2020 was so terrible, the less said about it the better. The best thing though was all the reading I did. Books kept me sane. With more time on my hands, I read much more than what I had done in previous years, and as a result discovered some really terrific books.
This also means that I have expanded my ‘Best of’ list to include 18 books. Of these, eight are translated works covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, German and Korean). I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 15:3).
So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2020, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…
THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)
In The Birds, our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Since Mattis is not able to hold on to any job, the responsibility of providing falls on Hege’s shoulders, and she is now tired and lonely. Until one day a lumberjack called Jorgen enters their lives and uproots their daily existence. This is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with.
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
There’s a reason why To the Lighthouse is a classic, it is Woolf at her sublime best. An impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives – all in Woolf’s trademark stunning prose.
EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN by Gwethalyn Graham
Gwethalyn Graham is a Canadian author I had never heard of before, but thanks to Persephone Books I do now. This is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice. Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues and discussions between the characters.
THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)
A book longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize that should also have been shortlisted. The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.
HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)
The Witch, a highly reviled figure in the rural Mexican village of La Matosa, is murdered and her corpse is dumped in a canal. Told through four perspectives, Hurricane Season is a tour de force, hurtling at the reader at a furious pace despite the long, winding sentences, and drips with violence, foul language, poverty and an overall feeling of dereliction. It was my favourite to win the International Booker Prize.
PASSING by Nella Larsen
Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries. The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.
WINTER IN SOKCHO by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.
It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place.
DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)
Almada is one of Latin America’s most exciting contemporary writers introduced to us by the wonderful Charco Press. Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved.
THE WEATHER IN THE STREETS by Rosamond Lehmann
Set ten years after The Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.
Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call. Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.
THE SOUL OF KINDNESS by Elizabeth Taylor
I somehow missed writing a detailed review on this book (the only one on this list). In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.
Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.
LOOK AT ME by Anita Brookner
In Look At Me, our narrator is Frances Hinton, who works in a medical library during the day and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly mesmerized.
This novel is a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider. Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside.
OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS by Barbara Comyns
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh. Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough, and despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of her storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch. In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.
UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)
Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.
Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality.
THE ARTIFICAL SILK GIRL by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)
The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to. After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin. While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company. In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.
THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)
This is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.
Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson
Such a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present.
THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever fabulous, elegant and incisive.
A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J. L. Carr
Tom Birkin, a soldier in First World War and having suffered shell shock, arrives in Oxgodby in the summer of 1920 to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church. This is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art. It has everything – nostalgia, an art mystery, romance, and atmospheric descriptions of an idyllic village life.
That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and here’s wishing for a better 2021 in simply everything. Merry Christmas!