Best Literary Fiction of 2021

A 12th century prioress, a contemporary astrobiologist, and a cattle driver trying to survive the siege of Constantinople populate the best literary fiction of 2021.

Chancy, Myriam J.A. What Storm, What Thunder. Tin House. ISBN 9781951142766. Revisiting the horrific earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, Chancy uses precise, exquisite language and deftly interlinked stories to convey not simply a visceral un- derstanding of what happened that day— the suffering incurred and the support given—but the deep interconnectedness of Haitian society. Each character is magnificently evoked, and together they form a heartbreaking symphony.

Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land. Scribner. ISBN 9781982168438.

Orphaned Anna and young cattle driver Omeir, who meet during the siege of Constantinople; contemporary activist teenager Seymour; and futuristic space- traveling Konstance—all are connected th rough the play Cloud CuckooLand, being staged with fifth graders by Ko- rean War veteran Zeno. Doerr’s glorious golden mesh of stories limns the transformative power of literature and our need both to dream big and to arrive back home safely.

Groff, Lauren. Matrix. Riverhead. ISBN 9781594634499.

Groff takes her graceful, sharply observant prose to the 12th century as she reimag- ines the life of Francophone poet Marie de France, effectively ejected from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine at age 17 by being made prioress of a failing abbey in England. In this moving dual portrait of prioress and community, Marie commits wholly to leading the sisters in a tumultuously changing world.

Hobson, Brandon. The Removed. Ecco. ISBN 9780062997548.

In Hobson’s multilayered, emotionally radiant work, the Echotas, a Cherokee family, begin coming to terms with the death of ebullient teenage son Ray-Ray 15 years after he is killed by a gun-ready police officer. Hobson uses the Echotas’ story and Cherokee tradition to amplify each other, blending past and present in a narrative of blistering loss and final healing.

Jones, Robert, Jr. The Prophets. Putnam. ISBN 9780593085684.

In language gorgeously rendered, intimately anguished, and overarchingly wise, debuter Jones offers the distinctive story of Isaiah and Samuel, two young men enslaved on a grim Southern plantation who tend the animals and love each other deeply. The narrative cuts back occasionally to a beautiful if barely remembered village in Africa before revealing a devastating challenge to their relationship, once quietly accepted by the lovers’ community.

McConaghy, Charlotte. Once There Were Wolves. Flatiron. ISBN 9781250244147.

At the heart of this magnificent work sits a pack of wolves being reintroduced to the Scottish Highlands, with the strong and strongly etched Inti Flynn joining other biologists in the task even as she tries to help identical twin sister Aggie heal from trauma. McConaghy coolly masters a story taut with pain and suspense while communicating a passionate understanding of the natural and human worlds. Evisceratingly beautiful.

Nelson, Caleb Azumah. Open Water. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. ISBN 9780802157942.

Two unnamed young Black British artists meet at a jam-packed London pub and feel immediate resonance, even a sense of safety. He’s a photographer, she’s a dancer, and their personal and professional pas- sions are kept in elegant if uneasy balance throughout debuter Nelson’s second-person narrative until society’s larger, uglier forces intervene.

Powers, Richard. Bewilderment. Norton. ISBN 9780393881141.

Widowed astrobiologist Theo Byrne struggles to raise troubled nine-year-old son Robin, who is faced with expulsion from school for untoward behavior though he’s a gentle soul committed to saving Earth’s endangered species. An experimental neurofeedback treatment initially helps. Powers bracingly articulates the awful pain of seeing one’s child suffer and the dangers of ignoring science in an environ- mentally stressed world.

Quade, Kirstin Valdez. The Five Wounds. Norton. ISBN 9780393242836.

Opening dramatically with 33-year-old deadbeat dad Amadeo playing Jesus in the town’s annual portrayal of Christ’s passion even as his pregnant 16-year-old daughter comes to stay with him and his warm- hearted mother, Quade’s debut novel limns the Padilla family of Las Penas, NM, and their community. An expertly crafted work about often needy characters for whom readers come to care deeply.

Soyinka, Wole. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Pantheon. ISBN 9780593320167.

In his first novel in nearly 50 years, Nobel Prize winner Soyinka imagines a Nigeria in which a crafty entrepreneur is stealing body parts and selling them for ritual use. The story expands to condemn corruption among the governmental, medical, and religious elites in Nigeria and beyond, with Soyinka skillfully deploying language as roller- coaster absorbing as the suspense generated by the hunt for the culprit.

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