Do I need to intro this post with an exposition on just how strange this year has been? Although 2020 has brought an array of very personal challenges our way, 2020 has, for many of us, been the first time that we’ve experienced a truly global event. In that sense, it’s needless to put words to the difficulties of living during this pandemic beyond saying simply ‘as much as it’s possible for me to understand what you’ve been through, I do’. 2020 will be the stuff of complicit nods in decades to come, of unspoken communications between those of us currently living through it. The physical, emotional, external, and internal tolls of this year were not predictable. But I like to believe that we will live ever the wiser and more grateful once ‘normal’ life returns.
In the meantime, how can we read any real positivity into the year behind us? It will be in the hard-fought victories, both big and small. For me, grieving the loss of two family members, growing my menagerie of animals, completing another year of therapy, and reading some truly remarkable books. It’s easy to look at 2020 and discard those achievements that we think of as less significant – the new hobbies, dressing in normal outdoor clothes. But, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the tremendous courage that even the smallest acts can take. So yes, reading books is an amazing feat and something we must celebrate in a year replete with messages of fear and discouragement. Let’s enter 2021 with our minds on our successes. In that spirit, here are my favourite reads from the year (a mix of old and new publications) – and please add your own favourites, along with any other 2020 successes, in the comments below!
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Scribe US, 2020)
Not only my favourite read of 2020 but my one of my all-time favourites. Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life is a tremendous family epic, spanning a century and six generations of one Georgian family. With the scope of Tolstoy and Dickens, this novel unpicks the tensions of life in the 20th century Soviet bloc, telling the story of global politics through the lens of domestic conflict and unimaginable suffering. The novel moves with an easy fluidity through the transformation of Eastern Europe, exploring the frictions of class in a world ruled by the hypocrisy of wealth and influence in Communist politics.
It is a truly fantastic book, reminiscent of the best aspects of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Winner of the English PEN award, The Eighth Life is also a remarkable example of translated fiction. If you read just one book from this list, I highly suggest that you make it this.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Grove Press, 2019)
A little late to the party here but Girl, Woman, Other certainly lived up to everything implied by its 2019 Man Booker win. It is perhaps the narrowness of COVID life that has left me hanging on the words of such expansive works – those that play across generations or narrative perspectives. Girl, Woman, Other achieves so much. The novel explores the lives of twelve women, mostly black and living in London or its suburbs. Each of the voices vibrates with authenticity, an undeniable testament to Bernadine Evaristo’s remarkable skill. From the shockwaves of internalised racism to the everyday violences of life as a person of colour, Girl, Woman, Other is impressive in both depth and breadth.
2020 has forced a confrontation with the pervasive influence of racist ideas and actions. Those of us who class ourselves as ready and willing to engage with the experiences of people of colour must reprioritise. Too much time is spent in the determination to avoid accusations of internalised racism where we should instead be entering discussions with a desire to do ever better. Reading works like Girl, Woman, Other is a starting point for those looking to engage authentically with the black experience, to understand the insidious ways in which racism operates on the lives of minorities, and to actively encourage the development of more space for black writers – something of which we have desperate need.
The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, Piper Kendrix Williams (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020)
In a similar vein, The Toni Morrison Book Club is one of the most important works of non-fiction published in 2020. I read this just as the Black Lives Matter movement pushed discourse on racism back into the centre of public consciousness. The book alternates between the experiences of four university professors (three black women, one queer, white man) as they read through Toni Morrison’s work. Each chapter reflects on a different book and its reflection on the lives of the readers. We hear from a mother who lives in fear for her children, who has had to educate her son on how to ‘appropriately’ respond to the presence of police officers. On the ways in which Beloved thus teaches truths that are still as meaningful today. We hear about The Bluest Eye and the continued emphasis on white standards of beauty. A fantastic demonstration of the fact that rarely is violence a physical act.
The Toni Morrison Book Club is a powerful unpicking of Morrison’s novels and their relevance to the contemporary black experience. A must-read.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2019)
I tried to use part of this year to read outside of my usual genres, including an overdue dip back into young adult fiction and adult fantasy. Released back in 2019 (somehow only last year), The Priory of the Orange Tree was an immediate success. At almost 900 pages, it’s certainly an epic. Set in a world of dragon riders and magic wielders, this novel has all of the hallmarks of traditional high fantasy. Yet this is not a standard piece of fantasy literature. Samantha Shannon sets out to overturn a number of the tropes typically so central to the most celebrated works of the genre. Women are at the helm of this novel, steering almost every aspect of the plot without the traditional reference to sexual violence or sex in general as the main way in which female characters are permitted to exist in high fantasy. Women in The Priory of the Orange Tree are the power brokers and the power wielders. Samantha Shannon has flourished in the openings made by the likes of Octavia Butler to create a book that does right everything that Game of Thrones does wrong.
But it would be a mistake to think that The Priory of the Orange Tree succeeds only as a an exercise in inclusivity. It is a tremendously well-written book, with a world replete in vibrant detail. A fantastic escape from the many dark sides of 2020.