Best of 2020: Fiction and Poetry
I’ve managed to whittle down my favorite releases of 2020 to 17 in total: six each from nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow) and fiction, plus five poetry volumes. Plenty more books from all genres will turn up on my runners-up list, due Tuesday.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Group by Lara Feigel: A kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018. Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly, and Priss met as Oxbridge students. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have diverged. Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by 20 years and you have an idea of what to expect. This sexually frank and socially engaged story arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Absorbing and relevant.
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways; sex and violence are uneasily linked. I so admired how the novel is constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
- Monogamy by Sue Miller: After 30 years, Annie and Graham are forced to scrutinize their marriage anew. Annie is a photographer; Graham owns a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookstore. Around them swirl a circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and former and would-be lovers. Miller knows her characters and how they interact intimately, and each viewpoint is thoroughly believable. Even in what seems a conventional story, she managed several proper made-me-gasp surprises. A beautifully observant novel about ambition, ageing and grief, reminiscent of Julia Glass, Sigrid Nunez, Maggie O’Farrell, and Carol Shields.
- Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. Thanks to the confiding first-person, present-tense narration, I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. I came to think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
- The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: Mandel’s characters are rootless people stuck in literal or figurative states they don’t fully understand. Addiction is its own country for Paul, as is money for his half-sister, Vincent, who unexpectedly takes on the role of trophy wife to an older New York financier named Jonathan Alkaitis. Shuttling between the concrete (the shipping industry) and the abstract (even imaginary money can pay for luxuries), and laced with music and visual art, the novel explores liminal spaces, finding the fairy tales and nightmares that nip at the heels of real life. A satisfyingly layered story.
- The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this fictional world. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern appropriate to the coastal setting, creating a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith off the coast of Scotland is the perfect symbol. Looking back, this is the novel that has most haunted my imagination.
- How to Fly: In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons by Barbara Kingsolver: The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four short remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. The book gives equal weight to personal and collective losses, and Kingsolver builds momentum with her salient natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.
- Moving House by Theophilus Kwek: This is the Chinese Singaporean poet’s first collection to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic. Many poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines; others are about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. Highly recommended to readers of Mary Jean Chan and Ocean Vuong.
- Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt: This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. The whole is capped off with the moving words addressed to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you”.
- Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols: Nichols’s ninth collection is split, like her identity, between the Guyana where she grew up and the England which she has made her home. Creole and the imagery of ghosts conjure up her coming of age in South America. She often draws on the natural world for her metaphors, and her style is characterized by alliteration and assonance. Nichols brings her adopted country to life with poems on everything from tea and the Thames to the London Underground and the Grenfell Tower fire. (My full review will appear in Issue 106 of Wasafiri literary magazine.)
- Dearly by Margaret Atwood: A treasure trove, rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis and bereavement and by turns reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, the poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz; her frame of reference is as wide as the range of fields she’s written in.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
What were some of your top fiction and poetry reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction books from the year.
Book Serendipity in the Final Months of 2020
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. (Earlier incidents from the year are here, here, and here.)
- Eel fishing plays a role in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson.
- A girl’s body is found in a canal in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and Carrying Fire and Water by Deirdre Shanahan.
- Curlews on covers by Angela Harding on two of the most anticipated nature books of the year, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (and both came out on September 3rd).
- Thanksgiving dinner scenes feature in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
- A gay couple has the one man’s mother temporarily staying on the couch in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Memorial by Bryan Washington.
- I was reading two “The Gospel of…” titles at once, The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson (and I’d read a third earlier in the year, The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving).
- References to Dickens’s David Copperfield in The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
- The main female character has three ex-husbands, and there’s mention of chin-tightening exercises, in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.
- A Welsh hills setting in On the Red Hill by Mike Parker and Along Came a Llama by Ruth Janette Ruck.
- Rachel Carson and Silent Spring are mentioned in A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee, The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson. SS was also an influence on Losing Eden by Lucy Jones, which I read earlier in the year.
- There’s nude posing for a painter or photographer in The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, and Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.
- A weird, watery landscape is the setting for The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
- Bawdy flirting between a customer and a butcher in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Just Like You by Nick Hornby.
- Corbels (an architectural term) mentioned in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
- Near or actual drownings (something I encounter FAR more often in fiction than in real life, just like both parents dying in a car crash) in The Idea of Perfection, The Glass Hotel, The Gospel of Eve, Wakenhyrst, and Love and Other Thought Experiments.
- Nematodes are mentioned in The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A toxic lake features in The New Wilderness by Diane Cook and Real Life by Brandon Taylor (both were also on the Booker Prize shortlist).
- A black scientist from Alabama is the main character in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- Graduate studies in science at the University of Wisconsin, and rivals sabotaging experiments, in Artifact by Arlene Heyman and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A female scientist who experiments on rodents in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Artifact by Arlene Heyman.
- There are poems about blackberrying in Dearly by Margaret Atwood, Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols, and How to wear a skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker. (Nichols’s “Blackberrying Black Woman” actually opens with “Everyone has a blackberry poem. Why not this?” – !)