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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The best new novels and fiction books to buy for Christmas 2021

The Zanzibari novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has lived in Britain since 1968, was awarded 2021’s Nobel Prize in literature for telling just such different stories. In serious, well-researched and subtle fiction, he has been exploring the legacy of colonialism – Arab, British and German – in East Africa throughout his 10 novels. If you don’t know his work, start with Paradise (1994), a re-telling of the Joseph/Yusuf story that brilliantly evokes the sights and smells of the Swahili coast.

Born in 1980 in what is now Somaliland, Nadifa Mohamed moved to the UK six years later. Her Booker-shortlisted novel The Fortune Men (Viking, £14.99) fictionalises the true story of a terrible miscarriage of justice in 1950s Cardiff, when an innocent Somali man named Mahmood Mattan was convicted of killing a Jewish shop worker – and hanged. Mohamed’s novel, very much in the US genre of exposing racial injustice, is also an atmospheric account of Tiger Bay in 1952 and of the forgotten multiculturalism that allowed Mattan to marry a local girl, Laura, who for years campaigned to clear his name.

Having tackled suicide bombers and illegal immigrants in his previous books, British novelist Sunjeev Sahota is clearly unafraid of big subjects. His exquisitely written China Room (Harvil Secker, £16.99) has a more domestic focus: in India in 1929, three women marry three brothers on the same day. Teenage Mehar has to cope with a distinctly unromantic wedding night: “He smells strongly of grass and sweat, and of fenugreek… but beyond that she can detect soap, and is glad that he had thought to wash before coming to her tonight.” A slightly more familiar parallel plot follows her drug addict great-grandson.

Poland’s long history of Jewish life was snuffed 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 (Fitzcarraldo, £25). Cited as the work that earned her the Nobel Prize in 2018, this 1,000-page novel follows charismatic sect (or cult?) leader Jacob Frank, and takes in persecution, faith and mysticism. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

From the same terrific small publisher, Joshua Cohen takes on modern Jewish history in his comic novel The Netantyahus (Fitzcarraldo, £12.99). Inspired by an anecdote Harold Bloom told Cohen about meeting former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historian father, the book takes in Jewish cultural identity in the US, debates over Zionism and the minor humiliations of campus life with great panache. It’s perfect for anyone who misses Philip Roth.

Other historical novels worth your time include Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), which starts with a soldier packed into the Trojan horse desperate to empty his bowels. Where should they put the latrine buckets? “The a— end… where else?” replies a pleasingly earthy Odysseus. Lauren Groff’s pitch-perfect Matrix (William Heinemann, £16.99), set in an English abbey in the 12th century, follows an unwilling nun called Marie de France (a real poet) who ends up as a power-hungry abbess.

The talented Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi, whose first novel Homegoing was a hit, this year produced Transcendent Kingdom (Viking, £14.99), which pits science against religion through the struggles of the narrator Gifty. Once a strict Christian, and now a rationalist scientist, Gifty must learn how to cope with the death of her brother from an overdose.

The search for faith in a chaotic world has been a prominent theme in 2021. But rather deeper than Rooney’s nostalgia for a well-ordered religious framework is the analysis offered in my novel of the year: Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads (Fourth Estate, £20). Set at the cheerily named 1970s church youth group that provides the book’s title, this superb novel follows the complicated Hildebrandt family. The pastor father lusts after another woman, the mother is anguished by an abortion in her youth and their pretty teenage daughter Becky wants to stay a virgin. All are striving sincerely, if fallibly, to do the right thing.

Franzen’s marrying 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 Mythologies. The next two novels will, we are told, reach present-day America and presumably take in the rise of the internet. Franzen, I suspect, will be more generous to tweeters who see in him everything wrong with privilege-soaked literary culture. He, for one, has never lost faith in the forgiving power of fiction.

For 15% off any of these titles, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk/XMASbooks

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