It’s uncontroversial to say that 2021 has been a difficult year. The majority of us spent far more time in our homes and under restrictions than we ever would have thought possible. But through it all, life has continued and people have fallen in and out of love, changed homes, taken up new projects and finished up the year with much to reflect upon. Here, at Soneva Fushi, as we begin to reinvigorate our programmes for our book-loving guests by offering bespoke consultations in our ‘shelf discoveries’ series, what we’ve also been affirmed by is the importance of literature in so many lives. Books and stories, in all forms, whether it be audiobooks, TV, podcasts or films, have been such an integral part of our wellness this year. It’s not only from these stories that we make sense of all that is happening around us, but they are also integral to helping us feel just a little bit less alone. I have always found books to be crucial in helping me transform those hazy, mercurial fears and feelings into something captured and definite. Writers help me to articulate half-formed thoughts and make ineffable experiences so much more real and present. So, with the inevitably reflective mood that a change of year brings, I want to share with you my list of the best books of 2021, the ones that helped me be transported away from home when I needed and taught me how to feel just a little less isolated during the pandemic. I hope that these recommendations can do the same for you.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
This was my first introduction to Elif Shafak and the best book that I have read this year. It’s not just a love story between Turkish Cypriot Kostas and Greek Cypriot Defne on the eve of civil war, but also about the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. Shafak’s mystical fig tree bears witness to all that we do to one another and proves that love endures always. For Kostas and Defne, theirs is a shared culture on the edge of implosion and the aftershocks of the violence carried on for generations, but the novel manages to remain as hopeful as young love. This is a deftly woven story with natural history, politics and the heat of romance all entwined by richly beautiful writing.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
A debut novel about two missing women who disappear decades apart. However, it’s not a crime novel but instead blends magic and Vietnamese folklore together to talk about the spaces that we inhabit and the exhausting angst of existence. The story is swirling and unpredictable and even lost in the mist to me a few times but in a way that perfectly captures the unease and freedom that lies in being truly dislocated. It was the perfect book to encapsulate that blend of horror and adventure that comes from travel in a year when I was very much grounded.
Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi
When my concentration levels dipped and I just wanted to curl up and enjoy something fun, this was an absolute delight of a read. I’m definitely more on the Agatha Christie side of psychology and logical puzzles rather than police procedurals when it comes to crime and this fitted that brief perfectly. As a series of short crime vignettes and a darker overarching story driving on the narrator, it’s a philosophical treatise on the construction of crime fiction as much as it is a whodunnit. I thought it was brilliant to create a novel with the same conception as a glass case over a grandfather clock, inviting the observer in to see the complexity of the inner mechanisms ticking away inside. I would often recommend Eight Detectives to those interested in trying crime fiction for the first time as much as for murder aficionados.
When We Were Young by Richard Roper
Caught in the swells and flows of last year, I probably read more widely than I ever had before, as I turned to books for escapism as well as exploration. When We Were Young is the story of Theo and Joel, best friends at school until a bitter falling out. Years later, Joel turns up on Theo’s doorstep to hold him to a promise he made many years ago and to see if they can find their way once again. It’s a very funny, bittersweet novel about growing up and growing apart with flashes of both humour and insight and was a perfect novel for when I was yearning for connection.
Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles
Small Bodies of Water blends the form of an essay and memoir to tell a personal history of water. From monsoons in Shanghai to swimming pools in Wellington and the Ladies’ pond at Hampstead Heath, Nina Mingya Powles connects the story of her identity with the natural world around her. It reflects not only on belonging but also how to capture one’s home, whether it be through reclaiming a language, discovering a type of food or catching a glimpse of a flower from childhood even while you are far away.
Noble Ambitions by Adrian Tinniswood
Evelyn Waugh told of how he wrote Brideshead Revisited as an epitaph to a way of life that did not die and Noble Ambitions is the history behind his words. Tinniswood explores the country estates of the UK and Ireland in the post-war years and captures a scene of originality and resourcefulness as individuals weathered the storms of high taxation and a changing economic way of life. The book celebrates the ingenuity of trying to usher a new era into these houses whilst still keeping them as a home. It’s also a fantastic read as we live through our own gloomy prognoses about what the future holds after covid for so many industries.
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino
A brilliant book that tells the history of our food. It examines how our relationship with agriculture has changed and what this means for our collective future, which is now at risk due to the proliferation of food monocultures and climate change. With each chapter following the story of a different rare food from somewhere in the world, the narrative is engaging and shares both the indigenous wisdom behind the food as well as the stories of those who are now trying to protect it.
The Gardens of Mars by John Gimlette
The best style of travel book is one that refuses to romanticise its subject and instead aims to strike at the heart of the place without flinching from an honest portrayal of its uglier aspects. The Gardens of Mars achieves just this in its exploration of the island of Madagascar and reveals it to be an unconquered land filled with both poverty and immaculate exuberance. It’s also written with humility, as the author is open about what he still struggles to understand about the island even whilst he is guiding you around it. It’s a mixture of history, memoir, travel and adventure and was a fantastic source of inspiration for getting out in the world again.