What are the most notable new novels of spring 2021?
We continue to experience a publishing pile-up, as books postponed from 2020 spill over into the new year’s catalogue. As a result, this season offers an embarrassment of riches for the reader of novels, a glittering literary line-up that I cannot hope to cover here in anything approaching a comprehensive manner. Here, then, is a necessarily partial list of the new novels published in spring 2021 that represent my own personal highlights of the coming season.
Let’s discuss those with January publication dates first.
Imminent releases include the latest novel from Jenni Fagan, author of The Panopticon – the story of Anaïs Hendricks, a fierce, quick-witted girl growing up in care – and the strangely beautiful cli-fi dystopia The Sunlight Pilgrims. Fagan’s third book Luckenbooth portrays residents of a tenement block in Edinburgh’s old town over a 90-year period; it’s darkly entertaining with elements of magical realism.
Torrey Peter’s Detransition, Baby starts from a provocative premise – a co-parenting triangle formed by a trans woman, a former trans woman (now detransitioned and living again as a man), and his new girlfriend who has fallen unexpectedly pregnant. It tackles big issues (gender dysphoria, the challenges of living as a trans woman, non-traditional family units) with wit and flair; think Fleishmann is in Trouble, if Fleishmann is in Trouble were set in the New York LGBTQ community. Serpent’s Tail, the British publisher, has published a brief extract online which will give you a sense of the voice, in case you want to try before you buy.
Sarah Moss’s Summerwater finally reaches the US on 12 January; released in the UK last year to thunderous acclaim, this small but perfectly formed novel comprises twelve monologues voiced by guests at a remote holiday park on a Scottish lochside, whose stories come together and apart – as, all the while, rain hammers at the window and the tension mounts.
I was particularly excited to receive an early proof of Olivia Sudjic’s second novel, Asylum Road (21 January in the UK, no US release date yet), which I gobbled up in record time. In it, Anya, a woman who fled the war-torn Balkans as a child, returns to visit her Bosnian parents for the first time in years, with her very English fiancé in tow. It’s an impressive novel; Sudjic’s cool affect and sense of detachment provides cover for a growing sense of urgency and alienation. I’m not sure if I’d describe it as a fragmentary novel, exactly, but it’s certainly fractured – personally I love it, although I know this style can be polarising. (I also recommend Sudjic’s 2017 debut, Sympathy, an ultra-online story of digital stalking and sexual obsession.)
And if that sounds interesting to you, I suspect you will also be excited to hear that Max Porter, author of the thrilling, shape-shifting novellas Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny, will release a new book – The Death of Francis Bacon – on January 7. Again, I don’t see a US release date listed yet, but Americans should keep their eyes peeled. It’s described variously as a novel and a sequence of seven “written pictures,” its an ambitious attempt to get into the mind of the late, great artist.
Fans of experimental fiction should also look out for Rebecca Watson’s little scratch, a formally inventive work of stream-of-consciousness that has had met with a rapturous critical reception, and is out on 14 January. Its words often scattered across the page, or unfolding in parallel columns, it has an enthralling, slightly breathless quality and perfectly recreates the flickering of thoughts through the anxious mind. Get a sense of Watson’s style by reading the award-winning short story that spawned the novel in The White Review.
Finally, Abigail Dean’s Girl A is the psychological thriller everyone seems to be talking about this season. The focus of enormous pre-publication hype, the novel has been backed by Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train), Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist) and what seems like dozens of other big-name authors, and is set to be a television show directed by Johan Renck (HBO’s Chernobyl). In it, a woman is forced to reckon with the extreme abuse she and her siblings underwent as children at the hands of their parents and the impact it had on their later lives. An assured debut that you will find hard to put down – but be prepared for a harrowing read. It’s out on the 21 January in the UK, and 2 February stateside.
What novels do we have to look forward to in February 2021?
The American writer Patricia Lockwood is best known as a poet and memoirist (you really must read her hilarious account of growing up the daughter of a charismatic but erratic Lutheran minister, Priestdaddy), but she will release a debut novel No One is Talking About This on February 16. It’s garnered praise from Sally Rooney (Normal People) and Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror) and follows a woman who has found enormous fame off the back of her humorous social media posts. (One might suspect there to be an autofictional strand at play here, given that Lockwood is almost as well known for her irreverent Twitter presence as she is for her perceptive literary criticism.)
Another book I am extremely excited about is the American critic Lauren Oyler’s novel, Fake Accounts. It’s about a woman who discovers that her boyfriend has a secret life online as an Instagram conspiracy theorist, it’s out on 2 February, and I simply can’t wait to get my hands on it. Who do I have to bribe to get an advance copy? Oyler is a fantastically acerbic critic, whose work I’ve admired for a while – regard the incisive skill on display in her review of Tolentino’s Trick Mirror in the London Review of Books, for example, or this uncomfortably clear-eyed dissection of the relationship between hype and critical response in an interview published by The End of the World Review. It goes almost without saying that a lot of eyes will be on her own fiction debut – but indications are good. (“I started [Oyler]’s book thinking ‘she is such an enormous bitch in her book reviews, her novel better be unimpeachably great,'” as the memoirist Emily Gould put it, “and whoops! Sorry, it is!”)
Not a novel, but I want to briefly mention that the American writers R. O. Kwon (The Incendiaries) and Garth Greenwell (Cleanness – one of my favourite novels of 2020) have teamed up to produce an anthology of short fiction called Kink, which explores questions of love and desire “across the sexual spectrum” with a starry list of contributors including Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado and Chris Krause. It’s going straight on my pre-order list. Out 9 February.
And I suspect you will also be pleased to hear that Five Books alumnus Francis Spufford, author of Red Plenty and Golden Hill, will release a new novel in February 2021 (although readers in the US will have to wait until May). The latest book, Light Perpetual imagines an alternate future for five children killed in a (real-life) WW2 bombing: what if, somehow, they had survived? What are the lives they would have gone on to live? A detailed portrait of London through the 20th century.
I’ll also be looking out for Vendela Vida’s We Run The Tides (February 9), and Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall – author of the dizzying postmodern thriller The Raw Shark Texts (4 February in the UK, or 6 April in the US).
Already we’ve amassed a tottering pile of new novels to read in the spring of 2021. But what March releases should be on our radar?
Kazuo Ishiguro will be publishing his first new novel since winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. Klara and the Sun (2 March) is told through the eyes of a slightly out-of-date android (“Artificial Friend”) as she secures her first owner. It’s a slim book, with big ambitions – asking questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence – reminiscent of Never Let Me Go.
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I’ll also be looking out for Mary H. K. Choi’s latest YA novel Yolk, about two estranged sisters facing serious illness, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom – finally out in the UK on 4 March, after receiving rave reviews in the US in September – and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed, a sequel to his bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning debut The Sympathiser. Science fiction fans will also be pleased to hear that Arkady Martine will release A Desolation Called Peace, a follow-up to A Memory Called Empire, recommended on this site when it was shortlisted for the 2020 Arthur C Clarke Award,
I am personally looking forward to Irish writer Megan Nolan’s debut, Acts of Desperation, about a brief, toxic relationship, its aftermath, and examining the self-negating impulse of a woman who needs to see herself reflected in the eyes of another person to feel herself to be real. With endorsements from Karl Ove Knausgaard and Catherine Pew, I think it’s going to make a real splash. I admire Nolan’s sensitive and emotionally honest personal essays; if you haven’t come across her before, I recommend this piece – which offers unflinching self-analysis disguised as an ode to the affordable pub chain Wetherspoons (“I still go there alone some hungover maudlin Sundays, needing there to be somewhere which always stays the same, and costs the same, and sounds the same.”), and this essay she wrote about being a university dropout for The Guardian (“When I arrived at Trinity, for all my problems, I still believed myself to be essentially clever and interesting, and within four weeks, that idea of myself, which had kept me safe, had been shattered.”).
Sounds great. Any more notable novels on the horizon in spring 2021?
I’m placing preorders now for Jon McGregor’s fifth novel Lean Fall Stand and Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser, both out in April. Look out for Rosa Rankin Gee’s Dreamland, set in Margate, on England’s south coast, in the near future: sex, drugs, rising sea levels and a love story between two young women. Plus Redder Days by Sue Rainsford, a slim masterpiece of literary horror.
Part of our best books of 2021 series.
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