Zanzibari novelist Abdul Razzaq Jarna, who has lived in Britain since 1968, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for telling such different stories. In earnest, well-researched, and nuanced novels, he has been exploring the legacy of colonialism – Arab, British and German – in East Africa throughout his ten novels. If you don’t know his work, start with Paradise (1994), a retelling of Yusuf/Youssef’s story that brilliantly evokes the sights and smells of the Swahili coast.
Born in 1980 in what is now Somaliland, she moved to the United Kingdom six years later. Her shortlisted novel, The Fortune Men (Viking, £14.99), depicts the true story of a terrible miscarriage of justice in Cardiff in the 1950s, when an innocent Somali man named Mahmud Matan was convicted of murdering a Jewish shop worker – and hanged. Much of the American genre of exposing racial injustice, Muhammad’s novel is also an aerial account of Tiger Bay in 1952 and the forgotten multiculturalism that allowed Matan to marry a local girl, Laura, who for years cleared his name.
Having addressed suicide bombers and illegal immigrants in his earlier books, British novelist Sanjeev Sahuta is clearly not afraid of big topics. The exquisitely written China Room (Harvil Secker, £16.99) has a more local focus: in India in 1929, three women married three brothers on the same day. Teenager Mehar has to adjust to a clearly unromantic wedding night: “He smells strongly of grass, sweat, and fenugreek…but then she can figure out the soap, and she’s glad he thought of a shower before coming to her tonight.” A slightly more familiar parallel plot follows her drug-addicted grandson.
Poland’s long history of Jewish life was wiped out by the Nazis. Olga Tokarczuk miraculously recreates the mid-18th century world of Jews, Christians, and converts in The Books of Jacob, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcaraldo, £25). Cited for the work that earned her a Nobel Prize in 2018, this 1,000-page novel follows cult (or cult?) leader Jacob Frank, as well as persecution, faith and mysticism. Trust me, it’s worth it.
From the same wonderful little publisher, Joshua Cohen takes on modern Jewish history in his graphic novel Netantyahus (Fitzcaraldo, £12.99). Inspired by the tale of Harold Bloom telling Cohen about meeting the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the book takes Jewish cultural identity in the United States, debates about Zionism and the minor indignities of campus life with great skill. It’s perfect for anyone who misses Philip Roth.
Other historical novels worth your time include Pat Parker’s The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), which begins with a soldier stuffed with a Trojan horse desperate to empty his bowels. Where should they put toilet buckets? “The end… and where else?” delightfully earthy Odysseus replies. Lorraine Grove’s Perfect Matrix (William Heinemann, £16.99), set in a 12th-century English convent, follows an unwilling nun named Marie de France (a true poet) who ends up as a power-hungry abbot.
Talented Ghanaian-American writer Ya Gyasi, whose debut novel Homegoing is a huge success, this year produced Consistent Kingdom (Viking, £14.99), which pits science against religion through the struggles of narrator Gifty. Once a strict Christian, and now a rationalist, Jefti must learn how to deal with her brother’s death from an overdose.
The search for faith in a chaotic world was a prominent theme in 2021. But more than Rooney’s nostalgia for a well-organized religious framework is the analysis presented in my novel of the year: Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads (Fourth Estate, £20). Set in the ’70s Fun Church youth group that provides the title of the book, this wonderful novel follows the complex Hildebrandt family. Reverend father craves for another woman, mother agonizes from miscarriage in her youth and wants their beautiful teenage daughter Becky to remain a virgin. Everyone is genuinely striving, albeit infallible, to do the right thing.
Franzen’s marriage of moral debates with an addictive story calls to mind George Eliot, alluded to in the title of this proposed trilogy: A Key to All Myths. We are told that the next two novels will make it to present-day America and are supposed to take the advent of the Internet. I think Franzen would be more generous to the tweeters who see everything wrong in a literary culture steeped in privilege. He, for example, has never lost faith in the forgiving power of imagination.
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