23. From slavery to Cecil Rhodes, here’s a taste of 2021’s must-reads

Author: Jennifer Platt
Date: 14 January 2021
 Sunday Times
Image courtesy of: Jean van der Meulen

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Although last year was annus horribilis, a few bright sparks came out of it. One was that people had time to write books. Good books. So there is plenty on offer this year to keep readers happy. Here are a few highlights, from all-time favourite novelists to debut writers and a few in between …

  1. Already touted as the debut of the year is The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. The Guardian has said its magnificence is reminiscent of Toni Morrison. It’s the love story of two men who are enslaved on a plantation in America’s Deep South.
  2. Look out for How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones. In Barbados, Lala’s grandmother tells her the cautionary tale of the one-armed sister, about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers and go into the Baxter’s Tunnels.
  3. Mike Nicol’s The Rabbit Hole will be released next month. There’s tender money, corrupt corporations and loads of government agencies. Super involved and wonderfully twisty.
  4. Released in March is Isle by Claire Robertson. Set on an island of women in different centuries (Middle Ages and World War 2), the novel binds the lives of women separated by time and place. It’s a rumination on privacy, inhibition and female desire.
  5. Klara and the Sun is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. It imagines the inner life and love of an “Artificial Friend” who is waiting to be bought by a customer.
  6. By The Fading Light by Ashraf Kagee is set in Salt River in the shadow of the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. It focuses on the lives of three young boys and how they come to confront an awful truth.
  7. According to the blurb, the many voices of Damon Galgut’s The Promise tell a story in four snapshots, each one centred on a family funeral; each one happening in a different decade.
  8. Bullet Train by Kotaro Isakaa is a bestseller in Japan that has finally been translated into English. Five killers find themselves on a train from Tokyo competing for a suitcase full of money.
  9. The year 1986 was pivotal in South African history and William Dicey draws on newspaper articles, memoirs, and little-known histories to present 1986 – a compelling diary of a very bad year.
  10. Malibu Rising is the new novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid – she of the fantastic Daisy Jones and The Six. It’s about the secrets of a celebrated family and their end-of-summer party which ends up in flames.
  11. The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes by Ade Adebajo is giving A Christmas Carol a snappy new political twist. Rhodes wakes up in an After African Limbo and is guided by Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland on a tour to experience Africa’s great civilisations, its Nobel laureates, its writers, its musicians and legends.
  12. Even though Exit is a departure from Belinda Bauer’s sharp literary thrillers and is slower paced and funnier, there’s still a murder mystery. Felix, a 75-year-old widower, is an Exiteer, someone who sits with the terminally ill as they choose to die. But after his last visit, something goes wrong and he is now on the run from the police.
  13. Uncaptured by Mosilo Mothepu is the first behind-the-scenes book on Gupta-linked Trillian’s involvement in state capture, written by the woman who was actually in the room and later blew the whistle.
  14. In Land Matters, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi goes back in history to show how Africans’ communal land ownership was used by colonial rulers to deny that Africans owned the land at all.
  15. Heavy hitter Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth is a probing analytical view on the evolution of literature and culture.
  16. A Coat of Many Colours is signature Fred Khumalo stuff – energetic, acerbic and darkly comic. In this collection of short stories, a boy plays detective investigating the case of a goat and a coat; a butcher consumes and is consumed by the meat he slaughters, and a man is cursed with an ever-growing appendage.
  17. The Strangers of Braamfontein by Onyeka Nwelue follows the lives of immigrants and all their struggles and glories in the bustle and hustle of the city in Joburg.
  18. This year we are going to see a, uhm, flood of climate-change books. The most important one is Bill Gates’s, with his solution-based offering How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
  19. African Europeans: An Untold Story by Olivette Otele (vice-president of the Royal Historical Society) traces a long African European heritage. By exploring a history that has been overlooked, she sheds light on questions very much alive today.
  20. In A Man, A Fire, A Corpse, Rofhiwa Maneta carefully unfolds the story of his father, Captain Amos Maneta, “The Top Cop of Soweto”. Publisher Blackbird Books eloquently sums it up: “This book is a collection of bruises – both physical and metaphysical – that the author’s father collected in his 30-plus years of police service.”
  21. Patricia Lockwood’s acclaimed comic memoir Priestdaddy placed her squarely in the hip Sally Rooney camp. Now her first novel, No One Is Talking About This, will probably solidify her standing. It seems it’s going to be a marmite book about living in the sinking spiral to hell that is the digital world.
  22. Yewande Omotoso tackles taboo subjects deftly and in her highly anticipated book An Unusual Grief she delves into the trauma, murkiness and desperation of a mother trying to understand the loss and death of her daughter.
  23. Lisa Taddeo’s debut, the insightful account of female desire titled Three Women, was a slowburner of a bestseller in 2019. She’s back with a novel called Animal, which has a whopper of an opener: “I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me.”
  24. Chronicles from the Land of The Happiest People on Earth is Wole Soyinka’s first novel in 47 years. Set in contemporary Nigeria, the book promises “murder, mayhem and no shortage of drama”.
  25. The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith is her first attempt at writing for the stage and is a modern translation of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
  26. A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins is about boats and not trains. Her third thriller is about a man who is murdered on a London houseboat. Three women could possibly be the killer.
  27. The Nickel Boys won the Pulitzer for fiction and was named one of Time’s best books of the decade, so Colson Whitehead’s latest, Harlem Shuffle, should be on everyone’s must-read lists. It’s a playful heist novel set amid the crime syndicates of 1960s New York.
  28. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen is the first in his A Key to All Mythologies trilogy, which examines American life through the story of the Hildebrandt family in the 1970s.
  29. Dreaming in Colours by Uvile Ximba is a tender meditation on what it means to live as a queer person in South Africa.
  30. Female Fear Factory by Pumla Dineo Gqola is the much-anticipated follow-up to the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award winner Rape: A South African Nightmare. The book traces the construction and machinations of the female fear factory by exposing its myths, lies and seductions.
  31. Journalist Stephen Timm digs deep into the fraudster that is Eran Eyal in At Any Cost. In 2018, the New York authorities arrested the South African who took the tech world for more than $40-million in Shopin, his sham cryptocurrency start-up.

Jennifer Platt is a Sunday Times Book Editor.