World literature

In 2021, we will hopefully see theatres back open again. One of last year’s anticipated happenings that didn’t happen was the premiere of Zadie Smith’s first play, The Wife of Willesden, an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath. If it doesn’t get to the stage anytime soon, never fear, Hamish Hamilton are publishing the manuscript in June. It will be interesting to see what Smith does with the bawdy poetry of Chaucer.

Jonathan Franzen isn’t known for breaking the fourth wall, but his new novel sounds faintly metafictional. Crossroads (4th Estate, October) is the first in a trilogy called The Key to All Mythologies. That name, of course, is taken from a book the insufferable Casaubon never finishes in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Crossroads spans three generations of the Hildebrandt family during the second half of the 20th century. Franzen is often called America’s greatest living novelist, which he’s not, because there isn’t one, but he dislikes social media and loves bird-watching, so he gets a gold star in my book.

From one garlanded novelist to another. Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro releases Klara and The Sun (Faber) in March. It is about an “artificial friend” who stands in a shop and watches the public spend, spend, spend, which is one way to learn about the human race.

Scottish literature

Graeme Macrae Burnet is a novelist who likes playing around with form. Case Study (Saraband, October) comprises a number of notebooks sent to the author in 2020 concerning psychotherapist Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a 1960s contemporary of RD Laing. The notebooks are from a woman who is convinced Braithwaite is responsible for her sister’s death. I tend to agree with Laing’s definition of insanity: sometimes it’s the world that’s mad, not the person.

In Jen Hadfield’s poetry collection, The Stone Age (Picador, March), she gives us a portrait of Shetland that assumes “everything – door and wall, flower and rain, shore and sea, the standing stones whose presences charge the land – has a living consciousness, one which can be engaged with as a personal encounter”. Now that might sound mad, but as someone who has had plenty of meaningful conversations with inanimate objects, I assure you it’s not.

If I remember rightly, in James Robertson’s “sweeping” historical novel And the Land Lay Still, one character tries to kill himself by eating stones – the sort of behaviour that will get the doctor out. Robertson’s forthcoming novel, News of the Dead (Hamish Hamilton, August) also takes the long view, spanning centuries in the Scottish Highlands.


Culloden has long cast a spell over the Highlands. In a new history, Battle and Aftermath, Paul O’Keeffe (Bodley Head, January) looks at the significance of the last pitched battle on British soil. One of his many revelations is that the battle resulted in the British army’s mapping of the Scottish Highlands, leading to the foundation of the Ordnance Survey. O’Keefe also traces the plight of the survivors, from The Duke of Cumberland (or “The Butcher” as some call him) to Jacobite leader Charles Edward Stuart, who went “from Bonny Prince to embittered alcoholic invalid”.

In the autumn, Rosemary Goring examines an earlier member of the House of Stuart. Homecoming: The Scottish Years of Mary, Queen of Scots (Birlinn) seeks out the places where Mary lived during her 12 years in Scotland, from Linlithgow Palace to Borthwick Castle and Carberry Hill.

Another book that should cast new light on British history comes from journalist and memoirist Sathnam Sanghera. Empireland (Viking, January) looks at how imperialism – and its colonial mindset – continues to shape modern Britain, from the foundation of the NHS to our split with the European Union.


The recent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the various forms of racism in Britain and abroad. Emily Bernard’s Black is the Body (Doubleday, February) is composed of 12 personal essays about her experiences as a black woman in America. She writes about growing up in the Deep South, being stabbed in a café in New Haven, marrying a white man and bringing him back to her family, and adopting two daughters from Ethiopia.

Even without a global pandemic, US historians might have looked back on 2020 as one of the strangest years on record. Throughout the presidential election I was hooked on BBC’s Americast. One of the presenters is John Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor. His election diary, UnPresidented: Politics, Pandemics, and the Race that Trumped all others (BBC Books), might be good preparation for those who have their eyes on the fascinating January Senate race in Georgia.

The next world superpower, so people keep telling me, is China. Ian Williams, who has been a foreign correspondent for Channel 4 and NBC news, has written Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (Birlinn, April). It looks at how the Chinese government is using digital technology to expand its already terrifying surveillance powers.

Science and Nature

The development of vaccines for Covid-19 will play a critical role in our lives for some time to come. So, now might be a good time to understand how the global pharmaceutical industry actually works. Sick Money: The Truth about The Pharmaceutical Industry by Billy Kenber (Canongate, April) looks at the financing and development of drugs and “argues that the way we research medicines and pay for them is no longer working”.

Gavin Francis has no doubt administered a lot of medicine in his time. A writer and Edinburgh GP, his new book Intensive Care (Wellcome Collection, January) documents the intensive care that took place outside the hospital wards throughout the pandemic: the aid that doctors, carers and charity workers, among others, provided for those suffering from Covid and the political reaction to it.

For a little pastoral relief, turn to John Lewis-Stempel’s Woodston: The Biography of an English Farm (Doubleday, April). Lewis-Stempel is the only writer to have twice won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing. He has previously written on all matters quintessentially rural, from foxes to owls and the oak tree. Here he recounts the comings and goings on his farm in Herefordshire over thousands of years.

Biography and memoir

The good thing about memoirs is that, unlike novels, writers tend not to write too many of them. There are two I’m looking forward to this year: James Campbell’s Just Go Down the Road (Polygon, July) and Tabitha Lasley’s Sea State: Life Among Oil Riggers (4th Estate, February). Lasley’s book is about giving up her job at a women’s magazine in London to live on an oil rig off the coast of Aberdeen. Oil rigs are a predominantly male-world. Lasley’s memoir is “a portrait of an overlooked industry, a fascinating subculture in its own right, and the story of a journalist whose distance from her subject becomes perilously thin”.

James Campbell, who used to write the excellent NB column for the TLS, grew up in Glasgow. At 14, he was jailed for stealing books (one of the more justified crimes, if you ask me), became an apprentice printer, then gave that up to hitch-hike around North Africa and Asia. While working on a kibbutz in 1972 he made friends with Peter Green (founder of Fleetwood Mac) and they formed a musical combo … you get the idea. Campbell has interviewed and befriended various writers of the years, including Alexander Trocchi and James Baldwin, of whom he wrote a biography.

Claire Tomalin has written biographies of just about every major writer you can think of, from Samuel Pepys to Mary Wollstonecraft. Her newest work looks at the life and times of HG Wells (Viking, October).


Some writers just can’t be squeezed into categories. Lucy Ellman, whose Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport was a riot of a novel, publishes Things are Against Us in July (Galley Beggar). In this collection of essays, she takes on environmental catastrophe, the Little House on the Prairie, Donald Trump, and the brassiere. She’s an advocate of various strikes: “There are three forms of strike I’d recommend: a housework strike, a labour strike, and a sex strike. I can’t wait for the first two.”

Over the last year, a certain make and mend philosophy has become popular again. Anna Ploszajski is a material scientist. In her book Handmade (Bloomsbury, May) she visits craftspeople and makers to look at the raw material of our lives: clay, glass, steel, wood.

Of late, we’ve also spent many hours walking or running around in circles outside our houses, wondering what’s over the horizon. I know I have. Oxford resident James Attlee knows how to put this sort of behaviour to good use. His last book, Isolarian, was about a pilgrimage … to the Cowley Road. After the first lockdown, Atlee tramped around Oxford talking to people emerging from isolation. “He won the trust of rainbow painters and anti-vaxxers, a Covid nurse, an LGBTQ+ artist, a VE Day celebrator and Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as frontline workers in a bakery and a supermarket.” Under the Rainbow (And Other Stories, May) is a written and photographic record of our strange new world.