It’s fair to say 2020 was… not a great year all round. However, as I write this, I’ve managed to read 120 books throughout all the madness (I may just about squeeze one or two more in before the year ends). As ever, I’m excited to count down my 10 favourites here. Aside from quickly listing a few honourable mentions – Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde, and Let Them Eat Chaos by Kae Tempest – let’s just jump right into it, shall we?
- Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford
This was a bit of a sleeper hit in that it didn’t immediately stand out as a contender for this list when I read it, but it has stayed with me strongly ever since. We follow a not-quite-human father and daughter who use their strong ties to the earth to cure sickness and injury among their neighbours. Though things remain a little more elusive than I would have liked, the striking imagery, visceral prose, and otherworldly atmosphere kept me hooked. A startlingly singular read, it manages to balance several fascinating themes, including the language used to describe women’s bodies, the vilification of feminine power, the magic of the natural world, the cost of intimacy, and the folly of sacrificing our own desires in an attempt to please or change others.
- The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
This richly evocative historical fiction novel follows a black woman facing the death penalty for the supposed killing of her white master and mistress. Serving as her testimony, the book takes us all the way from her birth on a plantation in Jamaica to her incarceration in London, as she attempts to make sense of the life she has lived and prove her innocence.
Frannie is a phenomenally well-drawn character. Complex, intelligent, passionate, and unfalteringly human; it’s her flaws that make her so easy to root for. Collins’ visceral and immersive prose is equally fantastic, as she navigates the nuanced themes of culpability, gender, sexuality, and autonomy.
- Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
This is proving the be a real marmite book, but fortunately for me, I’m one of the ones who loved it. A masterclass in delayed tension, it follows two families who must seek to overcome their differences and survive what may be the end of days. Though I can understand and appreciate the thematic implications behind both creative choices, the dense prose and ambiguous ending will definitely alienate some. Meticulously paced and punctuated by striking imagery throughout, however, Alam creates a singular atmosphere that is as discomfiting as the plot itself. Tense and anxiety-inducing, even the quietest moments simmer with an undercurrent of threat; the book asking critical questions about trust, race, family, and control.
- Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, tr. from the French by George Miller
Told from four perspectives that weave together towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, this is primarily a look at the concept of loyalty in its various forms, and the moral dilemma of breaching someone’s trust when it may be the best thing for them.
With each of the protagonists attempting to keep a secret on behalf of someone else, a sense of tension and claustrophobia builds throughout, as does some very clever commentary on sexism, abuse, and agency. The unassuming skill of its construction somehow heightens the book’s emotional impact, making this a real hidden gem I’d love to see more people pick up.
- Grimoire by Robin Robertson
I picked up this collection of narrative poems on a whim and I’m so glad I did! From stories of ghosts, witches and doppelgängers, to tales of selkies and changelings, the poems draw on Scotland’s rich tradition of mythology and storytelling to explore themes of heartache, revenge, and transformation, often focussing on those who are vilified by society for their differences. I love Robertson’s use of language. It’s lyrical yet always so readable, with hauntingly macabre imagery that is perfectly suited to the dark nature of the subject matter. Simple yet haunting illustrations – provided by Robertson’s brother, Tim – are peppered throughout as well. Compared in the blurb to cave paintings, these striking images do indeed possess an eerie timelessness that enhances the impact of the book as a whole.
- The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Set during the final months of WWI, just as the so-called Spanish Flu was hitting its peak, The Pull of the Stars chronicles three harrowing days on a makeshift maternity ward in Dublin. Donoghue succeeds in capturing the abject horror of a city blighted by the cumulative effects of war and disease. Though she never shies away from detailing the utter devastation racking people’s bodies, there’s a tenderness that grounds the narrative and stops it from tipping into gratuitous suffering. Thematic parallels with current events are impossible to ignore, and though it will resonate more strongly for some as a result, the book is good enough to stand on its own regardless. The narrative is gripping, and the characters endearing, but with an overall tone that is fiercely feminine, the book serves as a love letter to all the women who sacrifice themselves mind, body and soul in the name of caring for others.
- Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass
For its relatively short length, this packs a hefty punch. We follow Laura, a paediatric nurse, as the physical and emotional demands of her job become increasingly all consuming. With exhaustion taking hold and her relationship falling apart, strange nightmares begin to bleed into her days. There’s such a gentleness to much of the book, but it is this distinctly quiet grace that lends several moments their devastating power.
Glass employs a lot of exaggerated metaphors, but there are beautiful passages that read like prose poetry. In this context, the almost cloying text mirrors the heavy atmosphere and the increasingly hypnotic, otherworldly tone of the narrative, with brilliantly employed flirtations with the supernatural used to explore the notions of unaddressed trauma, and deteriorating mental health as a result of a distinct lack of support for medical staff – a very real problem that hits home harder than ever following widespread devastation on hospital wards in 2020.
- Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, tr. from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
In this horrifying gem from Argentina, a virus has made all animal meat toxic to humans. In a frighteningly short span of time, the consumption of human flesh has been legalised, with breeding centres now commonplace, the ownership of “domestic” humans not unusual, and the public largely desensitized to everything that’s going on. The world-building and pacing throughout this speculative, all-too-plausible dystopian are handled brilliantly. There’s no clumsy exposition, and every detail we learn about the degradation of society is more disturbing than the last. It’s a book about what it means to be human, and what it means to have loved and lost. It’s also a book about power, complicity, family, and mankind’s unwavering instinct to both survive and dominate.
I found it (deliberately) repellent and utterly compelling in equal measure. Bazterrica repeatedly forces us to ask why we value some lives above others, but for all its boldness, there’s also a lot of nuance, with commentary on the likes of genetic modification, hunting for sport, human trafficking, class disparity, and the power of language, all woven in seamlessly.
- The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Set in 1850s London, this wonderfully evocative debut looks at art, autonomy, love, and obsession. We follow Iris, a young woman who agrees to model for an up-and-coming artist on the condition that he tutor her in painting. But Iris has an admirer; a mysterious, sinister figure who is watching from the shadows. Macneal’s writing is lush and intoxicating; the sights, scents and sounds of Victorian London practically leaping from the page. Equally, Iris is an excellent heroine: talented, ambitious, headstrong, and determined to succeed in a man’s world. Indeed, the book has great things to say about the limitations placed on women at the time.
I loved every moment I spent with this book. It completely absorbed me as both a richly layered piece of literary fiction and as a compelling story. It’s true I felt the denouement was a little abrupt, but with prose, atmosphere, themes, characters, and a setting that were all so vividly drawn, this was just the gothic romp I needed; a fantastic look at womanhood, freedom, and resilience in the face of madness.
- The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The divide of gender, the dark side of religion, and the resilience of the human spirit are placed beneath the microscope in this evocative historical novel, inspired by real life tragedy. Following a devastating storm that claims the lives of nearly all their men, a remote community of women in 17th century Norway must learn to be self-sufficient. But whispers of witchcraft bring new men to their home; men who are not happy to find a group of women capable of such independence. With subtlety and tact, Hargrave explores the ingrained societal roles that define and separate us, with a particular focus on the trappings of gender and religion. Through the blossoming relationship between the two female leads (one of whom is new to the village), she also touches on the delicate task of bridging class divides, the pain of forbidden love, and the quiet heroism of following your heart when daring to be different is enough to get you killed.
In addition to presenting nuanced, multifaceted characters, she skilfully evokes a very particular time and place. Crystalline prose captures the raw power and awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape, the atmosphere vivid and transporting as a result. Emotional beats hit at all the right moments, culminating in a climax that is all the more thrilling and powerful for its avoidance of certain anticipated tropes. There have been a lot of witch trial inspired novels over the years. Despite that fact, and the responsibility of honouring true historical events, Hargrave has created a story that feels fresh and valuable.
There we have it! What was your top read of 2020?