Nonfiction to look out for in 2021

Biographies of Philip Roth and DH Lawrence, the curious death of Robert Maxwell, and dispatches from the Covid frontline

Publishing can feel slow, even stately, at times, and not only because good books take a long time to write. But in 2021, speed will be the order of the day. Whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter or Covid-19, a lot of the new nonfiction coming our way will speak insistently to the present moment – to the point where some readers, fighting unease, may welcome the relative tranquillity of a fat life of the artist Francis Bacon, in the form of Revelations, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s 880-page biography (William Collins, January); or, rather more genteel, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne (William Collins, April).

It will also be much more diverse – which is where we’ll begin. In January, Chatto publishes Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today, in which Eddie S Glaude Jr, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, tries to fathom how the author of Go Tell It On the Mountain managed, against the odds, to keep faith in the idea of a more just future. A bestseller in the US, this urgent, deeply interesting book will be followed by Three Mothers (William Collins, February), in which Anna Malaika Tubbs looks at how the women who raised Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and (again) James Baldwin helped to shape America; Raceless, by Georgina Lawton (Sphere, February), a memoir of growing up black in a white Anglo-Irish family; and Musa Okwonga’s One of Them (Unbound, April), an account of the author’s experiences as a black boy at Eton. Also hotly anticipated is Empireland (Viking, January), a meticulous look at the effects of imperialism on British life and history from Sathnam Sanghera, best known for his memoir The Boy with the Topknot.

Arifa Akbar’s Consumed: A Sister’s Story is about the death of her sibling from tuberculosis
Arifa Akbar’s Consumed: A Sister’s Story is about the death of her sibling from tuberculosis. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The thought that during a pandemic a doctor might also have time to write is astonishing. But this is, it seems, what some have been doing. Gavin Francis, a doctor best known for his travel writing, is first out of the traps with Intensive Care: A GP, A Community and Covid-19 (Profile, January). Hard on his heels is Jim Down, with Life Support (Viking, March), the Covid diary of an ICU doctor at one of London’s leading hospitals. A slightly different approach to the crisis will come in the form of A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Corona by the distinguished historian Peter Hennessy (Allen Lane, August).

Relatedly, expect a slew of books about mental health – though not all of them will toe the line that we’re experiencing an epidemic of mental illness: Losing Our Minds by Lucy Foulkes (Bodley Head, April), for instance, seeks to overturn this notion, especially as applied to the young. On this terrain, one memoir stands out, having already been garlanded with praise from Robert Macfarlane: Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare (Chatto & Windus, March). Those feeling more than usually apprehensive right now might like to turn to Relax: A User’s Guide to Life in the Age of Anxiety by Timothy Caulfield (Faber, January), a handbook that is informed as well as wise (Caulfield is a Canadian public health expert).

The literature of grief grows with every month that passes, a publishing trend that preceded the pandemic. On this ground, two memoirs in particular promise both to move and console: The Madness of Grief by the Rev Richard Coles (Weidenfeld, April), on losing his partner; and Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre, June), about the death of her beloved sibling from tuberculosis.

John Preston’s Fall is an account of the life and death of Robert Maxwell, pictured in 1964
John Preston’s Fall is an account of the life and death of Robert Maxwell, pictured in 1964. Photograph: Hulton Getty

But let’s move on from these (strange) times, to other times (and places). I could not be more excited about Fall by John Preston (Viking, February), an account of the life and death of the tycoon Robert Maxwell by the author of A Very English Scandal (though I still think it should be called Splash!). In biography, I wonder whether Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury, May) will make me feel any differently about my least favourite writer (if anyone can do this, it’s Wilson); The Mirror and the Palette: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits (Weidenfeld, March) by Jennifer Higgie, the former editor of Frieze, is set to be sumptuous as well as fascinating; and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland (Virago, February) sounds weird and un-categorisable (in a good way). Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography (Cape, April) is bound to be rich, complicated – and very long. (Bailey, the biographer of John Cheever and Richard Yates, was appointed by Roth, and had full access to his archives.)

New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time, Craig Taylor’s follow-up to his wondrous oral contemporary history, Londoners, is long awaited (John Murray, March), and it will be interesting to see how this book reads at a point when our urban centres feel so hollowed out. At the other extreme, The Foghorn’s Lament by Jennifer Lucy Allan (White Rabbit, May) is about – yes – foghorns, and promises to sit on the wobbly line (and, in this case, noisy, mournful line) between nature writing and music writing.

One licks one’s lips at the prospect of Taste (Fig Tree, July), a memoir by Stanley Tucci, the actor, cook and cocktail-maker extraordinaire. Finally, two books that I am waiting for with an eagerness that borders on ravenous hunger. First, John Sutherland’s Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves (Weidenfeld, April), a book about the poet’s long-suffering partner by her former student. Second, The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (Cape, April), a graphic novel by the celebrated author of Fun Home that tells the story of her – and our – long obsession with fitness crazes. Dumbbells at the ready.


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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