Best books of the year 2020: what the critics say
A look at the recommended reads from the past 12 months
The critics’ top eight choices based on Christmas selections in national newspapers, the London Evening Standard, the TLS, The Spectator and the New Statesman. Plus, we take a look at some of the other best books which were released in 2020.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Picador 448pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99
The winner of this year’s Booker Prize is a tale of poverty, addiction and abuse set in and around Glasgow in the 1980s. Shuggie Bain’s mother is an alcoholic; his father, a violent, fitfully present taxi driver. As family members drift away, he becomes his mother’s sole carer – and it is their relationship that forms the novel’s emotional core. First-time author Douglas Stuart was praised for his poetic, slang-studded prose, and for his ability to find good in his characters, no matter how despicable their behaviour. Some critics, however, thought the book would have benefited from more rigorous editing.
- “Avowedly autobiographical… blends the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating – sometimes in the same sentence.” (James Walton, The Spectator)
- “A searing, brutal and deeply moving account of poverty, addiction and childhood trauma.” (Nicola Sturgeon, New Statesman)
- “Does what all good fiction should and makes you walk in the scuffed trainers of people who live very different lives.” (Robbie Millen, The Times)
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
4th Estate 464pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99
In this captivating family memoir, 20 years in the writing, Hadley Freeman describes the lives of her grandmother and three great-uncles – all of whom fled from a shtetl in Poland to Paris after the First World War. Settling into their new lives, they took French names – then followed their own paths: one married an American, and emigrated; another ran a hugely successful fashion salon; a third became a millionaire after inventing a microfilming machine. But inevitably the rise of fascism, and the Holocaust, shaped all of their destinies. Reviewers were unanimous in their praise for Freeman’s precise and gripping account of lives upended by the vicissitudes of history.
- “If there is a better book about the anguish of Jewish survival I have yet to read it.” (Tanya Gold, The Daily Telegraph)
- “A stunning family memoir... varied, vivid and heartbreaking.” (Fiona Sturges, The Guardian)
- “Richly researched and beautifully written... Freeman is a poignant and lyrical writer well suited to the ghosts who haunt this book.” (Joshua Chaffin, FT)
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
Faber 288pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99
Jimmy and Tully are working-class lads from Ayrshire who become best friends in their teens. In the first half of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, set in 1986, the pair travel to Manchester for a weekend of music and drugs. In the second half, set 31 years later, Jimmy learns that Tully is dying of cancer, and his friend asks him to help arrange his death at a Dignitas clinic. The book is partly drawn from O’Hagan’s own experience, and while some admired his emotional directness, others felt his portrayal of Tully slipped into sentimentality.
- “A gorgeous novel, full of crisp and evocative images.” (Ed Caesar, The Observer)
- “I was pretty much in love with its main character by page four, and I was confident it would be one of my books of the year by about page ten. (It also made me cry on the train.)” (Daniel Hahn, The Spectator)
- “[In the first half] he handles time with real skill, as he deals with drink and music and the sheer manic glamour of it all. In the second part... the story darkens and takes on an unforgettable intensity and pathos.” (Colm Tóibín, New Statesman)
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
4th Estate 912pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
The concluding volume of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and culminates, some 900 pages later, with the execution of Henry VIII’s chief adviser. In between, we follow the self-made blacksmith’s son as he grapples with a seemingly impossible list of tasks – including overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries and brokering Henry’s third and fourth marriages. Critics found the finale funnier than its predecessors, but a few said that the array of incident and detail made it a somewhat laborious read.
- “As a sustained act of world-building, time travel and mind-reading, I’m not sure Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy will ever be equalled. At the beginning of the first lockdown it was honestly more consoling than food.” (Natalie Haynes, The Observer)
- “Extraordinary... this not only conjured up a vivid historical past but, through her characterisation of Henry VIII, also shone an unexpected light on Donald Trump.” (Rosamund Lupton, The Observer)
- “The best of the trilogy.” (Philip Hensher, The Spectator)
1,2,3,4 by Craig Brown
4th Estate 656pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
In his unconventional book about The Beatles, Craig Brown rejects a linear approach and instead traces the Fab Four’s story in 150 brief and self-contained chapters that roam seemingly at random through their life and times, and vary widely in tone. One moment, he is recounting the fate of John Lennon’s tooth (sold at auction to a Canadian dentist for £19,000 in 2011); the next, he is analysing the band’s role in helping America recover from JFK’s assassination. Critics found the book original, and immensely enjoyable, but some took exception to the portrayal of Ringo Starr as something of a joke figure.
- “A 600-page compendium by a fan and a sceptic. Yoko Ono – self-promotion as an art form, a practised economist with the truth – doesn’t come out of it well.” (Craig Raine, New Statesman)
- “Delicious genius. Irreverent, yet admiring; ironic, but not snarky.” (Stephen Bayley, The Spectator)
- “Too many writers take The Beatles, and themselves, far too seriously. Brown does neither... I loved every word.” (Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times)
Kiss Myself Goodbye by Ferdinand Mount
Bloomsbury 272pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Ferdinand Mount spent many holidays with his uncle’s wife. Aunt Munca owned a Rolls and kept a permanent suite at Claridge’s – but he always sensed that something wasn’t quite right. Years later, he investigated her history, and uncovered a shocking trail of lies, deceptions and broken promises. Kiss Myself Goodbye is his account of Aunt Munca’s extraordinary life. Reviewers described it as a beautifully written, exquisitely crafted work that is as gripping as any good detective novel.
- “Beautifully turned, touching, very funny. As he says at the outset: ‘The truth turns out to be painful – well, that’s no surprise – but I didn’t expect how gay the lies would be.’” (Kate Summerscale, The Observer)
- “The most enjoyable book I’ve read this year... All family memoirs promise secrets – but, I swear, this socialite’s secrets are jaw-dropping.” (Hilary Mantel, New Statesman)
- “This is that rare book that you can press on anyone at all, confident that you’re guaranteeing them several hours of pure pleasure.” (Claire Lowdon, TLS)
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press 384pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
In Maggie O’Farrell’s novel about Shakespeare’s family, the playwright himself is a peripheral figure, referred to only as the “Latin tutor”, the “husband” or the “father”. Instead, the focus is on his wife, Anne Hathaway (here called Agnes) and his son, Hamnet, who died of plague aged 11. Reviewers applauded O’Farrell’s confident depiction of Elizabethan England and her sensitive portrayal of parental grief. But some felt that at times her concentration on her characters’ inner lives came at the expense of narrative excitement.
- “Could there possibly be a better time to read a novel about a plague? As always, O’Farrell is challenging, compassionate and very, very smart.” (Tayari Jones, The Observer)
- “Fifty pages in, I was weeping for the young Hamnet Shakespeare and didn’t care who his father was. An exquisite, sensorily alive study of childhood and parenthood in the Tudor or any age.” (Emma Donoghue, The Observer)
- “Fresh and clever and knocked around my head for ages. There is nothing new to say about Shakespeare? Oh yes there is...” (Andrew Marr, New Statesman)
Russian Roulette by Richard Greene
Little, Brown 608pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
In his life of Graham Greene, Richard Greene (no relation) argues that the novelist was a courageous and decent man with a risk-taking nature. From the games of Russian Roulette he played in his teens to his trips to various war zones, he comes across as an inveterate thrill seeker, addicted to danger. Greene links this restlessness to the bullying he suffered at school and to his bipolar disorder. The book was compared favourably to earlier biographies, which depicted Greene as a rather seedier character, but some critics felt that in seeking to understand his subject, the author had played down his subject’s flaws.
- “After a number of deplorable books about Greene, here is [one] which does not dwell too pruriently on the sex life, and celebrates a man who gave us half a dozen or more distinctively brilliant novels.” (A.N. Wilson, TLS)
- “The best biography I have read this year… conjures [Greene] back to life in a sensible, unsensational way.” (Nicholas Shakespeare, The Spectator)
- “At last Graham Greene has the biographer he deserves.” (Ian Thomson, London Evening Standard)
The Week Bookshop
To order these titles or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.
2020’s recommended reads
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away. The smog and pollution of the overdeveloped, overpopulated metropolis they call home is ravaging her lungs. Bea knows she cannot stay in the city, but there is only one alternative: The Wilderness State. As Agnes embraces this new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter’s life might mean losing her in ways she hadn’t foreseen. Emily St. John Mandel, the New York Times bestselling author of Station Eleven, calls it “a virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure”.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Dangarembga channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed. Here we meet Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. At every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point. In her review for The Guardian Lara Feigel says This Mournable Body “provides a powerful finale to the Zimbabwean author’s trilogy”.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her arranged marriage to join an ashram, took a hapless artist for a lover, rebelled against every social expectation of a good Indian woman - all with her young child in tow. Years on, she is an old woman with a fading memory, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her. This is a poisoned love story. But not between lovers - between mother and daughter. Francesca Carington of The Daily Telegraph says: “There’s a lot more to praise in Burnt Sugar: a concern with corporeality and illness, smells and shrieks erupting through the feverish prose. It’s a corrosive, compulsive debut.”
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. “The star of the novel is Mengiste’s gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down,” says Michael Schaub of NPR. “Mengiste has a real gift for language; her writing is powerful but never florid, gripping the reader and refusing to let go.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
In this brilliant debut novel, described as “psychologically compelling” by the Observer, Wallace spends his summer in the lab of lakeside Midwestern university breeding a strain of microscopic worms - a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and he hasn’t told his friends – Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance even from those closest to him. But, over the course of one blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with both the trauma of the past, and the question of the future. Lucy Knight of The Sunday Times calls Real Life “an elegant take on the ‘campus novel’ and a deeply moving study of race, grief and desire”.
Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower
Tom Bower is a veteran journalist who is famous for his scathing unauthorised biographies of powerful men, said Rachel Sylvester in The Times – among them Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn. You’d assume that with his latest effort he would have repeated the trick, but instead he has produced an “oddly sympathetic” portrait. It’s not that Boris Johnson: The Gambler is a whitewash. Bower is alive to his subject’s “faults and mistakes”: Johnson is portrayed as “obsessed with money, incorrigibly disloyal”, dishonest and “riddled with insecurities”. But rather than holding him responsible for such failings, Bower presents them as the “inevitable product” of a chaotic, disturbing and deeply unhappy childhood. For him, “Boris” – as he is chummily described throughout – is primarily a victim.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
In 1938 Alma Fielding, a housewife from Thornton Heath in south London, apparently became possessed by a violent spirit, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Literary Review. A six-fingered handprint appeared on a mirror; a glass spontaneously shattered; visiting reporters saw eggs fly through the air and a fender tumble down the stairs. Kate Summerscale’s great coup is to have discovered the notebooks of Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian journalist sent to investigate these events by the International Institute for Psychical Research. Months of rigorous tests led Fodor to believe that while Fielding had certainly faked some of the manifestations, she was indeed possessed by some kind of uncanny force. Summerscale, the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, has “an enviable nose for events, once briefly notorious, that are still singular and disturbing”. She places this story in its historical context: the craze for spiritualism brought about by the memory of the First World War and the threat of renewed conflict. “All over Britain,” she observes, “domestic furniture seemed to be bristling into life.”
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
For the past two decades, the American writer Marilynne Robinson has devoted herself to a single novel sequence, exploring the world of a small group of characters from the fictional Midwestern town of Gilead, said Erica Wagner in the FT. Beginning with Gilead in 2004, and continuing with Home (2008) and Lila (2014), this “remarkable” series of “companion pieces” has rightly won “countless awards”. Jack, the fourth instalment, tracks the life of the young Jack Boughton, who in earlier novels was known mainly by his reputation: he was the “black sheep” son of Reverend Robert Boughton. In this latest outing, Jack is living a footloose life in postwar St Louis, and having a relationship with a black woman named Della, which falls foul of the period’s anti-miscegenation laws. As complex and fluidly written as its predecessors, this work “fits beautifully into the subtle weave of Robinson’s Gilead books”.
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
A “sultry, soapy, literary novel”, Nightingale is a bit like “the bastard offspring of Ian McEwan and Shirley Conran”, says The Times. It follows a young nurse as she moves from Paris to rural France to be a live-in carer for a tyrannical dying businessman. Queue “village jealousy, rows and sexual passion”, in an exciting debut novel filled with dramatic plot turns and juicy villains, says the newspaper.
The Sphinx by Hugo Vickers
A gripping account of the life of Gladys Deacon, a famously beautiful young American who dreamed of marrying an English aristocrat, and did, only to end her long and curious life in a mental asylum. The story of the Duchess of Marlborough, told by the British writer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers, is “a tale of upper-class scandal, misery and madness”, says The Times.
Here We Are by Graham Swift
The 1996 Booker Prize winner (for his novel Last Orders) sets his newest book in Brighton in 1959. In Here We Are, Swift looks back on the lives of three young “end-of-the-pier” performers, telling the story of the “off-stage drama between a magician, his assistant and a compere”, says the London Evening Standard.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Wiener’s “darkly funny and perceptive” memoir details her disillusionment with the world of tech after spending several years working for start-ups in New York and San Francisco, said The New York Times. She explores what it was that motivated her former colleagues, and how the tech industry has reshaped San Francisco in particular. “If you’re already skeptical about tech and its implications for society, this book may confirm your worst fears,” says the newspaper.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride
An enigmatic book, Strange Hotel follows a nameless female protagonist from country to country, from one hotel room to the next. “Even the plushest hotel room can lack soul”, said the BBC, and for her, each holds complex and often painful memories. This is the third novel from Eimear McBride, who made an award-winning debut in 2013 with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about a young woman’s complex family relationships, and followed it up with The Lesser Bohemian, about a relationship between a young student and a 38-year-old actor.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
McCann, who won the US National Book Award in 2009 for his novel Let the Great World Spin, takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict in a work that is “both spectacularly inventive and grounded in hard, often brutal fact”, said The Guardian. Telling the story of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, bound together by grief for their daughters, this is a highly ambitious novel in both form and themes. “If you can read it without sobbing, you’re a monster,” the Guardian adds.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr
A moving memoir left behind by the celebrated journalist Deborah Orr, who died in October. Recounting growing up with brutal honesty, Orr tells of “trying to escape from a working-class, anti-bookish upbringing” in Scotland, in the shadow of the steelworks at Ravenscraig, said The Times. The book also explores her painful relationship with her domineering mother – Orr concludes: “My own life had really been about two irreconcilable things: defying my mother and gaining her approval.”
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
From the author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, comes the tale of a young Tamil trying to avoid deportation from Sydney, Australia. “Maltreated by police in Sri Lanka, he has come to Australia on a student visa, only to find the glossily advertised college he had enrolled at is a tawdry swindle,” explains The Sunday Times. The newspaper describes it as a “reverse-pattern companion piece” to White Tiger. “Brimming with empathy as well as indignation, this novel engagingly extends Adiga’s fictional concern with deprivation and injustice,” concludes the paper.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud
This motherhood memoir lays bare the all-encompassing everyday detail of bringing up five children, ranging in age from newborn to teenager. “How brilliant for someone to write about the blankness as well as the beauty; the lust, the exhaustion, the hypocrisy, the failure and the soaring joy”, says Nell Frizzell at The Telegraph. “What a relief to have someone report from the frontline of this essential human endeavour.”
This Lovely City by Louise Hare
The city in question is London, 1948, seen through the eyes of Jamaican Lawrie Matthews, after disembarking from the Empire Windrush, although it is “war-damaged, shabby and often openly hostile to black immigrants such as him”, explains The Sunday Times. This “hotly anticipated debut”, set in Brixton, south London, is a tale of young love and striving for a better life, which sees Lawrie under suspicion of a crime he didn’t commit.
Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones
Chronicling an abusive gay relationship in the 1970s, this slim volume (just 128 pages) packs a punch, “with a pleasure or peculiarity on every page”, says The Guardian. It opens with a blow-by-blow account of an open-air blowjob at the eponymous Surrey beauty spot. Subtitled “A Story of Low Self-Esteem”, it’s a recollection by the character Colin, “who is ‘short and fat and tired of being bullied’ and grateful for the attention of good-looking Ray”, says the newspaper, which calls it a “a sparky yet sad vision of gay subculture”.
The Week Bookshop
To order these titles or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.