NWN’s Books of the Year 2020
As is our custom, we’re finishing the year with a round-up of the books we most enjoyed reading in 2020.
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I discovered Susanna Moore this year through her beautifully written memoir Miss Aluminium. An account of her escape from an unhappy childhood in Hawaii to Los Angeles, it’s enjoyably gossipy – her dalliances with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and titbits involving Roman Polanski and Harrison Ford are compelling. She finds herself on the fringes of Hollywood glamour and glitz, but darkness is never far from the surface, including the misogyny that dominates her scene. Amongst all this, she finds her true self through books and writing.
I loved Kiley Reed’s Such a Fun Age, it’s an epic coming of age novel interweaving themes of class, white privilege, the gig economy and marriage subtly and with complexity. In our society obsessed with the ‘optics’– it’s often hilarious, damning and beautifully observed. I am currently reading Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, an account of a liberal family growing up in Topeka, Kansas the location of the notorious Westbro Baptist Church. Set mostly in the 1990s it’s a prescient, sometimes frustrating read, but it very cleverly signals our current situation including the toxic masculinity that finds expression on the internet and beyond.
May I recommend an uplifting book about the end of the world for Christmas? In, Notes from An Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell explores how we can balance watching distressing videos of polar bears standing on melting icecaps whilst watching Masha and the Bear with our children. How to think about the end of the world and what our role is, or might need to be whilst life presses on?* We follow O’Connell as he travels to explore how others are managing this question and through him we experience Doomers in the top 1% building high security homes in New Zealand complete with panic rooms and golf ranges, meet the people who are planning to move to Mars and follow the low level preppers obsessed by wraparound sunglasses (why is it that wraparound sunglasses are always worn by the alt right??). O’Connell covers a great deal of ground in this literary and personal expedition. Join him on the journey and you will begin to join the dots of what the climate breakdown might actually look and feel like. It’s very satisfying to be in hands of a brilliant thinker and writer doing some of the heavy lifting for you on this topic. The perfect gift for both climate activists and those who don’t yet get it. I guarantee you the darkest of laughs.
*See also, Jenny Offill’s novel Weather.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara completely blew me away. Yanigahara is most well-known for A Little Life, which I haven’t read, but I feel like her debut is criminally underrated. Partly inspired by a real figure(!) the book is made up of the memoirs of Dr Norton Perina, a world-famous scientist accused of child molestation. In the 1950s, Norton embarks on an anthropological mission to a fictional Micronesian island, where he discovers a lost tribe who appear to have attained eternal life. Throughout the novel we see the impact of this discovery on Norton, on the island, and how his life has culminated in the present day allegations. This book was in equal parts mesmerising and disturbing. I don’t think you should know too much about the plot as Yanigahara disarms the reader so cleverly, but I will say that the writing is immersive, the settings are richly described and the ending left me completely stunned. It’s a captivating and chilling book about power, corruption and moral relativism.
I was also completely obsessed by Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò. Set against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Yejide is struggling to conceive a child and devastated by her husband’s decision to take a second wife. Going into this I expected an emotional look at infertility and motherhood – I got so much more. The book is beautiful on motherhood and grief, but it’s also a plot driven, totally compelling book that spirals into darkness and desperation. This is one of the rare novels that I would recommend to almost anyone – I wish I’d read it sooner.
When I look back on 2020, I think I will picture myself sitting on the front step in the blissfully hot days of spring when we weren’t allowed to leave the house, reading Zadie Smith’s short story collection Grand Union. It is a collection of new and previously published stories that is massively wide-ranging and hard to sum up, expect to say I feel both in awe of her craftmanship and slightly terrified of her laser-sharp gaze. She seems to see everything coming, it was almost shocking that she hadn’t foreseen the pandemic.
While Zadie would, I felt, have applied spectacular insight to ‘these times’, it was later in the summer, reading Jenny Offill’s Weather, that I really felt and longed for companionship in the face of catastrophe. Lizzie, the protagonist of Weather, would no doubt have greeted Covid-19 with the same blend of panic, community spirit and boredom as the rest of us, but with better jokes. Jenny, if you’re out there, I would love to read this!
I also spent what felt like months reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. What an amazing novel. Like Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I read earlier in the year, I have thought about its message of the interconnectedness of everything very often since. If we learn anything from 2020, could this be it?
It’s been a brilliant year for books and it’s hard to pick just one or two! However, I think my book of the year was How Much of These Hills are Gold by C Pam Zhang. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently and combines beautiful prose with the powerful story of two young siblings, Lucy and Sam, who are alone in the American West and living through the early days of the Gold Rush. This is no Little House on the Prairie; their life is brutal and stark – their mother is gone and their father has just died and they need to bury him. We know that the siblings are of Chinese heritage and the book is about identity and the origins of contemporary American society, constantly asking the question: ‘What makes a Home a Home?’
Another book I loved and that also deals beautifully with issues of race and identity is Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo, which was published in paperback this year. Written in verse and aimed at readers aged 13 and upwards, it is the coming-of-age story of Michael, born just before the millennium, as he navigates his childhood and teenage years, finding his voice as a drag artist at university.
The silver lining of lockdown has been all the reading time! My nostalgic comfort reads have to feature here; returning to Jane Austen’s works, especially my favourite Persuasion, was a welcome distraction. I’ve enjoyed lots of contemporary novels too, including the wonderfully descriptive Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Elena Ferrante’s insightful The Lying Life of Adults, but my top pick for 2020 is the wonderful Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud: the language is rhythmic and masterful while its profoundly human story had me laughing, crying and longing for good food and sunshine, something I can only hope is coming our way in 2021!
I’ve struggled to finish a lot of the books I’ve started this year, despite 2020 being a bottomless pit of time. However, this has been a fantastic year for fiction, so I feel this really speaks to the quality of books I did finish. I can’t pick just one, so I’ll go over some of my highlights. Boy Parts (Eliza Clark, Influx Press) is a witty, biting look into art, obsession and femininity, peppered with the occasional k-hole and romp into the many Tescos of Newcastle (I audibly ‘ooo’d’ when my old local Tesco popped up, what a thrill). Irina was completely insufferable, and I loved seeing how she interacted with the world.
I read Tender is the Flesh (Agustina Bazterrica, trans. Sarah Moses, Pushkin Press) at around the midpoint of the first lockdown, and its claustrophobic alternative reality was probably not great for my mental state but was still an absolute nightmarish delight to devour. The general acceptance of farming other humans feels grounded – you really believe in Bazterrica’s world, and that Marcos’ slow descent is entirely plausible if not simply expected in his context. The book is bitterly dark and left me wandering around in a daze ruminating on the general failings of humanity once I finished it.
After I’d cheered up and became able to eat bacon sandwiches again, I picked up Rainbow Milk (Paul Mendez, Dialogue Books). Rainbow Milk, while by no means a light read, is a beautiful, evocative, and undoubtedly moving account of fatherhood, religion, class, and sexuality in Britain. Despite all these themes in his debut Mendez pulls it off without faltering, and I really felt situated in Jesse’s headspace. His tender representation of black masculinity was brilliant, and I loved seeing Jesse’s coming of age as he reckons with his own identity as a gay black man from the Black Country and what that means for him.
Reading is always an essential element of my life and books have helped to keep me going through the demands of 2020. There have been many highlights. Poetry collections that have stood out for me include A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson – moving, striking, beguiling, I honestly don’t have the words – and Ourselves, the brilliant first collection by writer and nurse Beda Higgins, whose precise and vibrant poems explore loss, affection and the internal landscapes of those who devote their lives to caring for others.
I was filled with unease by Martin MacInnes’ compelling second novel, Gathering Evidence, which presents a fearful and hauntingly real vision of the repercussions of humanity’s interference with nature – it’s a book that I’m still thinking about months later. I also loved Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which is fully deserving of all the acclaim it’s been given. Lastly, I’ve enjoyed catching up on Sam Selvon’s 1950s novels The Lonely Londoners and The Housing Lark which follow the lives of Windrush generation working-class characters as they begin new lives far from home, encountering racism and poverty in London. The modernist style of these novels – their rhythmic prose and engaging meandering plotlines – illustrates what a wonderfully skilled and gifted writer Selvon was.