Books of the Year 2020: Part Three
Contributors old and new to The Lonely Crowd choose the books that they have most enjoyed reading in 2020. Given the nature of the year, not all of these titles were published in 2020.
Inua Ellams, The Actual
It is surprising how much writing in general, and poetry in particular, have succumbed to the ideological malaise of the day: cuteness, toothlessness, portraying a ‘positive’, compensatory image of a world which is quite the opposite in almost all respects. Maybe it is because of that fact that writers tend to look the other way: enough pain, enough negativity, enough destruction, let’s look somewhere else, let’s escape. Enter Inua Ellam’s The Actual. This is a critical litmus test of the ‘everyday sensibilities’ that enables contemporary life to go on with its business as usual without giving a fuck. This is a fierce, fearless, unapologetic, and not just unapologetic, but it is an attempt at redefining an ‘act’ and action from within an intrinsic legitimacy, without an outside (white, colonial, capitalist); an act that carries its own reference, a genuine and necessary human existence. The Actual is an intense, artistic, highly creative, 21st-century Frantz Fanon set in poetry.
Lucie McKnight Hardy
At the beginning of the year, I decided to start keeping a list of the books I was to read in 2020. It turns out this was a good call; this year has gone on for so long there is no chance I would have remembered what I had read without my spreadsheet. (Yes, a spreadsheet. I know.) Looking back, it appears that over the last year I have read a combination of bold and innovative literary fiction, mostly from indie presses, and dark, unsettling novels from the bigger publishers.
You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce had shades of both Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates, and was, I thought a worrying tale where the rational rubbed shoulders with the supernatural. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (translated by Sarah Moses), was a brutal tale of what humans are capable of inflicting on themselves when social norms collapse: grotesque, gloriously nasty, and utterly compelling. Naomi Booth’s Exit Management is a strong contender for my book of the year. This was a timely examination of societal and corporeal anxieties, which deftly handled important issues: trauma, loneliness, illness and the body’s boundaries.
Another of my favourites this year was The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. James is a hugely talented writer, and has a deft way of conveying trauma and its triggers with sensitivity and stunning prose. Anna Vaught’s Famished was a dark and menacing – and often comedic – collection of sort stories centred around food and its consumption, and The Grip of It by Jac Jemc I noted on my spreadsheet as being ‘literary horror at its finest.’ M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again lived up to expectations: a strange and unsettling novel formed from boldly executed, exquisite prose.
So, that brings us to December, and a couple of books I have saved for the holidays. I’m eagerly anticipating getting started on Nicholas Royle’s new collection London Gothic) because he never disappoints, and I’m intrigued by Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead – the first publication from new imprint New Ruins, a collaboration between Dead Ink Books and Influx Press.
And that’s it. Here’s to lots of books arriving in your stockings this Christmas, and a 2021 that’s a bit shorter than this year has seemed.
I found writing impossible during lockdown, but reading was a consolation. I was a reader for the Edge Hill Prize for a published collection of short stories, and the eventual winner, chosen by the judges, was one of my favourites: What Are You Like? by Shelley Day. A collection of very short stories, it’s ‘a book with pulse’, to quote judge David Szalay. The voices of the narrators’ childhoods ring through their adult narrating consciousness, showing how we are formed by our early experiences, yet move beyond them. I think I can say I’ve never seen free indirect discourse done so well and to such moving effect.
One book I had read before and read again for my reading group, I found just as immersive, exciting and thought-provoking the second time around: Elmet by Fiona Mozley. The story of a small family who build a house in the woods, it’s a searing depiction of the violence that erupts when those on the edge of society come into conflict with it over land and property. Lyrical and tough, it has the air of a fairytale, but is urgently contemporary in its theme.
Just before lockdown I was captivated by the utterly original and unclassifiable Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. A seeming crime thriller, it concerns an eccentric ex-schoolteacher – ‘a crazy old crone’ in the local police commandant’s eyes – who becomes involved in investigating the murders of several men around the village on the windswept Polish plain where she lives. A devotee of astrology, she tries to convince the police that the fates of the men were written in the stars, meanwhile busying herself translating the poetry of Blake, another anti-establishment thinker. Melancholic yet droll, the book finally upends the crime thriller genre and is a meditation on concepts of madness and on the inhumanity and violence of conventional society and organised religion, causing an uproar on its first publication in Poland.
13th Balloon: a poem, by Mark Bibbins.
This is a book length elegy for Bibbins’s lover, Mark Crast, who died from AIDS at 25, in 1992. It’s obviously been a long time in the works, and the love, care and attention show. I find it beautiful and moving: its metaphors are stunning and its episodic details are colourful and compelling.
One metaphor. Here’s how the book begins:
As a house burns sparks
land on the roofs
of houses nearby
Some of them also will burn
And one episode, during a hospital visit:
You’d lift your head a little
and say Hey what’d you bring me Boo
and I’d climb into the bed
with you and say Nothing good just me
2020 was not a good year for reading. I couldn’t focus much and didn’t even manage to keep up with my book club meetings. But I did read a few that I absolutely loved, and thank goodness for those books because I managed to immerse myself in them and for those durations, I kept the reality of 2020 firmly outside my bedroom door.
I buy a lot of books by South Asian writers on my annual December visits to India.
My favourite book of 2020 is Jane Borges’ Bombay Balchao, bought from one of my favourite bookshops in Mumbai. It follows the lives of the tenants in an old building in Mumbai and is a real treat if one wants to get lost in the old- world Catholic villages hidden in the vast, overcrowded metropolis. I have a plan: to read this novel again before my next trip there, and then walk down the lanes and places described in the book and see the stories being played out in front of my eyes.
I loved Avni Doshi’s Booker Prize shortlisted Burnt Sugar. It was a difficult read, the mother-daughter relationship was so heartbreakingly real. A brave book on toxic love and the definition of motherhood.
Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn and Zeba Talkhani’s My Past is a Foreign Country were the two non-fiction highlights for this year. I would highly recommend them as they are poignant but also hard-hitting and insightful.
Just So You Know – Essays of Experience edited by Hanan Issa, Durre Shahwar and Özgür Uyanik is a powerful collection of essays by ‘marginalised’ voices from Wales exploring a wide range of topics like ‘self-identity, erasure of heritage, Welsh language and culture, the immigrant experience… problematic notions of the other by BAME, LGBTQ+, neurodivergent and disabled writers confronting heteronormative and neurotypical ideals.’ – Uyanik. I found the essays very moving and often resonated with my own experiences as an immigrant and the Welsh experience.
I’d finally recommend Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon, which is out in 2021. I was lucky to receive a proof copy and I was completely immersed in Menon’s lyrical prose. Another novel on tough love, this time between grandmother- granddaughter, set in Malaysia, I felt the dark themes explored in this novel were brilliantly done.
This year has been the year of shameless reading, with lots of catch-up reading of books waiting on my shelves. I went in for a few short story and flash fiction collections, greatly enjoyed the inspiring This Paradise by Ruby Cowling and Here Until August by Josephine Rowe; dazzling Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie and This Way to Departures by Linda Mannheim; the beautifully measured All That is Between Us by Ken Elkes, The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan, as well some stunning auto-fiction, All the Beautiful Liars by Sylvia Petter and the delightful I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill. Thoroughly recommend all of these. Never one for being on time with anything, I spent the first lockdown mesmerised by Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in the attic each night, the second with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and in between read novels including Sabbath’s Theatre by Phillip Roth, Adnan’s Mahmutovic’s endearing At the Feet of Mothers; non-fiction including The Shadow of the Sun by old favourite Ryszard Kapuscinski (The Emperor which speaks of the dying court of Haile Selassie is one of my treasured books), Hemingway in Italy by Richard Owen (EH had a life-long love of the Veneto region where I live) and a reread of La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M by Catherine Millet (French practice). I’m currently reading The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste set in Ethiopia at the time of Mussolini’s invasion (years ago I went to Ethiopia several times and had the chance to venture about), which is spellbinding and breath-taking and reminds me why I love the rich texture of stories and words.
This year I’ve particularly enjoyed The Mermaid’s Call by Katherine Stansfield. There is so much going on here beneath the surface – enough period detail to make you feel you are fully inhabiting the era, without overloading it or making it hard to read. If John Singer Sargent had written characters instead of painted them, they would look like this – magical brushstrokes that achieve so much with such little apparent effort. It’s technically adept, firmly literary but licks along at pace, and each chapter ends on a mini-cliffhanger. Thoroughly recommended.
Equally beautifully written is Niall Williams’s This is Happiness, a funny and melancholic journey to 1950s west coast Ireland. A wonderful turn of phrase, subtle mordant humour and sharply drawn characters – at least one passage on each page crying out to be highlighted. I admired, rather than enjoyed, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, placing a young servant into the thick of war with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. This is a slice of time and place I knew nothing about and it is sobering, restrained and powerful.
Elsewhere, what I have enjoyed most has not been new. I would press Richard Flanagan on anyone who does not know him – this year, The Sound of One Hand Clapping. For characters who appear unsympathetic but pull you into their world he is a master, alongside fellow Australian Tim Winton. And I devoured Jo Mazelis’s stories Ritual, 1969. Mazelis is sometimes waspish, sometimes tender and always clear-sighted. These stories are like glass – brittle and seemingly fragile but with a serrated edge. Hold them in your hand, turn them this way and that and admire how the light catches them.
Identifying what you’ve enjoyed makes you see how much you haven’t read. I am keen to explore Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is, let’s face it, the best title for a novel this year. And Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light lurks in the corner, waiting to be plunged into. Perhaps over Christmas, by the fire, hearing the ghosts of axes distantly chopping.
Alan Roderick’s After You’d Gone – poems 2016 – 2020 is a record of his grief after the loss of his wife, Bozena in 2015. The honesty of these poems is beautiful, touching the heart and making of grief something transcendent. There are also moments of humour. It is a superb production, with photographs including reproductions of fine self-portraits by Bozena. I came away feeling uplifted. This is a collection to which I shall return.
Best known for Miss Garnet’s Angel and her endearing 1950s Librarian, Sally Vickers’ engaging novel Grandmothers is now out in paperback). Her lead character, Nan, has a new twist on preparing for the future. An absorbing read for grandmothers or anyone else.
It came as no surprise to me that Nina Stibbe won two national comedy competitions for Reasons to be Cheerful, thus seeing off that old chestnut that women can’t be funny. Besides an enjoyably wacky plot, there are characters, not least the lead and her mother, with haunting psychological depth. (Compare Martin Caira The Golden Dodo, 2020.)
I conclude by returning to the Welsh writing scene with The Lost Moon, by Pat Roper, a delightful story for children aged six-seven, appealingly illustrated by Huw Aaron. In this tale, all the planets have character traits and Earth helps a new friend find the way home.
Matthew M. C. Smith
This year, I enjoyed the escapism of Jane Lovell’s The God of Lost Ways. It’s a collection that centres on the changing identity of place through time. The poems find their location in rural landscapes, where secret places are experienced in solitary walks around edgelands. In poems such as ‘Orchards, Greensand Way’ a tranquil space teems with wildlife and holds ghostly memories of the struggles of people and their manual labour – ‘hands that led the plough, that hauled and/ dug and cropped’. Lovell uncovers the old ways of the countryside, through lanes and open fields with a shifting focus between the present and the rural folk culture of the past. Hers is often a wild landscape unseen by human eyes with birds – kestrels, starlings and owls – holding dominion over the landscapes. There are lighter moments in this work, with descriptions, such as ‘her blooms loll like woozy ladies on / a lawn brilliant with lipstick and scandal’ but on the whole, this luminous collection is impressively austere, focused as it is on ‘the light of ancestors:/ scattered shadows thrown across the warm/ earth of another world.’
For me this was a year of not reading a lot, my concentration gone, perhaps due to consuming the equivalent of The Lord of the Rings while doom scrolling on my phone.
Liz Nugent’s The Little Cruelties picked me up by the scruff of the neck and pulled me through a psychologically dark and intricately plotted family mystery. Likewise My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, funny and arch, kept me guessing and gasping throughout.
Sara Baume’s exquisite Handiwork about art, life, family and nature, conveyed a much needed calm and articulated for me, through the details of crafting, the need to move through the day one task at a time.
Doireann Ni Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat has elicited huge admiration, her beautiful prose lauded but it is the bold, uncompromising structure that I most admire. Alongside the story of Ni Ghriofa’s scholarly research into the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and the translation of her work, Ni Ghriofa also documents the nursing of her own children, her daily chores, and the entanglements of her marriage. In doing so, Doireann has brought into sharp relief the scale of what is lost when women’s voices are erased.
This Happy by Niamh Campbell was one of those books released during the first lockdown that should’ve had much more attention. It’s about a young woman’s coming of age, through two relationships, where ultimately the most important relationship is that with herself. Smart and psychologically acute, This Happy’s sense of place is also exacting – you can smell the streets of Dublin.
It is very difficult to read about a plague while enduring one, but Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet with her extraordinary Agnes and ‘the writer’, their knotty, strange love story and the tragedy they suffer would not let me go. It was both excruciating and wonderful; my best read of the year.
Photo by Jo Mazelis.