It isn’t easy to write a ‘best books of the year’ post. First of all, I hate being asked to choose anything. Secondly, posts of this format mushroom at this time of year – and how many, I wonder, do we really need? All the same, I decided it would be a useful exercise (and pleasant, apart from the choosing bit) for me to look back over everything I’ve read this year and select my absolute favourites. It’s a good way of reliving some of the wonderful literature that has accompanied me through a year more difficult than most – the books that saved me, the ones that made me think, the stories that promised hope, the writing that allowed me the release of tears.
A few standout titles were always going to have a place in my Best Of 2020, but I have agonised long and hard over others. The end result, though, is a selection of books that have stayed with me long after reading: the ones that spoke to me most clearly, the ones I carry with me daily in my head. A few did something unique with language or structure, others were beautifully written. Some taught me a lesson I needed; the very best provided a jolt of connection. To each of their authors, translators and publishers – and the many others not listed here whom I have read and loved this year – I am immensely grateful for the wisdom, solace, inspiration and happiness they provided.
Not necessarily published in 2020, but read over the past twelve months, my top books of the year are:
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Beautiful, mesmerising, intensely human – A Ghost in the Throat does just about everything I want a book to do. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s intertwining of her own life and experience of motherhood with that of Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is poetry in prose form, a heart-squeezing exploration of what it is to be female. I hung on every word of this lyrical work of auto-fiction, which stands out as one of my favourite books not just this year, but ever.
A Ghost in the Throat is published by Tramp Press. You can read my full review here.
A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, translated by Fionn Petch
One of two Charco Press titles on this list, A Musical Offering is a short but captivating work that does something unique with structure. A history of music that mirrors the shape of the Goldberg Variations he begins with, Sagasti has written a quiet but rather extraordinary book that offers education and escapism in equal measure. Beautifully translated by Fionn Petch, A Musical Offering sings on in the mind long after you’ve finished reading.
A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press. You can read my full review here.
Catherine the Great and the Small by Olja Knežević, translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać
My first work of Montenegrin literature, and one that instantly made me want to explore the country and its literary canon. Catherine the Great and the Small is a whip-smart novel that tackles themes such as coming of age, gender, war and the condition of exile, as well as offering an intimate portrait of a lesser-known country. Sharp settings and a bold, brilliant narrative voice made this novel go straight to my heart.
Catherine the Great and the Small is published by Istros Books. My full review is available here.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott
Although their fiction is remarkable, I seem to have chosen Charco Press’s non-fiction titles as my standouts of this year. Dead Girls is an incredibly hard-hitting and important work of narrative journalism exploring the unsolved murders of three girls in small-town Argentina. While femicide might not be a pleasant topic, this is an eye-opener that is also written with a haunting sort of beauty, translated with immediacy and grace by Annie McDermott.
Dead Girls is published by Charco Press. My full review is available to read here.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
It’s no great surprise that Lucy Ellmann’s magnificent Booker-shortlisted tome made it to my top books of the year – to put it simply, I’ve never read anything else like it. Written as a stream of consciousness, this is an immersive reading experience that made me laugh, worry, think about the state of the world and my place in it, and also feel incredibly happy each time it captured my inner monologue perfectly. A triumph of literature that is wholly illuminating and far easier to read than its length might suggest.
Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press and can be read about in more detail here.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I read this back at the start of the year (in what now feels like another lifetime) but it has resonated with me right down the months. Bernardine Evaristo’s novel is fresh, funny and heartfelt, offering a deep level of connection and playing with structure and verse in an incredibly effective way. Still winning the prize for one of the most pleasing closing lines ever, this is a novel that was an utter joy to get lost in.
Girl, Woman, Other is published by Hamish Hamilton. My full review is available here.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
An absolute shoo-in for this list, Hurricane Season hurled itself into my life a couple of weeks ago and upended everything I thought I knew about books. Mesmerising, horrifying and incredibly clever when it comes to the interplay of language, structure and narrative, this novel depicting the violence engulfing a small town in Mexico is a tour de force that grabs hold and doesn’t let go. Not one for the faint-hearted – it is violent – I finished with a cathartic cry and feelings of profound respect for the sheer transporting power literature can have.
Hurricane Season is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. You can read my full review here.
Lot by Bryan Washington
Breath-taking in its directness, Lot is a sign of great things to come from young American writer Bryan Washington (his debut novel, Memorial, comes out in the UK early next year). Loosely linked, these stories depict the lives of young men and women eking out an existence in the toughest neighbourhoods of Houston, a city presented to us with both savage immediacy and unsettling reserve. Tough but incredibly rewarding, this is a compassionate and keenly observed collection that offers both heartbreak and redemption.
Lot is published by Atlantic Books. My full review is available to read here.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
I had the sense after reading this that I had just read something important, and that is a feeling that hasn’t gone away. Formally exquisite and making masterful use of metaphor, Minor Detail offers brief, brutal views of Palestine through two women separated by fifty years – the first, a Bedouin girl killed by an Israeli soldier in 1949; the second, a writer who leaves modern-day Ramallah on the trail of the murder. Coolly hypnotic language and a decision to ignore details such as names give this novel a poignant, universal and deeply shaking quality.
Minor Detail is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. You can read my full review here.
Paula by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire
I am full of admiration for any presses that launched in 2020, and none more so than German translation imprint V&Q Books. Paula, one of its inaugural titles, is a staggering piece of auto-fiction exploring the narrator’s complex relationship with her grandmother, Paula. A moving meditation on how silence can both bind and break families, presented in a series of cinematic fragments, this is a work born of love, the struggle with personal identity, and a fascination with language that is given added meaning by Katy Derbyshire’s sharp translation.
Paula is published by V&Q Books. My full review, written for Asymptote, can be read here.
salt slow by Julia Armfield
Julia Armfield’s Gothic-flavoured short stories have been widely praised – and with good reason. I was absolutely dazzled by salt slow, which is deeply imaginative yet anchored in a very real world. By turns darkly humorous and achingly moving, this collection– with its stories like ‘The Great Awake’ and the titular ‘salt slow’ – resonated particularly strongly at a time when the world began recalibrating itself, and many of its astonishing images have remained with me ever since.
salt slow is published by Picador. My full review is available to read here.
Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon
A series of essays on individual sentences may sound daunting, but this book contains the sort of magic that makes such a concept not only feasible, but also captivating. Breaking down sentences by some of the world’s greatest writers to examine the beauty of their structure, not to mention setting them in the context of the author’s work and the wider literary canon, Dillon has created an ode to writing that ought to be a modern-day classic. Thoughtful, elegant and filled with infectious enthusiasm, this book is the essence of inspired and inspiring writing.
Suppose a Sentence is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My full review is available here.
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt
A short but brilliant read, Territory of Light makes it on to this list mainly because it recaptured my interest in reading at a time when life seemed to be falling apart. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella is a tender, illuminating portrait of a single mother struggling to raise her daughter in a large, impersonal city. Inward-looking and dreamlike, with knife-sharp use of language, this took me out of myself and helped me engage with the world again.
Territory of Light is published by Penguin. You can read my full review here.
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
Travel writing such as I have never read before, The Bells of Old Tokyo moved me profoundly. Anna Sherman’s wanderings through her adopted city, in search of the bells that used to mark time, is a lesson in Japanese history and culture as well as a personal quest to hold on to something intangible – a particular period of life, perhaps, or maybe time itself. Atmospheric, melancholic and offering a whole new view of Tokyo, this genre-bending book continues to haunt me.
The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time is published by Picador. My full review is available here.
The Great Homecoming by Anna Kim, translated by Jamie Lee Searle
Full disclosure: I know the translator. But still, this title has stuck with me as a book that broke new ground in my mental atlas of world history. Anna Kim’s exploration of the troubled 1950s, the civil war that split Korea and the fraught relationship between North, South and Japan offers a fresh and lasting new perspective on a region of the world I know little about. The labyrinthine narrative structure, carefully drawn characters and luminous writing – expertly captured in translation – help this complex literary novel get under the skin.
The Great Homecoming is published by Granta. You can read my full review here.