by the queer artist and writer Bruce Nugent (1906-1987) a member of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a striking piece of avant-garde prose, unpunctuated save for frequent ellipses, its rhythmic panting syncopations having something in common with Beckett’s How It Is.

There’s tremendous energy and range and depth on offer in these pages, from Roz Kaveney’s sublime renderings of Catullus to Paul Verlaine’s cheeky sonnet celebrating his lover’s bumhole (a bright new translation by the editor in collaboration with Jeffery Zuckerman). Sixty years after the lid was first removed from the biscuit tin it’s a pleasure to welcome a fearless and life-affirming celebration of what Gilbert Adair (who doesn’t feature in these pages, an omission that is presumably down to a tight budget and the cost of permissions) called ‘the second most natural thing in the world’.

David Collard

Sarvat Hasin, The Giant Dark (Dialogue)

Sarvat Hasin’s third novel, The Giant Dark, is an exuberant contemporary love story, with a mythic underpinning that intensifies the tragedy of its lovers, Pakistani-born rock star Aida D’Souza and London publisher Ehsan. The book is a loose retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth into which Hasin introduces a sly gender-switch, with Aida as the orphic superstar who inspires global devotion, while Ehsan is her (often-undeserving) muse.

When Aida bumps into Ehsan at a party ten years after their intense relationship, they pick up where they left off, though they soon discover everything has changed in the interim. Aida has gone supernova; a glammy goth cynosure, the kind of rock star who inspires tattoos on fans who paint ‘frescoes of her face’ with ‘that famous mouth’. Aida is friends with films stars, and has ‘posters of her on the Tube. . . People name drinks after her’. Ehsan, meanwhile, has just quit his job as an editor at Lyre Books with vague plans of concentrating on his poetry, a passion he gave up for a conventional life. Neither of them are ready to be pulled back into the vortex of their former passion. But, with a classical inevitability, this is exactly what occurs: ‘She smiled at him over her shoulder . . . He had stepped accidentally backwards into a slip of time’.

While chapters alternate between the POVs of the two protagonists, the choric voice of the fans gets chapters to itself, narrating the anxieties of obsessive Aida votaries in the first-person plural; their lives ‘twisted to gold by this woman who had never met us’. When Ehsan joins Aida on a tour ‘zipping through six cities in a week’, he’s astonished and moved by the devotion of her audience; how the fans project themselves on her in unhealthy but personally necessary ways, leaving him to ask if he still fits into Aida’s life at all.

Fiction and rock stars have always been uneasy bedfellows, with tour-bus cliches hard to avoid. While Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet never quite convinced, Alan Warmer’s recent Kitchenly 434 consistently hit the right notes. Hasin avoids all the pitfalls in this fruity, feminist retelling of an epic romance. What’s more, it’s written with propulsive energy and a refreshing lack of linguistic reserve, something that’s increasingly rare with the current Rooney-influenced vogue for decorous prose.

Jude Cook

Charles Boyle, The Other Jack (CB editions)

'The world is not going to be changed by a chat about books.' The protagonists of The Other Jack, writer and reader, are well aware of it, but that doesn't stop them from doing what they do. They meet in cafes to talk about books: old and recent, famous and obscure, published under real and assumed names, by authors dead and alive. These conversations are what most writers and readers actually write and read for.

The writer, despite identifying as Charles Boyle, comes out to his reader as Jack ('I used Jack as time off, a holiday from being me'), but who is he? The person who set up CB editions to publish books, including his own? The one who 'was born in a library and [has] mostly lived there since'? Is he 'bad at brand management'? Does he smoke too much and laugh easily? Do his notebooks have blank pages at the end? Is he 'as fickle as any author' in his reading habits, which include skipping to the last pages when browsing in bookshops? Is he the one who 'lives in an apartment on two floors with a spiral staircase and . . . has an assistant who manages his website and books his tickets'? The one for whom 'there are times when all writing . . . is about sex'? They keep turning up, each with interesting things to say, and the more they talk, the more you want them to carry on: to tell you about Stendhal and Pessoa, punctuation and criticism, fonts and endings – all those things that have long been on your mind.

The list includes pen names: 'user names for different accounts for which you then forget the passwords'. Are they designed to conceal or reveal something about the author? Only the bearer of one can tell. You might confuse Charles Boyle with Jack Robinson or think them completely different people – it's your choice. Still, whichever of them is writing here deserves to be read on his own terms. So what if 'writing and reading take place in a culture of rainy days and diminished expectations'? So what if 'we are interested in literature only when a writer trips on a banana skin. Or maybe wins a prize'? This book is straightforward about its subject: 'it's a book about what we talk about when we talk about books'. Like chats about books, it's not going to change the world — unless your world is made of books, in which case this is your material.

Anna Aslanyan

Cynthia Ozick, Antiquities (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

The veteran American writer, Cynthia Ozick, returned this year with a beautifully crafted novella on the theme of memory and its value in a disintegrating world. Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, fictional distant cousin of the archaeologist of Egypt, William Flinders of that ilk, sits in an almost deserted, long-disused boarding school, his one-time alma mater, the Temple Academy for Boys, in 1949. One of its handful of surviving trustees, residually entitled to the ministrations of a personal carer, he keeps a daily journal.

Petrie has long since divested himself of any but the most everyday material comforts, among which he counts the old Remington typewriter he inherited from a secretary turned intimate, Margaret Stimmer, or Peg. His spooling remembrance of the school returns to its first admissions of Jewish pupils under an enterprising principal, the Reverend Greenhill. Soon after this vanguard wave, a mysterious new boy, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who lives on bread and milk and hard-boiled eggs, and is a gifted chess player, takes up the dormitory room opposite Petrie's. So begins a shadowed, intermittent, tenderly recalled friendship.

The narrator's few mementoes, kept in his father's cigar-box, evoke the lost days of his boyhood, while memory, that unreliable faculty that transmutes every recollection each time it calls one back from the haze, supplies a handful of meetings, ponderous conversations, chess-games, with the spectral Elefantin. His ancestry is of the hermetic Judean community on Elephantine Island in the Nile, not truly Israelite, making the boy an outsider among outsiders, with his russet hair and peculiar diction. He might not even have existed at all, were it not for the spellbound neuralgia he inspires in the elderly Petrie.

Ozick's literary powers are still at peak in her tenth decade, and this captivating short book could easily serve as an introduction to her earlier work for those unfamiliar with it. There is something of the unalloyed joy in enigmatic storytelling of Philip Roth's late novellas, and a gracefully wrought emotional tug that never quite lets go through 180 pages. Antiquities reminds us that, for all its elusiveness and its optical tricks, memory can still draw a vanished presence close enough to flinch at its touch.

Stuart Walton

Polly Barton, Fifty Sounds (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

One of the most welcome trends of recent times is that of translators going on to become authors in their own right. Both Jennifer Croft and Daniel Hahn have books coming out next year, but among this year’s most rewarding releases was Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton – 50 essays on her experience of living in Japan and her relationship with the Japanese language, themed around onomatopoeic Japanese phrases. As someone who reads a lot of Japanese fiction in translation, and who has been bumbling my way through Japanese on Duolingo for the past two years, this is the kind of book I would recommend to me if I hadn’t already read it. It kicks off with Barton’s casual decision to teach English on the remote island of Sado in Japan as a 21-year old, a beginning somewhat reminiscent of the plot of Botchan by Natsume Soseki, where a naïve young teacher from Tokyo takes up a remote island posting.

The essays track the deepening of her complex relationship with Japanese as the language both unlocks her access to the culture yet strangely keeps her at bay. She is all too aware of the ways in which an Anglophone westerner can get Japan and Japanese all wrong, but so too does she understand the lonely self-effacement that comes with surrendering to what the culture expects of her as an outsider. The essays are thoughtful and erudite on linguistics and the language, but the book also has a heart: Barton is candid in her reflections on her failed love affair with a married teacher and the role that the intimate nuances of language played in that. I am very much aware that Japan has a special appeal for many annoying westerners like me, and it is to the credit of Polly Barton that this collection is layered enough to meet the reader at their own level while still conveying that understanding another culture is a lifelong but imperfect project.

Rónán Hession

Moheb Soliman, HOMES (Coffee House Press)

‘While others spend their time in libraries, I spend mine in deserts and on the roads. I get to know more about the concrete social life of American from the desert than I ever would from official intellectual gatherings.’ These were the words of Jean Baudrillard in his 1986 travelogue of the United States, America. A lot has arguably changed since then, but for the poet Moheb Soliman, the landscape of America sometimes appears like the ‘giant hologram’ Baudrillard described it as, a place of coded languages and veiled meanings. Unlike Baudrillard, Soliman’s subject isn’t the desert; instead it’s the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

There is a lot to enjoy in these diary-like, poetic reflections on the spirit and nostalgia of life on the American road. Soliman, who moved to the Midwest with his family from Egypt when he was six, has clearly spent more time on the road for this collection than he has reading his contemporaries at the library. He started writing the poems that became HOMES in 2015; originally setting off in a Toyota Corolla from his home in North Shore, Minnesota, the journey effectively ended when he visited the Thousand Islands of eastern Ontario. A 21st-century take on Baudrillard’s postmodern anxieties, HOMES explores what it means to feel a sense of belonging in the world. Soliman poignantly articulates a feeling of exclusion as he tries to capture the sometimes beautiful, sometimes boring, sometimes depressing, modern American landscape.

Liam Bishop

Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms (Granta)

If one were to judge the publishing year by its Booker it would be fairly safe to say 2021 has been an aggressively average year for books. It has been the first year in quite some time where trying to aggregate the mandatory list of top releases has genuinely been quite a task. In contrast however, choosing the Best Book of the Year has never been easier than in 2021, mostly because Gwendoline Riley exists.

My Phantoms is one of those books that’ll have you gnawing through your kneecaps as Riley so brilliantly documents one of the most agonising mother/daughter relationships in literature. There isn’t a single page of the novel that won’t have you clambering for an eject button to get away from the awkward pauses or the stilted hugs. The book is a genius study of two women whose lives come together like a zip with broken teeth.

Riley is one of those authors who I’d have absolutely no pleasure in meeting, in case I stumble on a word and that ruins my image for her forever or if I wave my hand somewhat awkwardly and, to her, that unconsciously unleashes a whole host of my repressed memories. In her writing, the smallest movement or hesitation can mean a whole deluge of things. With My Phantoms it feels Riley is slapping the roof of the slender volume and saying ‘just look at how much emotional trauma I can fit into this bad boy’.

Barry Pierce

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury)

George Saunders is uniquely placed to write A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He is probably the greatest living short story writer, an MFA tutor at Syracuse, and, most importantly for this book, an engineer by training. Combining these aspects makes for an intriguing hybrid — a collection of short stories by the Russian greats (Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol), interspersed with Saunders’ explanation of how the stories work.

Opening with Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’, we read page-by-page with Saunders, noticing features of storytelling, plotting our responses throughout the story to notice the subtle ways we are affected as it progresses. His reading of the stories are demoralisingly good: Max Porter was so disgusted he threw his book across the room.

Saunders has an amazing facility at taking something indefinable and lays out its nuts and bolts. Chekhov’s use of description is ‘a little poem that adjusts our understanding of the story’. Tolstoy’s sentences are a ‘referendum on truth’. Story itself is good when ‘it responds alertly to itself’, by which he means, ‘having created a pattern of excesses, it notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.’

Although it’s not as didactic as I make it sound. Saunders is warm and vivacious company, funny and even-handed and increasingly wise; in his concluding remarks, he sounds a note for humanity you would defend at the barricades. This book is an enthralling delve into life and its narration – for people interested in how fiction works, it’s like breathing oxygen.

Tom Conaghan