As we welcome in a new year (hopefully less ghastly than the last one), I thought I’d take a look back at my favourite books of 2020.
Like so many other people my reading was affected by the pandemic. Though I had more time available to read, I didn’t have the necessary powers of concentration. So I read far fewer books in 2020 than I have for many years. But among those that I did read, there were ten that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
The books that made it to my list of favourites are a mix of fiction and non fiction, of the super-long and the very slim. One thing they have in common: they are books that have left the deepest and more enduring impressions. I will likely forget the plot details and almost certainly forget the characters’ names but I will not forget the sensations and emotions generated by these books.
My favourite books are ones that have distracted me from the frightening state of the world. Not because they are ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel-good’ but because they have given me new ideas to consider and new spaces to explore.
Here are my ten favourite books, in alphabetical order of their author’s surname. Each link will take you to my review or to the relevant Goodreads entry.
My friends reacted with raised eyebrows when I told them early in the year that I was reading a book about a doctor who tends people reaching the end of their life. Not the most cheering of subjects admittedly but Clarke shows that even in these circumstances there can be joy. Hers is a candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of her work as a palliative specialist, finding ways to help her patients experience love and pleasure in their darkest days.
I loved every element of this novel about one day in the lives of three women. They live in different decades and different countries but Cunningham weaves them together through motifs and the ways in which they try to find meaning in their life. My favourite character is Laura Brown who tries to be the perfect wife and mother but is desperately unhappy, feeling confined by motherhood and marriage.
This debut novel is further proof that there are some wonderfully talented authors emerging from Africa. Daré brings us an unforgettable protagonist, a Nigerian girl who dreams of a life as a teacher but is shackled by expectations that as a woman she has a duty to marry and bear children. Adunni has a distinctive voice that speaks out against domestic slavery and forced marriage.
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is one of my 3 favourite Booker Prize novels but this earlier novel has made an even greater impact on me. The fractured relationship between a father and daughter is painfully evoked in scenes that have a strong filmic quality. I loved too the historical detail of life during the 1950s in Tasmania.
This third and final title in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is memorable for many reasons. It was the last book I purchased in a bricks and mortar book shop before they were all closed by government decree in the UK. It was the book I started reading on day one of the lockdown in March and it took me right through that lockdown, reading the final pages just before the rules were relaxed. It was also the longest book I read this year at more than 800 pages.
Having adored the previous titles (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), I was impatient for Mantel to finish the sequence. She didn’t disappoint me at all. Though the career and fate of Cromwell is a matter of historical record Mantel takes us behind the facts into the mind of a complex man who occupies one of the highest positions in the land but can never shake off the ghosts of his lowly beginnings.
I read this stark tale as part of Novellas in November. Mingarelli uses a narrative of three soldiers who embark on a mission one bitterly cold day to pose complex moral questions about culpability and responsibility of those involved in the Holocaust. A chillingly haunting read that has made me want to read more of Mingarelli’s work.
Shakespeare’s wife Anne (or more correctly Agnes) has always been a shadowy figure in accounts of his life, a person who, in the popular imagination, stayed in Stratford while he swanned about in London and then made to suffer the indignity of receiving only his “second-best” bed in his will. Maggie O’Farrell brings her alive in Hamnet, showing her as a woman with talents of her own and a huge capacity for love. It’s richly atmospheric novel that transports you to a sixteenth century household.
In this slim book of 125 pages the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik provides a tense and completely engrossing tale of one night in the life of a young boy and his mother. He goes out alone, wandering through the snowy streets of his village. His mother goes out too, completely oblivious to his whereabouts. This isn’t a thriller however, but a cleverly constructed and thought-provoking work that forces us to question the mother’s actions and attitudes.
Istanbul has long been on my wishlist of places to visit. I almost made it only for my work trip to be cancelled (three times in fact). Thanks to Elif Shafak’s engrossing novel I could at last experience the smells and sounds of the city. It’s a novel of the senses as a woman recalls her youth and the friends she made at every stage of her life, friends who are now searching for her body. An absolutely wonderful novel.
This memoir by the award-winning poet trace the injustice he suffered as a child in the hands of the British social care system. He grew up believing – incorrectly – his mother had abandoned him. It’s a damning indictment of the way some children are failed by the very system that is meant to protect them.
i wonder if any of my choices make it to your lists for the year?