While 2020 has unarguably been one full of stressors and upsets, it has (thankfully) been a great year for my literary intake. Months of furlough and a year spent mostly indoors has allowed me to turn to my bookshelves, reading lists and book recommendations, and wade through the bad times with words.
The books on my list this year have each allowed me a level of escapism that 2020 was desperate for. Whether having been on my ‘to-read’ list longer than I care to admit, or an exciting new discovery, every single one has played a part in shaping my year into one of the richest, literature-wise. Authors, you really are incredible.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor tr. Sophie Hughes (Fiztcarraldo Editions)
Melchor uses a flowing narrative and intense images to pull the reader into this stunning story. Her writing is raw and makes no compromises, tugging on every single one of the readers’ senses. I struggled to put this book down, sucked in by the rolling sentences and dynamic characters. Melchor gives us a detailed look at hardship and masculinity, holding nothing back in her impressive analysis. I only wish that I could experience this novel again for the first time.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)
I’ve long been enamoured by Hadley’s simple, stripped back way of writing. Her books are quiet and slow-moving, using the strength of her carefully balanced characters to guide the reader through. Late in the Day was no exception, and demonstrated Hadley’s skills to the utmost degree. I loved the considered take on relationships in this novel, including all their ugly complexities. There was a piece of me in every single character in Late in the Day, deepening my connection.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
Leading up to its release, this novel appeared to be everywhere. Populating my timeline and being the topic of every book-related email I received, Piranesi had an undoubtedly brilliant marketing campaign behind it. Yet, Susanna Clarke’s gripping story of magic and mystery needed none of these bells and whistles; Clarke’s prose is captivating all on its own. The story gradually revealed itself, allowing us to discover Piranesi’s world alongside the protagonist. The fantasy elements gave way to questions on our own existence, making for a fascinating read.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (HarperCollins)
I was embarrassingly late to the Eleanor Oliphant party, and I’m so glad I found this gem of a novel in a charity shop earlier this year. I’ve never come across a character quite like Eleanor, nor such a nuanced portrayal of disability. This novel managed to put into words the confusion I felt surrounding my own feelings of loneliness and isolation during a difficult period, while also being incredibly fun and engaging to read. At its simplest level, it’s a story about unrequited love, yet it works hard to be so much more than that.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada tr. Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
We often speak about books that are ‘necessary reads’, and out of all the 60+ books I’ve raced through this year, nothing felt like a more vital read than Dead Girls. This hybrid book has essences of In Cold Blood and Hiroshima, yet Dead Girls is an insightful exploration worthy of its own genre. While the book centres around the real-life tragedies of three young Argentinian women, Almada expands her narrative to uncover many more cases, uncovering the true (and ongoing) extent of femicide in this area.
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch (Riverhead Books)
The world of linguistics has long been a secret passion of mine, and I’ve particularly enjoyed reading about how technology shapes our ways of communicating. This then, from renowned linguist Gretchen McCulloch, was straight on my to-read list. With chapters on memes, emojis, and the evolution of the word LOL, this book was rich with information that allows for a new, considered appreciation of the evolving world of language. As a young internet user, it was interesting to discover more about how and why my own digital vocabulary and online communications habits have altered, and left me eager to witness the next step.
Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle (Allen and Unwin)
This novel was one of my most unexpected delights of 2020, and I still find myself drifting back to the powerful image of the ocean, depicted so elegantly by Hardcastle. I loved the theme of female empowerment and the complex way trauma was portrayed. It’s an incredibly impressive novel from such a young author, and Hardcastle evokes all the senses in her writing, producing an engaging, immersive experience.
The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift tr. Jamie Bulloch (Peirene Press)
I love stories that focus on food and the body, so the strange world of The Empress and the Cake was an instant delight for me. As we jumped through time and place to understand more about the Empress and her colourful life, I found myself becoming further engrossed in Stift’s unique storytelling abilities. This wasn’t an easy read, and you had to work hard to make sense of Stift’s intentions, but that only made it all the more enjoyable. As the novel picked up pace and became more intense and urgent, I then loved the crashing ending we were treated to.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)
This was my first dive into Eimear McBride, and has certainly not been (and won’t be) my last. While her style of writing does take some getting used to, the passion-filled pages of The Lesser Bohemians deserved nothing less than this rolling, stream of consciousness-like narrative. It pulled on my sense of naivety and made me wish for the muddled whirlwind of modern romance, even in the rain-sodden streets of London. The dynamic between the two characters was beautiful, and just the form of romantic escapism I needed.
The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha tr. Stephen J. Epstein (Harvill Secker)
However, nothing I read was quite as escapist as Paramaditha’s The Wandering, whose short story collection Apple & Knife I adored last year too. This book was also my first ‘choose your own adventure’ experience, an interactive tale where readers were given choices between doors, interactions, even plane destinations – could anything have been more perfect for 2020? I loved jetting around the world with our narrator, discovering alternative endings based on the routes I picked. Yet this global story also covered deeper themes, such as consent and the treatment of women, making it a dynamic read.
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