Zanzibar novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has lived in Britain since 1968, received the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature for telling such different stories. In serious, well-researched and subtle fiction, he explores the legacy of colonialism – Arab, British and German – in East Africa through his 10 novels. If you don’t know his work, start with Paradise (1994), a tale of Joseph / Yusuf’s story that brilliantly evokes the sights and smells of the Swahili coast.
Born in 1980 in what is now Somaliland, Nadifa Mohamed moved to the UK six years later. His Booker-shortlisted novel The Fortune Men (Viking, Â£ 14.99) tells the true story of a terrible miscarriage of justice in the 1950s in Cardiff, when an innocent Somali man named Mahmood Mattan was convicted of murdering a Jewish store clerk – and hanged. Mohamed’s novel, very close to the American genre of denouncing racial injustice, is also an atmospheric tale of Tiger Bay in 1952 and the forgotten multiculturalism that allowed Mattan to marry a local girl, Laura, who campaigned. for years to clear its name.
Having touched on suicide bombers and illegal immigrants in his previous books, British novelist Sunjeev Sahota is clearly not afraid of big topics. His beautifully written China Room (Harvil Secker, Â£ 16.99) has a more domestic accent: in India in 1929, three women married three brothers on the same day. Teenage Mehar faces a clearly unromantic wedding night: âHe smells strongly of grass, sweat and fenugreekâ¦ but beyond that she can detect soap and is glad he thought to wash before coming to see her this evening. A somewhat more familiar side story follows her addicted great-grandson.
The long history of Jewish life in Poland was suppressed by the Nazis. Olga Tokarczuk miraculously recreates the world of mid-18th century Jews, Christians and converts in The Books of Jacob, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, Â£ 25). Cited as the book that won him the Nobel Prize in 2018, this 1,000-page novel follows the charismatic cult (or cult?) Leader Jacob Frank, and addresses persecution, faith and mysticism. Believe me, it is worth it.
From the same formidable little publisher, Joshua Cohen tackles modern Jewish history in his comedy novel The Netantyahu (Fitzcarraldo, Â£ 12.99). Inspired by an anecdote Harold Bloom told Cohen about his meeting with the historian father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the book tackles Jewish cultural identity in the United States, debates over Zionism and the minor humiliations of campus life. It’s perfect for anyone Philip Roth misses.
Other historical novels worth checking out include Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton, Â£ 18.99), which begins with a soldier crammed into the Trojan horse desperate to empty his bowels. Where should they put the latrine buckets? “The end has —â¦ where else? Answers a pleasantly earthy Ulysses. Lauren Groff’s Perfect Matrix (William Heinemann, Â£ 16.99), set in an English abbey in the 12th century, follows a reluctant nun called Marie of France (a true poet) who ends up as a power-hungry abbess.
Talented Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi, whose first novel Homecoming was a success, this year produced Transcendent Kingdom (Viking, Â£ 14.99), which pits science against religion through the struggles of narrator Gifty. Once a strict Christian, and now a rationalist scientist, Gifty must learn to cope with her brother’s overdose death.
The search for faith in a chaotic world has been an important theme in 2021. But the analysis offered in my novel of the year goes deeper than Rooney’s nostalgia for a well-ordered religious setting: Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads (Fourth Estate , Â£ 20). Set in the gay-named 1970s church youth group that provides the title of the book, this stunning novel follows the complicated Hildebrandt family. The pastor father covets another woman, the mother is agonized over an abortion in her youth, and their pretty teenage daughter Becky wants to stay a virgin. All are sincerely, so fallibly, trying to do the right thing.
Franzen’s marriage of moral debates with an addictive story is reminiscent of George Eliot, alluded to in the title of this proposed trilogy: A Key to all Mythologies. The next two novels, we are told, will reach America today and presumably take into account the rise of the Internet. Franzen, I guess, will be more generous to tweeters who see in him all that is wrong with privileged literary culture. He, for his part, never lost faith in the power of forgiveness of fiction.
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