Best reads of 2021

26 December 2021 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers

We asked some of our favourite wordsmiths, authors and reviewers to tell us about their best reads of the year

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DIANE AWERBUCK - 'Grootslang' by Bontle Senne

This, weirdly, is from a schools' anthology - Going Wild and Other Stories: A Home Language Short Story Anthology for the Intermediate Phase (Best Books). In it was a particularly clear, chilling and really satisfying story, Senne's Grootslang. It marries the old terrors of fantastic beasts with the equally frightening home life of a teen girl. Senne's approach is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, but she's very much her own voice: she's the best suspense writer in the country. 'Grootslang' made me remember what it was like to be consumed by a story. 

by Ronelda S Kamfer
Kompoun by Ronelda S Kamfer
Image: Supplied

KOJO BAFFOE - Ran Walker's Keep It 100: 100-Word Stories (45 Alternate Press, Llc)

This book drew me in as much for the form as for the  stories themselves. To be able to communicate so much in  100 words is a level of craft I aspire to and one that Walker seems to do with such ease, dancing seamlessly in the spaces between poetry and prose. And the stories linger. I found myself, in random moments, saying 'damn' to myself when, all of a sudden, the 'penny dropped' and I got the punchline. I also had to let each story breathe, sometimes taking moments between reading, because there were times when they were overwhelming. 

AZILLE COETZEE - Kompoun by Ronelda Kamfer (Kwela)

A beautiful but painful account of a farmworker family in the Overberg. The story is told by two cousins, Nadia and Xavie, who unravel and reveal the terrible violence, neglect and layers of betrayal that weave the family together. Both in its style and content, the novel subverts the established norms of Afrikaans literature. Kamfer’s language is rhythmic, poetic and often  harsh. Her narrative is fragmented and circling, like memory. She writes into the tradition of the Afrikaans farm novel, but undermines it strikingly, or gives it new form, by focalising issues of land, belonging and inheritance from within various generations of a farmworker family.

MILA DE VILLIERS - Animal by Lisa Taddeo (Simon & Schuster)

Taddeo’s feverishly hypnotic debut novel is an unforgiving exploration of the cruelty men are capable of inflicting upon women, and societal constraints women are subjected to in patriarchal societies. The protagonist Joan’s rejection of enforced oppression is tangible as she takes the reader into her past which is permeated by violence, loss, disappointment, and persecution. Animal is an examination of women defying repression in as much as a harrowing look at family and belonging. A relentless read.

SHAUN DE WAAL - The Heart Is the Size of A Fist by PP Fourie (Kwela)

The Heart Is the Size of A Fist has taken me almost a year to read. I had to read it in small gobbets because this account of growing up with an alcoholic dad is, inevitably, painful to read; I'd even say it was "triggering" for me. But the way Fourie works through the trauma, in memory and then in the contemplative passages of the book, is cumulatively comforting – the beautiful writing alone makes it possible to complete this journey.

ANDREW HARDING - Head First by AI Santhouse (Atlantic); Jack by Marilynne Robinson (Virago)

I’m going to cheap and mention two books. The first is a fascinating dive into the misconceptions, prejudices and dramas gripping the world of psychiatry. Head First happens to have been written by one of my oldest friends, Al Santhouse, but – my own bias acknowledged – it is a revelatory read. The second has to be Jack. I’ve wallowed in so much good literature over the past two pandemic years, but Robinson’s writing is something else. Wry, dreamy, wise, transcendent. It reminds me of the experience of reading Beloved, or The Famished Road. It’s a rapturous, forlorn, star-crossed love story, set in a racially divided St Louis soon after World War 2.

CRAIG HIGGINSON - The Girls by Emma Cline (Vintage)

There has been a lot of hype around young American novelist Emma Cline. At the age of 25, and on the strength of her first novel, The Girls, she signed a two-million-dollar, three-book deal. Loosely inspired by the Manson Family and the murder of Sharon Tate, The Girls is not interested in Russell, the Manson-like cult leader, but instead concerns itself with the dynamics within the group of girls around him. The protagonist is Evie Boyd, a solitary and bored teenager who one day sees a group of wild-looking and irreverent girls in the park. She is mesmerised by a beautiful older girl called Suzanne who represents everything that Evie, in her numbed middle-class existence, seems to lack. Evie soon becomes drawn into the world of Suzanne, and her gradual abdication of power mirrors the girls’ more general abdication of power to Russell. As events escalate towards a secretly-planned murder, the novel explores themes of complicity, guilt, shame, ‘the forbidden’ and what it is to really feel alive. Cline writes with the suppleness of Sally Rooney, but in prose as alive, mercurial and indelible as Sylvia Plath. 

Razina Theba
A Home on Vorster Street Razina Theba
Image: Supplied

MICHELE MAGWOOD - Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Picador); A Home on Vorster Street by Razina Theba (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

I can't choose between two memoirs, both by remarkable women, both with a strong theme of food and identity: In Crying in H Mart Indie rock star Zauner teases out her American Korean identity as she mourns her mother's death. She finds solace in learning to make the Korean food her mother raised her on. Like me, you'll soon be down Korean cooking rabbit holes on the Internet. If pushed, though, I would choose Theba's A Home on Vorster Street as my book of the year. Theba was raised in Fordsburg in Jozi and grew up toddling around the Oriental Plaza where her parents had a store. It's a rich portrait of her community that has stayed with me for months. 

WAMUWI MBAO - Just Us by Claudia Rankine (Penguin)

This was a stand-out work of writing in 2021. This hybrid work is about the racialised encounters many of us have to contend with on a daily basis. Rankine thinks deeply about the way these encounters play out, and the effect they have on Black people. A worthy read for anyone who has ever had to sit through those 'why do Blacks...' conversations.

NIQ MHLONGO - The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage)

This is a love story set in the sweltering streets of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where relationships between unmarried men and women are illegal under the strict Wahhibism of Saudi Arabia state rule. The story is told through Naser, an immigrant from Eritrea who spends his time writing to his mother back home in Africa and yearning to meet a woman. This is a gripping story that portrays the claustrophobic, corrupt and insanely inhuman world of Saudi Arabia. 

SJ NAUDÉ - Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books)

I'm perhaps cheating by slipping in a book from 2020 - Booker-shortlisted in that year - into this list, but it's a novel that has made a strong impression on me. Taylor is queer and black, and his account of the intimate emotional dynamics - and violence - among a group of friends and lovers (juxtaposed, somewhat oddly, with minute descriptions of scientific experiments) startles and disrupts expectations. I'm looking forward to his new collection of stories (an actual 2021 publication) entitled Filthy Animals.

SUE NYATHI - Songbirds by Christy Lefteri (Manilla Press)

Songbirds is the tale of Nisha who migrates from Sri Lanka to Cyprus, an island east of the Mediterranean that has become an oasis of hope for Syrian and other refugees. On arrival, Nisha takes on domestic work so she can support her family back home. As an economic migrant myself, this theme resonated deeply with me. The  story is narrated by two protagonists: Petra, her employer, and Yiannis, her lover. Petra is the proverbial “madam”. Petra and Nisha are very much alike, two sides of a coin separated by class and privilege. They are both widowers, having lost their husbands early in marriage. They are both forced to raise daughters on their own. They are essentially two women who face similar circumstances but deal with them differently. The Songbirds is also a love story but there are different kinds of love postulated here. 

Silver Donald Cameron
Blood in the Water Silver Donald Cameron
Image: Supplied

JENNIFER PLATT - Blood in the Water by Silver Donald Cameron (Swift Press)

Blood in the Water is a little-known true crime book by Silver Donald Cameron - one of Canada's most accomplished authors who died in June 2020 soon after he finished writing it. It's a true story of a murder in a small town in Nova Scotia. It's a slim book that accomplishes much - it's a brilliant courtroom drama but also a fascinating look into the complex history of the town, the practical art of law, the townsfolk and their open-door culture, and the murdered victim who was both loathed and loved. 

MARGUERITE POLAND - The Wolf Trilogy by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate); Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

This year I read Hilary Mantel's trilogy, fascinating historical novels set in Tudor times with Thomas Cromwell as the protagonist. I am in awe of Mantel's research and extraordinarily individual style which breaks the school grammar rules with such aplomb!  Ranulph Fiennes's 'Shackleton' is a wonderful biography of a hero by a hero. Ever since I flew along the edge of the Antarctic  ice pack en route from Australia to SA I have been captivated by Antarctica and those who have dared explore it. 

KATE ROGAN - Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday)

I’m known to shy away from doorstoppers but Empire of Pain is an astounding feat of investigative journalism and storytelling. The story of the art-obsessed Sackler dynasty and the part their pharmaceutical company played in creating the devastating opioid crisis in America is a jaw-dropping tale of a family driven by greed and the maxim "profit-at-all-costs". You will be gobsmacked to read of colluding doctors, incentivised sales strategies, how the drug trade exploded in opioid states, and loads more. 

MEGAN ROSS - Mona by Pola Oloixarac (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Oloixarac's writing is electrifying and lacerating. Without giving too much away, this novel - which is about Mona, the writer and woman, and survivor of a brutal assault - is possibly one of the most honest books I've ever read. Beside it being an exploration of a kind of numb, altered state of shock pre-PTSD, it is also a blistering takedown of snooty literary culture and all the things we're not supposed to think, but think anyway. It's entertaining, disturbing and beautiful in equal parts. 

KATE SIDLEY - A Home on Vorster Street by Razina Theba (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This year I have been drawn to local memoir, for the intimate insights it gives into individual lives and our country's history. One that stayed with me was Theba's memoir of her childhood and youth in Fordsburg. She vividly evokes a time and place, and gives a vibrant account of how her family and others in their Indian Muslim community lived and loved and worked and raised their children in modest circumstances and under apartheid. Theba brings a cast of grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings fully and poignantly to life. There are hilarious anecdotes, painful losses and struggles, visits from the Security Branch - and lots of food. An easy read with heart and humanity.

STEVEN SIDLEY - Inside Story by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape); and The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Both books took me to places that were deeply satisfying. Inside Story is a meta-novel, sort of, with a main (fictional) character named Martin Amis, and the other characters being a melange of real and imagined, including literary giants Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin and Christopher Hitchens. Like most everything Amis writes, it is a high-wire act of literary invention and robust imagination, exploring the meaning of art, friendship and death. The Netanyahus, which has nothing (or at least little) to do with the ex-Prime Minister of Israel, and everything to do with tradition and its uncomfortable relationship with the secular. Unusual to the point of chimeric. 

Compiled by Bongani Kona
Our Ghosts Were Once People Compiled by Bongani Kona
Image: Supplied

KARINA SZCZUREK - Our Ghosts Were Once People: Stories on Death and Dying edited by Bongani Kona (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

I was uncertain whether I wanted to read anything else about the irrefutable fact of our mortality at a time when we were constantly confronted with its reality during the pandemic, but I have the greatest admiration for Kona, so I braved the anthology he compiled on the subject. And I have no regrets. Not only does the book include contributions by some of my favourite authors, delivering incisive and exquisite writing – Mary Watson, Hedley Twidle, Tariq Hoosen, Dawn Garisch, Musawenkosi Khanyile, Karin Schimke, Shubnum Khan and Nick Mulgrew among them – but allowed me to immerse myself in the topic in unexpected ways, whether through Stacy Hardy’s haunting short story told from the perspective of a murdered forensic pathologist or Madeleine Fullard’s indispensable essay about the disappeared victims of apartheid’s horrors. 

MARGARET VON KLEMPERER - A Long Letter to my Daughter by Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg Publishers); Still Life by Sarah Winman (Fourth Estate)

Van der Vyver's is a brave book that is part memoir, part exploration of language, writing, family, motherhood and political awakening. As always with the author, it is witty and warm, often poignant, and completely satisfying. Winman’s Still Life is one of those books that divides opinion. Some readers might find it slow and rambling but I loved it. Telling a story that runs from 1944 to the 1970s and from London to Florence, it is a praise poem to all kinds of love and a gentle, imaginative and funny read, long and immensely enjoyable. It wears its learning lightly but it is filled with knowledge of art history and thoughts about the way in which we look at art and what it can tell us.

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