My best books of the year include a tale of 12th-century nuns, a ranting polemic, and a clear-sighted puncturing of prejudiced myths – Laura Waddell

Here is the column I most enjoy writing, as I take a look back at the best books I read this year.

There were so many gems to be read that Laura Waddell's list of best books hardly scratches the surface of what's available (Picture: Arne Depert/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
There were so many gems to be read that Laura Waddell's list of best books hardly scratches the surface of what's available (Picture: Arne Depert/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

Historical tales take us out of our own time and situation, and when current affairs seem especially bleak, that's inviting.

But it’s not necessarily escapism. If they have depth, and aren’t the starchy, upstairs-downstairs carry on of so many TV dramatisations, stories from centuries past elongate our perspectives, diminishing the narcissistic, albeit easy-to-believe idea that our present is uniquely horrible.

Over the course of time, some things get worse, some things get better, and the world has seen it all before. (Not climate change, though. We need to get that sorted, pronto.)

Matrix by Lauren Groff, about an 12th-century cloister of nuns taken from poverty to booming business by matriarch mystic Marie de France, was definitely a highlight of my reading year, and I’m still coming to terms with the scale of The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk about enigmatic 18th-century Pole Jacob Frank, who led his followers in all kinds of hijinks, upsetting the high heid yins of three established religions.

In non-fiction, I gobbled up Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, a tender memoir about coming to terms with the death of her mother and taking on the responsibility of preserving Korean family food traditions.

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Small Bodies of Water by Nan Shepherd prize winner Nina Mingya Powles merged nature and food writing to enjoyable effect, and Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller, a James Baldwin-infused essay collection deserving of more attention, explores the toll withstanding racism takes on the body and mind. Another highlight in essays was the ranting, raving, thoroughly entertaining polemic Things Are Against Us by the always intriguing Lucy Ellmann.

Released last autumn, but new to me, Radical Attention by Julia Bell makes a strong case for spending less time online, or, if you want to look at it positively, for spending attention more carefully and purposefully. The coming years will probably see more strong writing on this subject, as society rethinks how social media has crept invasively across our lives.

Make Bosses Pay by Eve Livingstone is a brilliant, encouraging primer on unions not only for those new to the subject but also those jaded by their role in the workplace or local politics, and The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye calmly and methodically bursts the prejudiced myths that have spread like a virus in recent years. It is not easy to write on a subject so fraught, with detractors so obsessive, and so massive kudos to Faye for this feat.

In literary novels and short stories, I got that spark of excitement from the storytelling talent of Bryan Washington's collection Memorial, Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuezemi, the spectacular debut Assembly by Natasha Brown, Keeping the House by Tice Cin, Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro and my personal favourite from the Booker shortlist, No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

But due to space constraints, I merely scratch the surface: there were lots of gems and as usual, particularly from the compulsion-driven small independent publishers doing their damndest to withstand 2021.

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