[Review] The Year in Books 2021 – James McLoughlin

Welcome to the third instalment of The Year in Books. 2021 has been, as generously as I can put it, a year. It began in lockdown, then the pubs opened, and I think that just about covers it. 

It will be hard for this edition of The Year in Books to follow the same pattern of the previous two; the vast majority of my reading has been done at home, rather than on the bus or train, as has been the case in the past. I have also spent the entire year working at home, and so the days, like the books, have blended into one featureless blob distinguished only by the weather outside or the extent of my hangover in the morning. 

Hard, but not impossible. As always, reading gives us the chance to escape, to imagine different worlds with exciting possibilities. Or sometimes it simply reflects the extant world back at us from an angle we have never seen ourselves. Either way, when you spend 99% of your time within the same four walls, reading is simply a way to avoid going postal.

I began the year by reading a picture book. Liverpool Docks Through Time was a Christmas gift from Nana, who I had sought insight and advice from for a TV pilot I was writing, set around the Liverpool docklands in the 1930s. The book wasn’t a huge help on that front to be honest; it seemed to be aimed more at people who love ships than a historian’s lens onto the past, but nevertheless it was nice to imagine placing myself in a different time period during a cold and isolated January. 

Next came The Corrections, a Jonathan Franzen epic which, honestly, I completely forgot was this year. That’s how long 2021 has been. I thought I had read this two years ago, but no. Apparently I finished it on 7th January. I loved this book; it has become de rigueur for ‘people’ on ‘social media’ to hate Franzen, and I don’t have the energy to read into or explain why. This book energised me, though. I surged through it, an exploration of how the big crashes or catalysts that we experience in life are merely the result of myriad inadvisable decisions made over the years. This is a story of pieces or snapshots of people’s lives, and generally they are pieces that expose flaws we would rather hide. 

Meanwhile, I had some non-fiction running on the side. London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around The Ginger Line, by Iain Sinclair, was also a Christmas present (I get a lot of books). Sinclair’s prose style – which falls into a genre rather pretentiously labelled ‘psychogeography’ – is an acquired taste. It can often be overblown and overwrought, digressive in a way that distracts rather than immerses, but it is indeed a taste that I have acquired. Reading this book, or any of Sinclair’s exploratory works, you can’t fail to find a fascination for walking and discovering snippets of the city’s past amidst the jungle of the present. 

Funny like how? I next chose to read Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, the book on which Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was based. This was short, and interesting for the extra insights which didn’t make it into the film but was always going to lack the kinetic, frenetic energy of the movie. I reckon I would have enjoyed this much more if I had read it before I watched Goodfellas, but unfortunately time is a flat circle, or something. 

As January morphed into February, which looked curiously like January but shorter, I decided to cheer myself up from a deadly Covid wave and terrible weather by reading Shuggie Bain. Shuggie Bain is that rare thing: a Booker prize-winning novel that is actually good and worth reading. I would say it’s enjoyable to read, but it isn’t. It is an emotionally shattering portrait of neglect, abuse and poverty, but it is also endearingly compassionate to its characters: intimate, not cynical, and strikingly well written. The overarching message seems to be that as we are failed, so shall we fail others, which is not the most earth-shattering of truths, but you cannot fail to be moved by this novel. 

I think I took a week off to recover from that one, before moving on to The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore. As charitably as I can possibly say this, I’ve sort of forgotten most of what happens in this book. A quick browse of reviews tells me this isn’t necessarily my fault: very little does actually happen in it. The main character, Futh, is basically a big man-child on a walking tour struggling to get over the breakdown of his marriage. Futh, aside from having a terrible name, is helpless and hapless and it is quite difficult to believe he has made it to whatever age he is in the book. Still, the prose and dialogue are decent, and there are some interesting macabre moments. It could probably have done with being a short story, rather than a novelette. 

Next came The Autograph Man. Zadie Smith’s follow-up to the stupidly successful and brilliant White Teeth. While this book is a grower not a show-er, with plenty of evidence of Smith’s panache for situational observation, comedy and character development, it suffers by comparison with its predecessor, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for any Smith newbies. 

February, as is its wont, became March, and I spent my days counting down the time until the pubs reopened in April. I also spent the month reading Nocturnes, a collection of short stories from Kazuo Ishiguro, each centred around the themes of ‘Music and Nightfall’. There are five stories here: one about a washed-up crooner, one about a man whose only personality trait is his unerring taste in music, one about a struggling singer-songwriter who unwittingly finds himself involved in the failing marriage of a couple he’s just met, one about a gifted jazz musician who turns to plastic surgery to save his career, and finally one about a young cellist’s relationship with his tutor. 

Ishiguro’s prose is often beguiling in its gentleness and simplicity, and his go-to themes of love and loss are here in abundance. This book is deeply moving at times, and deeply boring at others. The point of simplistic prose is as a function of the iceberg theory, or the theory of omission. Coined by Hemingway, the iceberg theory refers to the technique of allowing surface elements of a story to reveal the underlying themes without explicitly discussing those themes. Ishiguro adheres to this theory somewhat, but the problem is that, in some of these stories at least, you’re often kept waiting for the surface elements to reveal something deeper, and they just don’t. Not bad, but not great either. The same can also be said of Klara and The Sun, which I read slightly later in the year. Klara at least has a more novel and interesting plot device to drive the story, and is certainly worth reading, but also falls just short of the greatness Ishiguro has achieved in the past. 

Next came probably my favourite book of the year. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is possibly the seminal indictment of American life in the 1950s, a portrait of grinding, suffocating conformity and dashed dreams in suburbia. Yates displays a genius for describing the minutiae of frustration and the gradual build of actions towards the collapse of a thin veneer. This is the kind of book you finish and flick back to the front to start again. I found myself slowing my pace towards the end because I didn’t want to move on – much like the characters, who remain frozen by fear and immobilised by illusions. This is a stunning novel and one I would recommend to anyone. 

I jumped back to contemporary literature for my next book, opting for Rainbow Milk, the accomplished debut from Paul Mendez. I finished this book not long after the pubs had opened again, and from hereon the pace of my reading slowed dramatically. Rainbow Milk is really good, a refreshing honesty and clarity to the prose and a moving insight into a lived experience very different from my own. I might be marking myself out as somewhat fusty here, but I felt that the book was overly explicit at times in a way that didn’t really serve the story, but that didn’t necessarily put me off. 

I received a delayed birthday package from Estonia in early May, and with it came a friend’s battered copy of Call for the Dead, a John le Carré novel. A deft navigation, as ever, through the intricate underworld of international, Cold War-era espionage featuring one of le Carré’s recurring characters, George Smiley. This is le Carré at his best: lean, brisk, contained. Smiley is dragged into an investigation surrounding the supposed suicide of a civil servant, answering a wake up call in the deceased’s home the next day, sparking suspicion and an attempt to uncover the plot behind Fennan’s death before catastrophic consequences are felt. It’s remarkable that this is le Carré’s debut novel. While it has its flaws, such as a tendency to describe the murky streets of London in great detail during what are otherwise highly suspenseful scenes, it is full of intriguing characters, a knack for the intricacies of plot and the subtleties of theme le Carré would later come to be hailed for. 

Some slight self-aggrandisement next. Towards the end of June, I had a short slice of auto-fiction (soz, Joyce Carol Oates) published in The Working Class Anthology, alongside none other than my brother and our exalted New Critique editor-in-chief Josh McLoughlin. This is a source of great pride for me, and while I won’t review either of our pieces, I will say that this anthology of poetry, fiction, fact and reflection is a remarkable feat and certainly opened my eyes to the reality of working class life in other countries and cultures; perhaps stemming from my own experience, but whenever I previously heard ‘working class’, I always immediately thought of the terraces, streets and colourless parks of North West England. If you hold any such illusions yourself, this anthology will dispel them, and then some. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge struck me quite deeply, despite having already seen the HBO miniseries. The whole thing rubbishes the idea that we need to like our protagonists in order to engage with them. The titular Olive is abrasive, cranky and mean-spirited at times, but the picture painted around her by Elizabeth Strout is of such richness that, by the end, many of our first assumptions are swept aside and we are reminded once again of the complexity of human character – ultimately, Olive has quite a positive impact on the world, despite the supposed shortcomings of her personality, and leaves a trail of change in her wake that can’t help but alter your view of humanity. It’s hard not to love a book that does that. 

My next book was markedly different: Joseph Conrad’s Victory. This is simultaneously heavier and lighter than Heart of Darkness. It is a dark psychological thriller about a man trying to escape from the world to a solitary and ascetic life. Ultimately, this pursuit fails as Conrad introduces a pair of devilish and animalistic villains who believe the protagonist has a stash of treasure and set about finding and stealing it. Conrad is well known for his mastery of English, specifically description of place and character, and all of that is once more in evidence here. It deals with similar weighty themes: isolation, world-weariness and the blurred lines between ‘civil’ and ‘savage’ societies. Reading this book was a nourishing but not necessarily enjoyable experience, heavy as it is with portentous doom and irredeemable evil. I would definitely recommend it, though. 

Cat’s Cradle deals with no less momentous themes, but with a satirical bent, exploring the intersection between religion and science and how the misinterpretation of that relationship can often be fatal. Indeed, it could lead to the final catastrophe for humanity, as we see towards the end of Vonnegut’s short novel. It is witty, philosophical, searing and inventive. It is both warm and angry, wise and silly, with a cornucopia of larger-than-life characters, such as the acerbic and cynical Philip Castle, who owns a hotel which specifically scorns snobs. 

By now we are well into the summer months. All pandemic-related restrictions in the UK had been lifted, and I had seen my friends and family again for the first time in many months. Reading took a backseat over July and August, as I focused on making the most of time with loved ones. I travelled to the Lake District, Leeds, Southport (numerous times) and gallivanted around London drinking more pints than is healthy. And all the while I made my way through The Goldfinch, a sweeping epic of a book if ever there was one (and according to book reviewers, there are a lot). Donna Tartt’s 800+ page tale of loss, addiction, vulnerability and crime is too all-encompassing to describe within the confines of this piece, to be honest. It covers so much ground as Theo Decker, the protagonist, crosses America in the wake of a tragic loss early in his life, from the moneyed elites of New York to the seedy decadence of Las Vegas and back again to a darker New York, one of drug dens and antique forgery, and then on to winter-quilted Amsterdam. It’s deep and rich and full and the kind of book you relish coming back to, wishing all the other stuff of life like work and chores would just go away so you can sit down and sink away. It’s great. 

Conversations with Friends, in many ways, is the complete opposite. That’s not to say it’s a terrible book. But if Sally Rooney’s novels are anything, they are most definitely not sweeping or epic. They are concerned with relationships and connections that form over a very specific instance of time, and of course take place in an entirely different culture. It’s not bad, although every single character is unlikable in this. As I mentioned before, protagonists don’t have to be our best friends, but nor can we be repulsed by them, as I was at times by the self-centredness of Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa. It’s the kind of novel that makes you roll your eyes at the state of people today; I felt myself morphing into my grandparents as the thought ‘just get over it and get on with it’ cycled through my head in the second half of the book. 3 stars, this one. 

You might have begun to notice a time-hopping theme here, but I reached back into the past after Rooney to sample some new (for me at least) Dickens with The Old Curiosity Shop. Initially serialised in the mid 1800s, this is your classic Victorian melodrama. It’s heartfelt, evocative, and everyone is crying with uncontrollable grief or rolling around with uncontainable mirth all of the time. It’s very over the top, but everything that has made Dickens such a national treasure is here: descriptive verve, social commentary and sentimentality. Dick Swiveller (what a name), Quilp and Sally Brass are worthy of place in the pantheon of Dickens ne’er-do-wells and villains and though it perhaps outstayed its welcome – hardly surprising, given the original per-instalment contract – by about 100 pages, it is nonetheless a joy to read and a book that lives long in the memory. 

Back through time and across borders now, as I chose to return to Haruki Murakami, someone whose work I’ve read a lot of in recent years. I have a personal sense of diminishing returns with Murakami. The style, the tone and the honesty of the characters is beguiling at first, but the more I read the less it impacts me. Still, South of the Border, West of the Sun was a good read, right up my street in terms of quiet, reflective characters, lots of dialogue and quiet glasses of whiskey at the end of the night. The problem is that with such a minimal prose style, the contemplation and the tensions bubbling just under the surface lack the kind of impact they would have if coupled with the viscerality of the visual – I’d love the Wong Kar Wai or Sofia Coppola adaptation of this, I think, but the book just falls short of the best of Murakami’s work. 

Life, as I’ve said, was quite featureless this year. The only definitive change points are lockdown and post-lockdown, and so we now find ourselves in October with no telling what happened to September and a sense of winter excitement yet to set in. I had set myself a challenge at the start of the year to read 30 books. Realising by now that I was way short of the pace needed to hit this target, I began to cheat, choosing the shortest novels available on my shelves. My Brilliant Friend came next. It’s not actually that short, but the brilliance of the prose here helped me sail through it. Elena Ferrante’s novel charting the fortunes and friendships of two young girls in a post-WW2 Naples neighbourhood is charming, effervescent and, to some extent, mythic in proportion. Ferrante deftly and delicately picks out the minutiae of her characters’ lives and loves, sweeping us along in the push and pull of years. We learn as the characters learn, we evolve as the neighbourhood evolves, and we are compelled as time compels us all from peak to nadir and back again. It’s really quite good.

Next was Lullaby, Leila Slimani’s slim thriller with a grim beginning. This is much the opposite of a whodunnit; we learn of the crime and the perpetrator in the very first chapter, and then Slimani takes us back in time to unravel the suffocatingly claustrophobic circumstances which led to it. While the actions of the main character – a nanny of two French children –  are unambiguously bad, Slimani does a great job of creating an ambiguity around the ‘why’ of her crime, and she manages to wrangle themes such as immigration, class relations, entitlement, poverty and trauma without making a mess of the whole thing, which is quite an achievement. 

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is quite different, not least in location. This had been on my shelf for over a decade before I finally decided to pick it up because it’s only about 150 pages. It’s a fairly unassuming coming-of-age tale, tackling religion, sexuality and repression. It’s been billed in the past as a ‘lesbian novel’ which Winterson objects to, and with good reason. The novel does indeed centre on a young lesbian girl as she transitions into full adulthood and wrestle with the confines of her upbringing in a religious community, but its lessons do not have to be limited to the specific demographics. I gather that this book was shocking at the time of its release. It feels somewhat tame today, perhaps a victim of its influence and yet more evidence that those who open the floodgates are often the first to be swept away. 

The next book that I finished was The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt. I actually started reading this book in April, when it arrived as, yep, you guessed it, a birthday present. It took me eight months to read not because it was unreadable but because it’s about 1000 pages long. Still, it’s amazing. I often sat back while reading this, boggling at the sheer depth and scope of Goldblatt’s research into the history of football. Now I need to read the follow-up, which is slightly shorter but no less imposing. What I loved most about this was how it weaves the threads of football history together with those of society in general; there is as much for the casual historian to gain from this as there is for football fans. 

I couldn’t go the year without reading something by Hemingway, and luckily I found Across The River and into the Trees on a bookshop bargain shelf, and greedily tucked in as the cold began to bite. All the classic Hemingway themes are here: youth and old age, love and loss, mortality and the consequences of choice. The plot here is essentially non-existent, which I don’t mind, but what normally saves plotless books is powerful characters or an indelible sense of place, time, theme. There is some of that here – it’s not Ern’s first rodeo, after all – but there is a sense that when he wrote this, he felt his masterpieces were behind him. That impression of entropy comes through very clearly in the words and actions of the Colonel, one of the novel’s chief actors. Nevertheless it falls somewhat flat in its attempts to convey the struggle to wrest youth and usefulness from physical collapse. He’d go on to achieve that and more with The Old Man and the Sea, but this didn’t quite hit the mark. 

After that, the stark and shocking Night by Elie Wiesel was like a punch to the throat. This is the story of Jewish family torn from their homes and transported to Auschwitz. There is no space here for the reader to flinch or look away from the horror. It’s a book that leaves you feeling numb, as though you have experienced all of that suffering yourself, overwhelmed by images and snapshots that evoke unanswerable questions. But there are rays of hope through the darkness of Night. Yes, the book throws a spotlight on humanity’s frankly staggering capacity for cruelty, but it also illuminates an equally breathtaking capacity for strength and perseverance. 

Anything would have felt trivial after that, so I decided to veer away from fiction momentarily, opting for Robert Plant: A Life, the rather unimaginatively-titled biography of, yes, Robert Plant, written by Paul Rees. As someone with no knowledge or interest of Plant’s solo career, this was only really interesting for its early focus on the germination, chaos and collapse of Led Zeppelin, though it is frustratingly short on the grisly details. That’s probably down to it being unauthorised. After the Zeppelin years, the book kind of descends into ‘and then Plant wrote this record, and then Plant toured the record, and then he came home, repeat a few times’. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that but this is bereft of the kind of insight, humanity and, frankly juice, that livens the best rock memoirs. 

I also managed to squeeze in Animal Lovers, a comic novel from debut author Rob Palk. Always wry, often poignant and just very enjoyable to read. It’s about a man whose wife has left him to go and save badgers from a cull, and his quest to win her back, jumping back and forth in time to show the slow-then-quick demise of their marriage. It’s hard work to write stories of such simultaneous levity and depth without peppering them with caricatures and pastiche, but Palk manages it.

And that’s about all for 2021. The keen-eyed nerds among you might have noticed that I didn’t hit my challenge of 30 books for the year, and I have no real excuse for that except: pubs. I do love a good book, and I love a good pub, and this year I probably visited more than 30 pubs, so I suppose they win out this time. Either way, I read some unbelievably brilliant books in 2021, which livened up an otherwise dull year no end. I haven’t even decided on my next book at the time of writing; I’m choosing between The Night Manager, by John le Carré, and Freedom by Johnathan Franzen. I could suggest readers send in their own recommendations, but I will most likely already have chosen by the time you read this. Even so, we’re always on the lookout for great reads at New Critique, so please do send any recommendations for 2022.

These pieces always run a little longer than expected, so if you’ve got this far, thank you and well done indeed. Let us know what you’ve read this year, how it’s helped you get through, and what you plan to read more of in 2022.

See you on the other side.

*

James McLoughlin is a Creative Editor for New Critique.