From underrated classics to fresh titles and more, here are the best books we read in 2021.
Doireann Ni Ghriofa, A Ghost In The Throat (2020)
Irish writer Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s novel begins, unabashedly, with a chapter on breast-pumping and the pleasant drudgery of motherhood and housewifery. This lyrical, meditative work declares itself as a “female text”, and is haunted by the echoes of a 18th century Irish noblewoman, Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, who wrote a poem to honour her murdered husband.
Ni Ghriofa, on a mission to find out more about this obscure Gaelic poetess, intersperses her findings with vignettes from her own life in present-day Ireland – observations about life as a mother-of-four, her aborted foray into dentistry, and a cancer scare. “We cannot know from whose mouths the echoes of our lives will chime,” observes Ni Ghriofa, who ends her book with her English translation of Ni Chonaill’s lament. A Ghost In The Throat merits multiple readings and contains some tender, lovely turns of phrase. Weeks after reading it, we can still hear the hum, the gentle reverberation, of its “birth and loop of words”.
John Williams, Stoner (1965)
This underrated masterpiece received scant praise when it was published nearly 60 years ago. We cannot believe how it spent so long in relative obscurity, although it has been getting more attention in recent years. This heartbreaking novel is the story of one William Stoner, who grows up on a Missouri farm but ends up falling in love with literature and teaching it at university. He stays there for the rest of his life, immured from the biggest devastations of the 20th century – two World Wars and the Great Depression. He sleepwalks into a loveless marriage, does not have the courage to end it, and fails to stand up to his wife who tries to make their daughter a stranger to him. He finally gets his one shot at true love when he meets his intellectual equal, a younger woman who shares his passion for literature. But he is afraid to upend his life, and they part ways. Stoner retires with “nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember”.
Williams’ prose is lucid as a shard of glass and cuts just as deep, leaving readers with a dull pain when they see more of themselves than they’d like in the novel’s characters. Is this the story of a failed life, one of unfulfilled passion and quiet desperation? Or should we instead admire Stoner’s vocational zeal, and the way he rises above his humble background? We don’t often describe the novels we read as life-changing, but this might well be one of them.
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
American writer Maggie Nelson presents another genre-bender of a work in Bluets, a literary dissection of the world’s favourite colour. After spending years gathering, magpie-like, an array of observations, quotes and facts relating to the colour blue, she has organised them in the form of 240 numbered fragments that read various like prose poetry and journal entries. The book alludes to Plato, Wittgenstein, Sylvia Plath, delving into autobiographical recollections of grief, sex and heartbreak through the prism of this hue. Nelson writes: “I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.”
Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001)
This wry, caustic book of poems about a failed relationship is a “fictional essay” ostensibly anchored in Keats’ famous remark that truth is beauty, and beauty truth. The poems’ narrator begins by telling us about her notebook-pilfering, adulterous husband – a man who was not loyal, and far from true. If beauty is truth, what then does untruth signify? The Keatsian quote turns, in its inverse, into a veiled insult.
Anne Carson, a prolific poet, essayist and a scholar of ancient Greek, delights the reader with many memorable lines: “You used to say. ‘Desire doubled is love and love doubled is madness.’/ Madness doubled is marriage/ I added/ when the caustic was cool, not intending to produce/ a golden rule.” This book of poems is eminently readable, and – depending on your taste for the sardonic – will elicit many, many (nervous) laughs.
Angus Cerini, The Bleeding Tree (2015)
In a small Australian town, the wife and daughters of a dead man stand over his corpse, wondering how they should dispose of his body. “Girls, I think your father’s dead. I knocked his knees out. I conked his head. I shot that house clown in the neck,” their mother says. Angus Cerini’s extraordinary play, whose lines of dialogue are not attributed to specific characters (one has to make an educated guess), is written in a rural Australian dialect and has the quality of an epic poem or a (very twisted) nursery rhyme.
The Bleeding Tree, which forces its audience to confront the violence inflicted on women without actually spelling it out, unfolds with a trance-like, incantatory quality. X found it strangely reminiscent of Eimear McBride’s monologue A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, which also deals with male-on-female violence. Cerini’s award-winning piece is a powerful, gripping work we would love to see performed live. Till we get to do that, reading the text will have to do.