The 12 books that made their mark in 2021

By Jason Steger

Made sure you add these to your bookshelf – the must-reads that made their marks in 2021.

Thousands of books are published each year and many sink without a trace, barely leaving a smudge on the burnished bookshelves of the nation’s bookshops. But here are 12 that deserve to be read.

Leave the World Behind
Rumaan Alam

The New York writer’s novel begins with a white family heading off on holiday to an isolated Long Island home they have rented for the summer. They have scarcely unpacked and had a swim when there’s a knock on the door and they are confronted by an African-American couple in their 60s, the Washingtons, who claim to own the house. They have fled the city because something is happening, beginning with a blackout. So begins a gripping novel that touches on issues of class and race that also seemed to capture the feeling of unease and uncertainty that characterised this year. If you’re planning to leave the world behind this summer, take this book with you.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam.

Love and Virtue
Diana Reid

A novel that’s really on the money, touching on issues of consent, power abuse and the right to tell stories. Diana Reid’s book is set among the first years at a university where places are coveted. Michaela and Eve become close friends, but something happens to Michaela early in the piece and its reverberations drive the gripping narrative of this smart, first novel. The book is also one of the first publications from a new literary publisher, Ultimo, part of the Hardie Grant stable, that burst out of the blocks this year with several acclaimed books.

Diana Reid’s debut novel Love and Virtue.Credit:Wolter Peeters

The Labyrinth
Amanda Lohrey

Okay, it wasn’t published this year, but the Tasmanian writer’s novel snapped up two of the biggest literary prizes in 2021 – the Miles Franklin and the PM’s award for fiction – so has certainly garnered a lot of attention. And fair enough too. The critics loved this quiet, precisely written book about a woman who moves to the south coast of NSW to be close to her artist son who is incarcerated in a nearby prison, and to come to terms with other absences in her life. How does she start the process? By building a labyrinth. Lohrey’s novel is melancholy, moving, and ultimately uplifting.

Amanda Lohrey and her book The Labyrinth.

Jonathan Franzen

A Franzen novel doesn’t come along that often, and certainly not one as good as this. He’s on the territory that he knows well – families. In this case, it’s the Hildebrandts – frustrated pastor dad Russ, unhappy mother Marion, tormented eldest son Clem, unconfident Becky, precocious Perry and young Judson. They and their country are at the crossroads – it begins in 1971 – and for Franzen it’s the first part of what is supposed to be a trilogy. But not a conventional trilogy that finds book two following on from the first part. It will dip in and out of characters’ lives over the subsequent 50 years. Crossroads is absorbing and will keep you going for quite a while.

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is Crossroads.

How to End a Story
Helen Garner

I love Helen Garner’s voice and reading this third volume of her diaries (1995-1998) as she negotiates the final years of her marriage to the famous Australian novelist whom she calls V (but we know as Murray Bail) is bracing, moving, even eye-popping at times, and always fascinating. How do two writers co-exist in a relationship, what impact does it have on their work, how do you deal with the loss of love? “Maybe my right place to work,” she notes in 1995, “is down a fissure between fiction and whatever the other thing is. Down a crack.” With that in mind check out what she has written since. Scrupulous stuff and so rewarding.

Helen Garner, pictured in 1996, offers an extraordinary portrait of the breakdown of a marriage in the third volume of her diaries.Credit:Cathryn Tremain

Apples Never Fall
Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty’s ninth novel was the official number one bestselling book this Christmas, according to Nielsen BookScan, which surveys book retailers around the country. Perhaps that isn’t surprising given the immense popularity of the television series based on her books. But long before they appeared on our screens, her books were widely loved. This drama detonates the equilibrium of the tennis-playing Delaney family as they gather to celebrate pater familias Stan on father’s day. Blunt speaking and a disappearing mother are just two of the ingredients.

Australian author Liane Moriarty.Credit: Supplied

Beautiful World, Where Are You
Sally Rooney

If there was a special award for the most hyped book this year, the Irish writer’s third novel would surely be a shoe-in. Allee Richards, herself no slouch as a novelist (see her much admired debut, Small Joys of Real Life) pointed out in her review that perhaps Rooney’s huge success had “spawned fervent dislike of her work”. The two couples – the two women are old friends and the book includes their emails to each other – in Rooney’s third novel are older than the characters in the huge selling Normal People and Conversations with Friends and more concerned with their futures and that of the world they live in. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Rooney ushers in Covid late in the book. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

Sally Rooney’s latest novel is Beautiful World, Where Are You. 

Last Letter to a Reader
Gerald Murnane

There’s no writer in Australia quite like Gerald Murnane (nor anywhere else, most likely) and in this neat little publication he takes his farewell from the world of writing for publication – as opposed to just writing – by looking back at all his books and seeing how he now thinks about what he then thought and felt when he conspired to write them. Murnane’s imaginative territory is as distinctive as that created by any great writer. As he puts it towards the end: “I’ve mentioned in my own writings my perception of mind as a sort of space the boundaries of which are far beyond my reach, and the image that most often occurs to me when I try to comprehend the significance of the million and more of my published words is of a vast and variegated landscape.” It’s a landscape definitely worth exploring if you haven’t already.

Gerald Murnane’s last book is titled Last Letter to a Reader.Credit:

No One Is Talking About This
Patricia Lockwood

There’s been fair bit of autofiction published this year – think Vogel winner Emma Batchelor’ Now That I See You and Christos Tsiolkas’ – but perhaps internet maven Patricia Lockwood’s is the pick of the crop. This witty novel unfolds in short sharp paragraphs, a form that mimics the internet itself – or “the portal” as it is called here. Midway through, however, something happens that changes how the characters perceive what’s happening around them. As Jo Case noted in her review: “Humming below the surface are deeper philosophical rhythms. In one example after another, Lockwood shows that while the specifics of our lives – language, communication, cultural icons – are unrecognisably different from past generations, essential human dynamics remain remarkably consistent.”

Patricia Lockwood’s novel is No One Is Talking About This.Credit:

Bodies of Light
Jennifer Down

Some characters really stay with you. I remember reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and the central character, poor put-upon Jude, seemed to be with me when I wasn’t actually reading it and then in my head long after I finished the book. I had the same experience with Jennifer Down’s Maggie Sullivan, whose tragic life bears comparisons to Jude. Into care at five, abused and neglected, and experiencing unimaginable sadnesses, Maggie manages to retain some dignity and the ability to envisage a future that may not be “big” in the scheme of things, but hers and is therefore meaningful. This is a significant achievement by a very gifted writer.

At the heart of Jennifer Down’s novel, Bodies of Light, is the idea of reinvention.Credit:Jennifer Soo

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
Anita Heiss

This is a rather beautiful and generous story about an Indigenous woman, her love for her family and her love of Country. It begins in 1852 when the Murrumbidgee River floods and kills dozens in Gundagai and Wagadhaany’s father rescues many of the survivors, including some of the Bradley family, for whom his daughter works. He gets scant reward, while she is torn away to pastures new by her employer. Anita Heiss has been learning the Wiradyuri language of her people and uses it liberally in this warm-hearted novel that never shies away from picturing the cruelties, damage and inequities of colonialism.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray byAnita Heiss is a must-read.

John le Carre

By no means his best novel, rather a posthumous reminder of the treats he gave us during a writing career in which he virtually created the Cold War spy novel and then reworked it after the collapse of the Soviet Union, proving wrong the naysayers who predicted he would lose his material. That’s because his novels were always about more than spies, being in addition state-of-the-nation books that chronicled the decline in morality and status of a once admired country. Questions of loyalty and treachery – what else? – lie at the heart of his final novel set by the coast in England and revolving round the mysterious emigre who comes into Julian Lawndsley’s life.

Silverview is another of John le Carre’s formidable examinations of individual conscience versus the needs of the state.Credit:Tom Jamieson

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