The 10 Books That Defined My 2020

Should I have done this list in 2020? Probably. One of the few benefits of a lockdown Christmas has been that it’s forced me to stay inside and finish my Masters assignment, which feels relevant because a great number of books in my Top 10 are ones I was introduced to, or inspired to read, because of my Creative Writing MA. Plus it was taking up all my time, hence why this list is late.

This list contains a range of forms and genres, some were published this year, others are older, but they are all books I read in 2020. My only criteria was that they were all:
a) Books that I couldn’t shut up about
b) Books I was likely to recommend to other people (and annoyingly, ones I have actually lent to people, so I couldn’t include them in my blog picture!)
c) Books that emotionally stayed with me throughout this year

No major spoilers, no boring blurbs, just my opinions to kick off 2021, done in a reverse countdown to build some tension.

10) Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated by Nichola Smalley

I described this book as Trainspotting meets Mrs Dalloway meets a Samuel Beckett play. It is an energetic, frenzied exploration of memory, class and the inescapable nature of our various selves. This was not an easy read, but one that ultimately paid off, with a twist that left me scratching my head, hurrying back through the pages to find clues like an Agatha Christie novel. Published by And Other Stories, which specialises in English translations of foreign-language books, Nichola Smalley’s ability to turn Swedish slang into nuanced, British colloquialisms helped make this an exhilarating read.

9) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My friend recommended this book for me. So when I got to around page ten, and the characters were faced with a world-ending pandemic, caused by an animal-transmitted virus similar to SARS, I briefly questioned this friendship. Thankfully, the recommendation was not in bad taste, and I was deeply affected by this book. I love dystopian fiction, and this is a refreshing take on the genre, focused primarily on survival, and deciding, in the face of apocalypse, to live rather than merely exist. There is a moment in this book that is written so stirringly, so terrifyingly, it made me feel physically sick (the bit with the plane, anyone?) Who knew reading a pandemic book during an actual pandemic could be so rewarding?!

8) The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

My top poetry collection of the year has to be this gorgeous, small masterpiece by Raymond Antrobus. The collection is incredibly moving, funny and heart-breaking all at once, combining humour with moments of pathos. His poems discuss identity and masculinity, explore his British-Jamaican identity and provide reflections on the d/Deaf experience, notably through the isolation and prejudice many within with d/Deaf community face. I loved his manipulation of form, which always felt perfectly matched to each poem, enhancing or adding meaning to the concise, beautifully chosen language.

7) The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK edited by Dr Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott

This is a book about the experience of mental illness, not through a single, homogenous voice, but through a curated anthology of stories, essays, poems and art, to provide a mosaic of different individuals commenting on race, their mental health and both. This book is arresting and a vital contribution to the often white-washed mental health discourse. It critiques modern mental health services for how often they neglect the trauma of racism in their therapies, highlights the unconscious bias and overt racism individuals face within mental health settings and, most importantly, urges us to view people not as a mere demographics or illnesses, but holistically, as nuanced individuals. It changed how I think and talk about mental health for the better.

6) Intimations by Zadie Smith

Lockdown in a book. Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, published during the summer of 2020, at first may seem like the last thing anyone would want to read, reminding us of a God-awful year. On the contrary, these six essays were a breath of fresh air, giving us permission to feel angry, to feel wronged, to feel pain, to write books and to bake banana bread, in a year where we all contributed to a game of Suffering Top Trumps. Witty, astute and completely relatable, this book was a great companion for coping through lockdown, and perhaps the only book I ever want to read about 2020.

5) Boy Parts by Eliza Clark

I came to read Boy Parts a few months after the start of the pandemic, feeling, like many others, completely deflated, lacking motivation and a bit hopeless. Boy Parts is a book I would recommend to anyone who has fallen out of a reading habit. This book jolted me back to life. After living between Durham and Newcastle for three years, the Toon references were hilarious and refreshing (a book not set in London, a rare find!). The narrator is delightfully awful, I hated her so much and questioned my own moral compass when I wished bad things happened to her. I have recommended this book to everyone, ranging from my super-cool 22 year-old sister to my 60 year-old father-in-law. A hilarious, terrifying must-read.

4) Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

My favourite short story collection of the year is this equally beautiful and horrifying book, centred predominantly on the perversion of the female body. The stories are like fairy-tale horrors, creeping out of the mundane tedium of everyday life and etching themselves into my brain – Granite and salt slow actually gave me nightmares. This book was un-bingeable but in the best way, a little bit like my experience of watching Chernobyl last year, each story required a cooling-off period, a digestion. But these are the best kind of stories, ones that stay with you and haunt you, till you can muster up the courage to be traumatised (and love it!) all over again.

3) Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Another translated text and this one came as a delightful surprise. This was on my reading list for University and I am so grateful that it was. I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie and murder mysteries, and relish in any adaptation of the genre. This book is eco-literature, existentialism and religious scepticism tied up as a murder mystery caper, fronted by an eccentric, horoscope-obsessive narrator who believes the murders happening in her rural, Polish village were carried out by Mother Nature herself, enacting her revenge on humans. This book is so unique, led by such a captivating narrator, and crosses so many genres, I would implore anyone to read it (personal highlight: the skill of translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones translating a Polish translation of an English poem back into English!)

2) The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

This was the 2020 book I was most excited for, entirely down to how much I adored Stuart Turton’s debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. As already stated, I am a die-hard murder mystery fan and Turton’s manipulation of the genre is incredible and frighteningly complex (I imagine the planning stage for his novels takes up an entire room of his house). On hearing Devil was due to be set in the 1600s, I was apprehensive, as I am not generally a historical fiction fan. I had no reason to be concerned. Turton takes a more liberal approach to historical accuracy (thank the Lord!) and I absorbed this book in a day. The twist is perfectly executed, the characters are all intriguing and the plot is full of surprises. I am already counting down to his next book!

1) Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Literature royalty, God-tier writing, Berardine Evaristo provides a masterclass in how you write a damn book. This was a very early entry to my 2020 reading list, but could not be topped by anything that followed. Evaristo manages to capture the essence of twelve vastly different characters, across different decades and locations, with such beauty and ease. This book made me laugh, made me cry and had me smiling throughout. The prose-poem form, an extremely challenging form to sustain across the duration of novel, was executed perfectly with great effect, allowing each character’s voice, dialect and world-view to fill up the pages and the reader’s imagination. I was so glad to see this astonishing book reach the top of the Bestseller’s list, where it truly belongs.

What were you favourite books of 2020? I am always looking for recommendations, please let me know!

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