The best (and worst) novels of 2021 so far

This is partly due to the prose style, which Riviere himself has called “relentless”. Solomon Wiese’s name, like every name in the book, is given in full each time it appears. Similarly, the “quantitative analysis and comparison system (QACS)” that detects his fraud is still the “quantitative analysis and comparison system (QACS)” on its umpteenth mention. I found this got funnier each time.

Riviere’s prose is peppered with this kind of small joke at the expense of the reader’s patience. He likes long, pedantic, spiralling periods, where each phrase “cover[s] essentially the same ground but in a little more detail, revealing a little more of the terrain and sequence of events with each telling” – see how those two clauses say the same thing? I’d quote the full sentence, but it’s 241 words. The effect is weirdly hypnotic.

Though Solomon Wiese’s main interest is Solomon Wiese, he digresses to tell the story of (among many others) copyright pirate Christian Buch, whose account of escaping a possibly imaginary asylum includes the story of another man called Christian, an inventor working on a machine that creates ink from human blood and other bodily fluids. The strange and inexplicable abound: there are conspiracies, clues and delicious Nabokovian red herrings.

Oh, and this mad Russian doll of a novel takes the form of one unbroken paragraph, all talk but no dialogue. Everything is indirect, reported speech, leading to sentences like: “It had to be some kind of sick joke, the old poet had said to his esteemed editor acquaintance, the old poet said.”

If that weren’t off-putting enough, the satire can veer into surreal grotesquery: one character has a foot that leaks colourless pus; another’s head is covered with soft black scabs; Wiese chews other people’s poems to pulp between his teeth. Dead Souls is a real achievement, but one you’ll be desperate to escape. Tristram Fane Saunders

Dead Souls is published by W&N at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

The Answer to Everything by Luke Kennard ★★★★☆

David Lodge once observed that literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children, whereas life is the other way around. Well, not nowadays: literature has become lifelike.

For whatever reason – the increasing feminisation of literature? A more solipsistic culture in which writers draw more heavily on their life experiences, or readers demand books that correspond more closely with theirs? – rearing children is firmly at the centre of the modern novel, with the lives of parents usually depicted as an unbroken routine of soul-grinding labour reminiscent of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Luke Kennard’s second novel shows how much things have changed since Lodge’s heyday. It occupies what was once classic Lodge territory, as an intellectual serio-comedy about adultery – but one in which the lovers are too tired, and too much trammeled by their parental responsibilities, to have sex.

Drama teacher Emily and middlingly successful artist turned lecturer Elliott meet as new neighbours on an “upcycled” estate, a collection of past-their-prime new-builds tarted up to attract “ageing hipsters”. (The unsatisfactory housing arrangements foisted on the millennial generation made for one of the central themes of Kennard’s debut novel, The Transition, and prove a good source of agonised comedy here, too.)

Both are bereft of emotional support from the resentful spouses they are closeted with – Elliott’s wife Alathea complains that they can’t even go out for dinner because they’re “imprisoned by the children you impregnated me with” – and so they conduct, without the inconvenience of having to leave their homes, an “emotional affair” over WhatsApp (great swathes of the book comprise transcripts of their messages). “ ‘You still there?’ ‘Yeah. Sorry. Minor child-based drama.’ ‘Tell me about it.’ ‘Is that rhetorical?’ ” It’s the old, old story with a modern twist: a form of infidelity both practical and – thanks to the dopamine hit that comes with every ping notifying a new message – perhaps even more addictive than analogue lust.

I suspect that many of Kennard’s readers will recognise so much of themselves and their lives in this book that they’ll be nodding away like Churchill dogs. He writes with wit and insight about the effort necessary to sustain a crumbling marriage (“It felt increasingly necessary for her to look back, as if the strength of a long-term relationship depended primarily on nostalgia”), and the enervating irrationality of children.

As the jokes about the miserable lives led by poets might indicate, Kennard is a practising poet – one of the most garlanded of his generation, in fact – and his prose, if not “poetic” in the sense of being lyrical, has a good poet’s precision. Not all of his verbal conceits come off but many are superb: Elliott telling Emily after one break-up that “I’ve pretty much transferred everything over to you in my head… Like I’ve converted everything into an obsolete currency”; or Alathea on how men work on “a points-based system like the International Baccalaureate” – “Like, I had an affair, but I just sorted the recycling. And you’re still giving me a hard time” – whereas women think more along A-level lines: “your A in Household Maintenance doesn’t make up for the E in fidelity. No Oxbridge for you, pal.”

There is an imbalance in the book, however. Where Emily is a fully realised character, Elliott is less palpable: partly because the other characters repeatedly insist he is possessed of a magnetic charm that Kennard doesn’t quite convey; and partly because Kennard cannot go deep into Elliott’s head because some of his feelings and motivations need to remain obscure in order for a couple of late plot twists to be successfully deployed. It’s a trade-off slightly to be regretted, as I suspect most readers will admire this novel less for its plotting than for the acuity of most of its characterisations and its observations on 21st-century life and love. Jake Kerridge

The Answer to Everything is published by Fourth Estate at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir ★★★☆☆

In 2011 Andy Weir, a computer programmer, self-published a novel about an astronaut abandoned on Mars and cheerily devising ingenious methods of survival. The scientific detail in The Martian was so intricate that it might serve as a worst-scenario manual for all Mars-bound spacemen, but it was leavened with wit, and the book became a bestseller and a Ridley Scott film.

Following Artemis, a less widely loved follow-up about a smuggler on the Moon, Weir has now resurrected his debut’s formula for his third novel. Once again, a geeky but gung-ho astronaut narrator wisecracks his way through a series of potentially lethal challenges to which his scientific expertise always provides a solution.

The stakes are infinitely higher this time, however. The book begins with the narrator waking up alongside two corpses and suffering from amnesia. He soon deduces that he is the only surviving crew member on what turns out to be a vital mission for mankind. As his memory returns in shreds and patches, our man recalls he is Dr Ryland Grace, once a world leader in “the field of speculative extraterrestrial biology” but mocked and scorned by academia until forced to find work as a science teacher. However, when it’s discovered that a pesky species of microbes – “space algae” – has invaded the sun, scoffing its energy and making the Earth uninhabitably chilly, the world’s governments turn as one to Ryland.

When it comes to the science Weir works on the principle that you get extra marks for showing your working, but he has a gift for making astrophysics and the like not just painless but fascinating. He is less sure-footed when it comes to contriving emotional effects or pursuing philosophical ideas, but although the novel lacks depth, the narrator’s diffident charm humanises it. Perhaps its apotheosis will be a forthcoming movie adaptation with Ryan Gosling, but it’s certainly a novel hard to put down. Jake Kerridge

Project Hail Mary is published by Del Rey at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota ★★★★★

Near the beginning of China Room, the narrator, an unnamed man approaching 40, studies a photograph of an old lady in a white chunni holding a squalling baby. “It was of my great-grandmother, an old white-haired woman who’d travelled all the way from England just so that she might hold me, her new-born great-grandson.” That same picture is printed at the end of the novel – Sunjeev Sahota’s third, after his 2015 Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways – which has its roots in Sahota’s family history.

The novel unfolds in Punjab over two timelines. In 1929, the narrator’s great-grandmother Mehar is 15 and one of three brides married to three brothers – though she doesn’t know which. She and the other wives are “expected to remain dutiful, veiled and silent”, and live in the “china room” at the back of the farm run by their despotic mother-in-law Mai. Mehar’s only encounters with her husband come in a pitch-black room at night; making it all too easy for Mehar to fall in love with the wrong brother, whom she mistakes for her husband.  

Meanwhile, the narrator remembers the summer of 1999. He’s 18 and a heroin addict, sent by his parents, who own a shop in the North of England, to India to detox. He finds himself drawn to the run-down farm where Mehar lived, and the stories of a woman who was locked up in the china room. Sweaty and sleepless, he reckons with the racist hostility that shaped his early years: “I can’t remember ever looking up as a child without immediately feeling as if I had no right and should look away.”

Themes of freedom and imprisonment are knitted through both stories, which, despite the historical setting, are resolutely inward-looking. Sahota’s writing has a songlike sketchiness to it – in the pared-back elegance of his sentences and his arresting use of colour (“the older kids, with their grey threatening noise”, “a treacly dark light”, “a day as bright as parrots”). Poised and poignant, China Room is a rare novel that makes you pause in its beauty. Francesca Carington

China Room is published by Harvill Secker at £16.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina ★★★☆☆

Rahul Raina’s debut novel may easily be the most cynical of the year. India’s politicians, endemic corruption, national obsession with the West and above all its super-rich come in for a bashing in How to Kidnap the Rich, a self-consciously feral Tarantino-style joyride through an unlovely Delhi. It’s already been optioned by HBO.

Ramesh, the 24-year-old son of a tea-seller, is an “Educational Consultant” – in other words, he takes exams for rich kids. He’s hired to impersonate an uninspiring teenager called Rudi for his all-important All India exams (“the gateway to the best universities, the brightest futures, the whitest lives”). When he gets the top result in the country – well, the second best, after a Muslim kid, Ramesh notes in a typically acid aside – Rudi is catapulted to fame. He becomes star of a TV show, Beat the Brain, with Ramesh as his manager. Influencer-dom, parties and drugs follow. But when Rudi humiliates a fellow upper-class teen on live TV, it results in his kidnapping – and then more kidnappings on top of that.

How to Kidnap the Rich is funny, if you like your humour abrasive and masculine (Raina’s portrayal of women, as individuals and as a fan demographic, isn’t stellar). Ramesh is a try-hard narrator (“take that, Slumdog Millionaire”), but what stands out in this book is its unapologetic depiction of a Delhi that’s frankly a bit rubbish. “This India, my India, smells like s—. It smells like a country that has gone off, all the dreams having curdled and clumped like rancid paneer.”

The smell of Paco Rabanne wafts through Ramesh’s insalubrious encounters; bribery is just as ubiquitous. But there’s a fondness in this biting negativity, which convinces more than the graceful descriptive passages of other India-set novels. Chuck in twists and double-crossings, just the right amount of violence and a denouement in a besieged TV studio and you can’t fail to be entertained. Francesca Carington

How to Kidnap the Rich is published by Little, Brown at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

Bear by Marian Engel ★★★★★

“A strange and wonderful book, plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, and with the same disturbing resonance,” proclaimed Margaret Atwood of her fellow Canadian Marian Engel’s 1976 novel, Bear. To describe the plot of this slim, sexy masterpiece – now finally back in print – is inevitably to find oneself caught up in its more salacious details. Lou, a lonely librarian sent out into the wilderness, reacquaints herself with the pleasures of the flesh by means of an intimate relationship with a grizzly. But, as Atwood intimates, Engel’s masterstroke is to make her heroine’s earthy, erotic awakening feel both wonderfully and subversively celebratory, and entirely natural.

At the Historical Institute in Toronto, where she works, Lou spends her days “like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts”. One year, however, as winter turns into spring, she is plucked from her dark, book-lined basement burrow and sent wide-eyed out into the sunshine. The recently deceased Colonel Jocelyn Cary – not, in fact, a military man, but a woman christened “Colonel” to fulfil the conditions of her ancestor’s will – has left her remote island estate to the institute, and someone has to travel north to catalogue its library and assess the lay of the land.

Although “no longer the isolated outpost on a lonely river” it once was, Cary’s Island is still off the beaten track. What awaits Lou in the woods there, however, isn’t a ramshackle log cabin, but rather an elegant white house, finely furnished – and octagonal. All the more surprising is the bear that lives there too, the last in a long line of his kind, dating back to a beast belonging to the very first Colonel Cary, who was born in England in 1798, but so taken with the idea of living on an island that he “opened an atlas of the New World, closed his eyes, and picked out Cary’s Island with a pin”. He then put a clause in his will that said the child of each generation who became a colonel would inherit the house.

Lou, who we are told “had always loved her loneliness”, sets about her work cataloguing the books. She plants and tends a modest garden, and keeps increasingly close quarters with the bear. It’s a quiet, methodical existence – passion, we’re told, “is not the medium of bibliography” – the gentle rhythms of which Engel conjures up with prose possessed of a similarly spare and unhurried elegance. But surging just beneath the surface are untamed desires, which find release not just in Lou’s eventual sexual encounters with the bear – described in relatively graphic but somehow still wholesome detail – but more broadly in the lush, wild turbulence of the natural world all around them.

Savagery is an ever-present threat. It’s in the description of “the probable violence of the colours in the fall”, the sudden piercing cry of a bird – “A bittern boomed eerily” – and, of course, in the looming, lumbering figure of the bear himself. “I am only a human woman. Tear my skin with your clattering claws,” Lou wills her ursine lover recklessly, drunk on sensual pleasure. Yet the more Engel describes the bear in all his animalistic glory, the more we also come to understand the creature as a metaphor for masculinity, exposed in the spotlight of the female gaze: “Look at the bear, dozing and drowsing there, thinking his own thoughts,” muses Lou. “Like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big.”

And in the background hovers the ghost of Colonel Jocelyn Cary, “a great lady,” as Lou calls her – who, she is told, fearlessly trekked across the ice in the winter, lived by her traps, and wasn’t afraid of the hard work of living. “Nah,” a local man who knew the old woman, contradicts Lou. “She wasn’t a great lady. She was an imitation man, but a damned good one.”

Bear is too wily and wilful a tale to be didactic, but it is all the richer for Engel’s subtle, probing exploration of gender roles and dynamics. It’s imbued with the sexual politics of 1970s second-wave feminism – not to mention issues of colonial plunder, both of bodies and land – but, like all the best so-called “rediscovered” gems, this enchanting, singular book still feels as fresh and exciting today as it surely did nearly half a century ago. Lucy Scholes

Bear is published by Daunt at £9.99. To order your copy for £8.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, tr Jamie Bulloch ★★★★☆

Leipzig-dwelling writer Daniela Krien’s second novel, Love in Five Acts, is already a bestseller in Germany. It charts the romantic lives of five women in their 40s, each linked to the last in a kind of unhappy and restless relay race.

First up is Paula, a bookseller grieving the death of her baby. Her chapter is the mini-account of her doomed relationship with her eco-warrior husband, its potency amped up by the speed of its telling. Next comes Paula’s oldest friend Judith, a horse-mad doctor. Having always been proudly single, she’s now reminded of “how difficult it is to be alone” and zips through men on a horsey dating site.

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