The best books of 2021 so far: Novels, memoirs, short stories and more

Authors and critics choose the books that have moved and impressed them this year

Colm Tóibín

Hilary Fannin’s ‘The Weight of Love’ is a complex love story told with meticulous attention to nuance and shifts of mood. It manages to combine a brilliant immediacy with a sense of time passing, rich experience becoming tangled memory. Joshua Cohen’s ‘The Netanyanus’ is a hilarious account of a visit to an unsuspecting American academic of Benzion Netanyahu, father of the future politician, and his feral young family. Cohen renders every small moment with exquisite comic timing.

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, The Magician, is out from Viking on September 23rd

Anne Enright

There are writers who you always come back to because you “get” the tone, and know it can go anywhere. Hugo Hamilton and Damon Galgut both have books out this summer that I can’t wait to settle into. Galgut’s novel, The Promise, set in South Africa, is family drama where the action is petty and the unspoken stakes incredibly high – those who remember The Good Doctor will also remember that he is one of the best novelists around. Hamilton’s The Pages is a serious literary game, set over a hundred years. Hamilton’s voice, as ever, is precise and open, tragic and curious: it makes its own kind of wonder.

Anne Enright’s latest novel Actress is out now in paperback frim Vintage.

Fintan O’Toole

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is one of the best biographies of recent years. It is phenomenally well researched with a lot of new material, including on Bacon’s early years in Ireland, his (surprising) attempt to become an interior designer under the influence of Eileen Grey and his struggles to find his own vision as an artist. But the detail never gets in the way of wonderful storytelling about a man of astonishing courage. Charles Townshend’s The Partition: Ireland Divided 1885-1925 is richly illuminating and combines vivid readability with exemplary scholarship. Seamus Deane’s Small World: Ireland 1798-2018 is a collection of essays that reminds us of an intellect whose power will not be dimmed by his death just before its publication. I’m looking forward to completing Lisa McInerney’s so-far glorious trilogy with the third novel, The Rules of Revelation. And I can’t wait for Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These.

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole is out in September from Apollo

Sarah Moss

I was meant to be reading something else when I picked up Kjerski Summerskold’s The Child, and next time I looked it was the middle of the night and I’d finished it. Call it a portrait of the artist as a mother - very cheering to see such serious literary attention paid to motherhood as intellectual work rather than the enemy of promise. I’ve just read an advance copy of Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat, which is wonderful: dark and clever and serious about love and fragility in lockdown.

Sarah Moss’s latest novel, The Fell, is put on November 11th from Picador

Sebastian Barry

One of those rare books that take your fancy, engage you, and well-nigh marry themselves to you, is Colm Toibin’s swoop down on Thomas Mann, The Magician, due September (hopefully an Altweibersommer, as the Germans say). But a lovely rich year for Irish fiction: Lucy Caldwell’s celestial short stories, Intimacies, Paul Perry’s broken Eden, The Garden, Gavin McCrea’s dynamic The Sisters Mao (also September). What unites them all is only their immense singularity, none more so than Claire-Louise Bennett, a writer of genius – her new book Checkout 19, checks in in August. Nevertheless, its lost Russian twin might be In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova, a book that rises like a great fish through dark water.

Sebastian Barry’s Laureate of Irish Fiction lectures, The Lives of the Saints, will be published next year.

Sinéad Gleeson

It’s already been a great year for Irish writing: Una Mannion’s novel A Crooked Tree, Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, Keith Ridgway’s A Shock, and Louise Kennedy’s short story collection The End of the World is a Cul-de-Sac are highlights so far. Sinéad O’Connor is a hero to many Irish women so I’m really looking forward to her memoir Rememberings. I’m a huge admirer of the late Natalia Ginzburg’s non-fiction, and Daunt books have republished two slim novels by her. Real Estate (the final book in Deborah Levy’s “living autobiography” trilogy) is a masterpiece. Recently, I’ve read a lot of books about the sea: the gorgeous poetry of Anna Selby’s Field Notes and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Of Sea - and The Foghorn’s Lament by Jennifer Lucy Allen (on foghorns, sound and shipwrecks) is fascinating.

Sinéad Gleeson is a writer and critic. Constellations: : Reflections From Life is published by Picador

Joseph O’Connor

American Mules by Martina Evans is a glorious collection of poems, two books within one, an astonishment of riches. How she melds narrative audacity with sharp insight and juicy lyricism is so memorable. It’s a book that gets into your heart. These poems echo and shimmer. I’ll be looking forward to returning to this wonderful volume at a slower summertime pace.

In April, I had the privilege of reviewing Louise Kennedy’s stunning debut The End of the World is a Cul de Sac in these pages. Her stories won’t let me go; her Ireland feels realer by the day. The novel I’m longing to get into next is Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry. I found it opening pages breathtaking, the work of an immense talent. Books that once would have been career-crowners are now being published as debuts by Irish writers. I don’t remember a better time to be a reader.

Joseph O’Connor’s award-winning novel Shadowplay is published in paperback by Vintage.

Jan Carson

It’s already been a cracking year for short stories with the Irish contingent leading the field. Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies and Deirdre Sullivan’s I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay all destroyed me in different ways. However it was Argentinian writer, Mariana Enriquez dark, disturbing and delicious second collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, (translated by Megan McDowell), which will haunt the rest of my year. I’m in awe of Enriquez’s ability to blend horror aesthetics with social and political commentary. This is the kind of writing which gets under your skin in the very best way.

Jan Carson’s latest work is The Last Resort (Doubleday Ireland)

Mark O’Connell

The best new novel I’ve read in a very long time is Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. It’s a masterpiece of cruel precision and vivd emotional realism about a thwarted mother-daughter relationship. Riley’s dialogue is especially brilliant; irreducibly English in a manner reminiscent of Harold Pinter, it’s all subtle evasions and brutal politeness. A genuinely extraordinary book. I also really enjoyed Kevin Power’s new book White City, a seriously funny, compulsive, and beautifully written excavation of the moral abyss at the heart of post-Celtic Tiger capitalism. And I have heard enough raving from enough of the right people to know that John Patrick McHugh’s debut collection Pure Gold is a book I want to read, so that’s coming with me on holiday in July.

Mark O’Connell’s latest work is Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back

Wendy Erskine

The Foghorn’s Lament by Jennifer Lucy Allan, about the history of a sound, was utterly wonderful. I loved the quiet radicalism of Rónán Hession’s Panenka and the tense elegance of A Lonely Man by Chris Power. Joanna Walsh’s Seed was transporting, Natasha Brown’s Assembly stunning, and Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death, surprisingly life-affirming. Short story collections from Lucy Caldwell (Intimacies), Anna Wood (Yes Yes More More), Jan Carson (The Last Resort), Ben Pester (Am I in the Right Place?) and Ben Myers (Male Tears) each gave me a lot of pleasure. Looking forward to A Provincial Death by Eoghan Smith, Monument Maker by David Keenan and The Paper Lantern by Will Burns, and the poetry collection Morsel May Sleep by Ellen Dillon.

Wendy Erskine’s debut story collection is Sweet Home (Stinging Fly Press)

Conor O’Callaghan

Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World is a Cul de Sac is incredible: stories that are precise and exquisitely dark, laced with gallows humour and frequently fairly beautiful. More stories: Jan Carson’s The Last Resort is equally fantastic: overlapping stories set on a caravan park that are so witty and full of pathos. Kevin Power’s White City is the best Celtic Tiger satire yet: whip smart and funny, crammed with characters you’d like to slap who prove improbably moving. Jenn Ashworth’s Ghosted: A Love Story is a brilliant 21C take on the Gothic: a woman, whose husband just vanishes, is left to the frantic silence of abandonment and virtual reality’s eerie twilight. A seriously gifted writer surely due a big prize.

Conor O’Callaghan’s latest work is the novel We Are Not in the World

Sarah Gilmartin

My book of the year so far is Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, a darkly funny and moving story of marriage and mental illness for fan’s of Jenny Offill or Nina Stibbe. Outstanding Irish debuts include Megan Nolan’s novel Acts of Desperation and Victoria Kennefick’s poetry collection Eat or We Both Starve. Keith Ridgway’s A Shock is intricate, clever and compassionate – a novel-in-stories to be read in the shade. Top of my reading pile this summer are Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry, Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies, and At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, this year’s winner of the International Booker Prize.

Sarah Gilmartin is a writer and critic. Her debut novel, Dinner Party: A Tragedy will be published by Pushkin One on September 16th

John Self

Maybe it’s the post-Covid euphoria talking but I haven’t read a novel as brilliant as Damon Galgut’s The Promise in years. He makes us care and worry about a scarcely sympathetic family in South Africa with wit, drama and sadness. I couldn’t read anything for a week after finishing it, which is a problem, given that’s my job. Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms is another broken family story, which makes terrific comedy out of awful things. All Riley’s novels occupy a similar space and it’s common for her fans to say her latest is her best yet. But her latest is her best yet. And Musa Okwonga’s In the End, It Was All About Love is a deeply affecting autofiction about a bisexual black man’s life in Berlin, which covers a whole life in a hundred pages. How do they do it?

John Self is a critic.

Edel Coffey

My favourite book so far this year is Megan Nolan’s Acts Of Desperation, a forensic analysis of an imbalanced relationship between a young woman and a detached older man, and her own struggle for self-realisation. I could not get enough of Detransition, Baby , Torrey Peters’ Women’s Prize long-listed novel about a sort-of love triangle between a trans woman, her de-transitioned ex and his pregnant cis girlfriend. I can’t wait to read Claire Keegan’s forthcoming novel Small Things Like These. I came across a review copy in my friend’s house and gobbled a chunk of it in the same way that you might shove a cream cake into your mouth when no-one is looking. What I read was beautiful and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Edel Coffey is a writer and critic. Her debut novel, Breaking Point, will be published by Sphere next January.

Peter Murphy

Deirdre Sullivan’s I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay: tales of body horror and the domestic unheimlich, like Amy Hempel possessed by early Polanski. Similarly eerie: Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World. Kevin Power’s White City, a classic novel novel, a moral comedy in the mid-period Amis style. Non-fiction: Mark Mordue’s Boy On Fire, the definitive Nick Cave biography to date, and it doesn’t even get as far as the Birthday Party years. To be read: story collections by Louise Kennedy and Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s new Nico biography You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone.

Peter Murphy is a writer and critic.

Catriona Crowe

Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World is the best book on Catholic Ireland since Tom Inglis’s The Moral Monopoly. Thoughtful, reflective, compassionate and impeccably researched, the book takes us from early Christianity to contemporary revelations, yet feels intimate and illuminating. A landmark study of arguably the most powerful institution in 20th century Ireland.

Martina Evans’s American Mules, a scintillating poetry collection from a unique, deeply observant, beautifully compassionate consciousness which creates a fully realised world of its own.

Ruth Padel’s forthcoming novel, Daughters of the Labyrinth, a moving and superbly written exploration of a Cretan family with dark secrets. Crete itself becomes one of the main characters in the story.

Catriona Crowe is former Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland.

Mia Levitin

Damon Galgut’s family saga The Promise wowed me with its innovative narrative technique and good old-fashioned storytelling. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain had me incandescent with rage about the Sackler family’s aggressive pill-pushing and the FDA’s complicity in the opioid crisis. I was also taken with Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale) and Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West), both shortlisted for the International Booker]. Lastly, the poet Molly McCully Brown’s essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body, about living with cerebral palsy, made me see differently-one of the great gifts of literature.

Mia Levitin is a writer and critic. The Future of Seduction was published by Unbiund last year.

Martin Doyle

I read Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling and Conor O’Callaghan’s We Are Not in the World twice, once for work, once for pleasure, but in truth both times were a pleasure, such is their depth and delicacy. The Art of Falling is about the making and meaning of art, and the constant remaking of a marriage. O’Callaghan’s novel is a study in love and loss, the story of a man on the run from a trail of unfixable things. Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac is a flawless collection of dark and funny stories about our flawed selves, one of the best debut collections since Danielle’s in 2013. Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People is a sympathetic but penetrating portrait of a diverse community.

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times