Our Favourites for 2020
Stephen: For fiction, I choose the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which focuses on the last four years of Thomas Cromwell’s life, from 1536–40. From his apogee at Anne Boleyn’s execution to his own beheading—‘Most gracious prynce I crye for mercye mercye mercye.’ In sweep, historical power and lyrical prose a true masterpiece. I see The Booker Prize judges did not include it on this year’s shortlist. Off with their heads, say I. For non-fiction it’s Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Ma—All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy wrote truer than he knew when it comes to the nightmarish Family Trump. As I write, Trump is uttering his strongman fantasies and threatening to stay in office if the results of a ‘rigged’ Presidential election do not suit him. After nearly four years all of Trump’s various pathologies have been viewed by the world. What you see is truly what you get. The mystery of Donald Trump is that there is no mystery. This merciless memoir by his niece, clinical psychologist Dr Mary Trump, shows how he got that way.
Olivia: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi— A seething story spooled out in fragments and memories. Using taught writing and vivid imagery, Doshi explores themes such as mental illness, familial obligations, resent and memory. It’s not a light read, but if you’re willing to dive down the rabbit hole, this book will get under your skin and linger. Also, The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey—as the title suggests, this is a darkly funny book about death. It weaves classic rom com elements (Love! Friendship! Weddings!) with very honest depictions of anxiety and depression. Ramsay has traversed the line between mental illness and comedy brilliantly, creating a novel that sparkles with black humour.
Andrew: An easy choice for me this year. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan floored me rather surreptitiously. O’Hagan’s prose is always finely turned; I didn’t think the lives of the young men in this elegant diptych of a novel would move me so profoundly, but it did. Hilary Mantel and The Mirror and the Light runs a close second; full marks for living up to my overwhelming expectations, and Summerwater by Sarah Moss is a strong third place; at once beautiful, and threatening, Moss has created an exquisite, ominous, and profoundly beautiful nightmare of a novel.
Jonathon: Headcheese by Jess Hegemann—I was tossing up between this title and Ottessa Moshfegh’s wonderfully eerie Death in Her Hands for my book of the year. Headcheese had to win out because it is so strange, confronting and bizarrely compelling. It’s pitched as the novel you would read on an incognito browser. It presents several characters with self-amputation kinks in a wonderfully fragmented style, occasionally jumping into meta-fiction, as Hagemann interjects directly to the reader—at one point challenging the reader to choose their own way through the book — and excerpts real world body-horrors to flesh out the story. It can get very stopping-reading-in-horror graphic, but also shift into genuinely sublime moments of self-realisation and connection. It’s kind of horror… kind of train-wreck, dare-yourself compelling. And it’s beautifully Illustrated.
David M: Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann—The archetypal joker dances through one of the most terrible and destructive periods in European history. We all stand exposed by him, even now. Brilliant.
Scott: The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht—This handsome door-stopper of a book contains more than 1200 poems written between 1913 and 1956 of which more than 450 appear here for the first time in English. Brecht’s unsentimental language, acerbic wit and profound humanism won over this most reluctant reader of poetry and I found myself dipping in and out of this collection with relish to be shocked, amused and challenged anew. Fellow poet Paul Muldoon has suggested we need Brecht now more than ever, ‘no less for his capacity to so movingly take pleasure also/ in the song of every blackbird after me than for the power of his political poems and songs to take on demagogues and dickheads.’ Amen to that!
Louise: My favourite book this year is Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. It’s short and sharp, much like Olive herself, but full of insight and incident. Olive hasn’t exactly mellowed, but remains connected to many people in her community—several of whom have appeared in Elizabeth Strout’s other novels. I particularly liked the end of the book, Strout showed great warmth and compassion to her most
Jack: In a memorable year for fiction (Shuggie Bain, A Burning, The Vanishing Half, Mayflies), combined with an urge (like everyone) to be sitting in a tin can, far above the world, it was Terry Castle’s autobiographical essays, The Professor: A Sentimental Education, that had me floating in the most peculiar way: ‘It’s really about music…it’s really about California….it’s really about addiction….it’s really about car trips….it’s really about lesbianism….it’s really about making up wild stories,’ Castle explains. A few pages later she’s so into her groove, it takes a few moments to realise you are cheerfully eating a strawberry with a needle in it: ‘While straining to appear normal, I felt a vertiginous dread soar and frolic within me, like an evil biplane on the loose. I was not brave, it seemed, as men were, or even semi-stoical. I struggled with hysterical girlishness. It was an archaic and humiliating problem. I was female—and a wretched poltroon.’ Shrewd, reckless and very funny—best to remove your face mask before reading.
Emma: Will & Testament by Vidgis Hjorth, translated from Norwegian to English by Charlotte Bardslun—A property dispute over a family cabin is the flashpoint for Bergljot, the exiled middle child, to bring suppressed family tensions to the fore. I love how Hjorth illustrates the effects of trauma on the mind through the book’s structure, utilising repetition and unexpected chapter breaks. Bergljot discovers what justice looks like in the context of broken family. A meticulous translation by Charlotte Bardslund gave me fantastic insight into the importance of cabins for Norwegian families as a warm, shared, intergenerational space—an ideal that is far from Bergljot’s reality.
Tatjana: Luigu Ghirri: Kodachrome 1970 – 1978—In 1978 Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri self published his first book Kodachrome, a paean to photography. A trained surveyor he took a job in Modena in 1970 and soon began taking photographs on weekends devising projects and themes (some grouped around a subject, some gathered around a more poetic organising principle) as he roamed the streets, piazzas and suburbs of his adoptive town. Eventually accumulating thousands of photos and developing a unique style he produces Kodachrome. These understated photos of beaches, windows, palms, tiny gardens are juxtaposed with images of billboards, murals and postcards blurring the line between real and reproduction and questioning how we consume images. He has a deadpan approach and there is a dry humour but also an exquisite aesthetic. He believed that even the most banal view was worthy of a sustained look, a second glance. I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is about these photos that I find so compelling but I have definitely been looking at them in this book a lot.
Viki: Of course Mirror and the Light (and the previous two books in Mantel’s trilogy which I re-read in preparation for Mirror’s release) is my favourite for the year—as far as I’m concerned Hilary Mantel is George Elliot reincarnate. But, if you’re as fascinated/frightened as I am about the implosion of the USA’s ‘leader of the free world’ status, I can highly recommend my equal best read of the year—Jill Lepore’s history of the US: These Truths. Rather than entering into the argument of a divided nation represented by the tiny but enormous difference between Jefferson’s first draft Declaration ‘truths’—held to be ‘sacred and undeniable’ and Franklin’s tweak ‘self-evident’—Lepore takes her frame as the question of does American history prove ‘these truths’ or belie them. A fantastic read!
Tiff: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus—A fascinating and beautifully written biography that vividly brings to life the real woman behind the myth. Destroying the long-held representations of her as a tragic icon and ‘the last of her race’, we meet a formidable and remarkable woman not just navigating the rugged landscape of her country, but a time that irrevocably altered the future of her culture and her people.
Anna: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili—A family saga set in Georgia pre, during and past the Russian revolution and beyond.
The waxing and waning of the family fortune and the relationship complications through the eyes of the women. I loved it so much and gave copies to eight friends. One who just reported ‘I had to spend the day on the couch yesterday, I had to stay with the story.’ And another who ‘…did not want it to finish’.
Judy: In this year of separations & bizarre estrangements, books have been treasured companions. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo is such a one. Following the lives of this group of mostly black, British women across many years as they pursue strong desires to live ‘a womanist life’ and to survive whole-hearted, I was left with such a sense of energy and joy.
Other beloved companions for the mind, the heart, the spirit: Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (if you haven’t already read Be Near Me by O’Hagan, I highly recommend it); and , of course, The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (if you become curious about this writer of masterpieces, her autobiography, Giving Up The Ghost is a wonderful insight).
Sally: My choice is Marilynne Robinson’s Jack—a continuation of her Gilead series. This is a rich, rewarding examination of love, grace and predestination in racist mid-20th century America. It focuses on the prodigal son in a close Calvinist family—a deeply estranged and troubled man, the eponymous Jack, whose only aspiration is to do no harm. He runs into a fine young woman and realises that his best impulse, love, could ruin her life. A beautifully rich and thoughtful novel.
Victoria: I join Andrew and many of my colleagues in offering Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies as my favourite, but also nominate my 2nd favourite—Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore—a powerful book about justice, survival, friendship and more. This book will make you angry, sad and proud.
Tilda: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez—This book is equally frustrating as it is liberating: an astonishing exercise in collating the data and scientific literature of a world of gender divides. Criado-Perez reveals the intricacies, fallacies, and implications of a world where man is default and woman is other. The depth of research lets the author be both unequivocal and sensitive in tone, with a delightful scattering of humour in the depths of this weighty and sordid history. Highly recommend, both to educate and empower.
Zak: I first encountered the work of Garth Greenwell at the end of 2018, when a colleague introduced me to his luminous short story The Frog King. Here, I thought, was a writer with a startling control of the language of sensuality, one who could write the erotic in a way that felt urgent, even revelatory. In his second novel Cleanness—a spiritual successor to his critically lauded debut What Belongs to You, and set once again in Bulgaria—Greenwell wields this language to extraordinary effect, inciting the reader to think anew about intimacy, vulnerability, shame, and desire. By turns tender and eviscerating, Cleanness was, for me, one of 2020’s most exquisite offerings.
Tim: My pick for the year is The Abstainer. Ian Macguire’s follow up to The North Water does not disappoint. In the same way he lead me into the icy arctic waters, I was transported to the dank streets of the 19th century Mancurian underworld. Heart racing and heartbreaking.
James: Ancillary Justice/The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie—I’m late to the game, but my favourite book(s) of the year was the acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy. It’s a space opera at heart, but Ann Leckie uses a simple plot to explore ideas about gender, artificial intelligence, and class to great effect. A betrayed AI, a conquering empire in stasis—a happy reader at the end of it all.
Rachel: Honeybee by Craig Silvey—I know there has been a lot of talk about ‘own voices’ and ‘clichéd’ characters, but I still really loved this book. Craig Silvey is an immense talent and is the absolute master of dialogue. He brings heart, humour and hope to a story that is truly harrowing, even though people argue that it is not his story to tell. It had me hooked from page 1 and did not let me go, even long after I finished that last page. I think it can only be a good thing that this is a huge mainstream Christmas release, and hopefully it inspires publishers to seek out some great trans authors as our next big seller for Christmas next year. I really loved it!
Morgan: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell—A very worthy winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year is Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinary story about the domestic world of Shakespeare’s family. Shakespeare is primarily off-stage, while the central characters are Agnes (often known as Ann) and her children and in-laws. So often dismissed and maligned by Shakespeare scholars, O’Farrell brings Agnes to life as an intelligent, warm-hearted woman—a herbalist, a farmer, a wife and mother. William and Agnes’ son Hamnet died 4 years before he wrote Hamlet, presumably of the plague. O’Farrell remarks in her author’s note that Shakespeare wrote and produced his plays all through the time of The Black Death but never once mentioned it in his work. It is this strange absence, she says, which led her to wrote the book. It is a wonderful, beautifully written book and of course, an appropriate subject for this plague-ridden year of 2020.