Books of the year
On the brink of the Second World War, before the bombers came over, the poltergeists of Britain were smashing glass and breaking the furniture. None was more tricksy than the “Croydon Poltergeist”, whose case is explored in The Haunting of Alma Fielding (Bloomsbury Circus): Kate Summerscale’s well-researched book brings insight and sensitivity to material darker than is usually admitted. On a sweeter note, the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year is Ferdinand Mount’s elegant and funny Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca (Bloomsbury Continuum). All family memoirs promise secrets – but, I swear, this socialite’s secrets are jaw-dropping.
The former Observer and BBC investigative journalist John Sweeney is also an accomplished writer of thrillers, and The Useful Idiot (Silvertail Books) may be his most impressive to date. It’s a retelling of the story of how the Welsh reporter Gareth Jones uncovered the catastrophic man-made Soviet famine of 1932-33, and like Agnieszka Holland’s superb 2020 film Mr Jones, sticks much of the time to actual events. I came across a rare academic masterpiece this year in the form of James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy (University Press of Colorado). As Maffie shows, the Aztecs produced a tradition of philosophical inquiry comparable in intellectual rigour with that of the ancient Greeks. But rather than seeing it as a search for eternal truths, the Aztecs viewed philosophy as being concerned with how humans can keep their balance in a slippery world of ever-mobile energy – quite different from the dominant Western view, and to my mind more useful.
Martin Amis’s Inside Story (Jonathan Cape) is very long and hefty and can hurt the hand that holds it. Yet this substantial weight feels right to me. For my generation of fiction writers, Amis has become like a granite headland, a navigational marker for our collective endeavour. And here, in this new work – which arrives dressed up as a novel, but isn’t – are all the reasons we still love him: his never-ending gavotte with the English language, his yearning after snappy repartee, his fearlessness, his sadness, his knowledge of the world, his love of the beautiful in all its forms. So let’s not just salute this and pass on. Inside Story gives us access to a turbulent, flawed but exceptional writing life.
Charles Kenny’s The Plague Cycle (Scribner), published early next year, and Nicholas A Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (Little, Brown) were not just rushed into print by publishers desperate to capitalise on the moment. Each is deep, erudite and insightful. They remind us that infectious disease is a part of the human condition, and that epidemics have been the rule more than the exception in human history, shaping cities, wars, empires and populations.
In Just Us (Allen Lane) Claudia Rankine does a brilliant job of locating the micro-aggressions that are part of everyday racism within the macro framework of structural exclusion. Through a series of vignettes from her daily life she takes the threads of personal experience and weaves them into broader themes and illustrates why they matter. In so doing she interrogates those closest to her and, most of all, herself. I’m also immensely grateful for having discovered the fantastic crime writer Attica Locke during lockdown. She had been hiding in plain sight on my bookshelf for some years. I was just about to throw away Pleasantville (Serpent’s Tail) in a corona clear-out and decided I should sample a couple of pages first. Couldn’t put it down.
It’s hard to say anything new about “Winston” but Peter Clark has managed to do so in Churchill’s Britain: From the Antrim Coast to the Isle of Wight (Haus). It’s a fascinating tour guide, rich in stories and detail, which informs as well as entertains – a kind of life through places. Edward Grey is now mostly remembered for his diplomacy during six frenzied weeks of 1914. In Statesman of Europe (Allen Lane) – the first full biography for half a century – TG Otte offers a sensitive and elegant portrait of our longest-serving foreign secretary (11 years on the trot): a politician whose principled pragmatism and sense of civic duty strike an appealing, if elegiac, note in 2020.
Hashi Mohamed’s People Like Us (Profile) is a brilliant book that should be read and celebrated at any time, but especially now, in our Covid world of vast inequalities. Mohamed was born in Kenya to Somali parents and came to the UK as a child refugee, without any prior knowledge of the culture, and was raised on benefits. Today he is a well-known barrister, a remarkable speaker – and a victor over social immobility. But above all, his book is a first-hand account of daring to pursue a different dream than the one defined by destiny.
For me, 2020 has been a dismal year for reading. Obsessed with the news and hypnotised by Netflix, I’ve taken refuge in comfort reads (Michael Palin’s diaries have been a wonderful mainstay) and have only managed to read a handful of novels all year. One of the best was M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz), which treads the line between realism and fantasy with immense assurance and draws a portrait of watery, post-Brexit Britain that brings shivers of both unease and recognition. I also loved Farewell, Ghosts (Seven Stories Press), a much more sun-drenched novel by Nadia Terranova, in which a woman returns to the Sicily of her youth to confront her family secrets. Beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, it’s perfect for the reader who wants to explore modern Italian fiction beyond Ferrante.
Winston wandering: Churchill’s Britain by Peter Clark is a rich tour of a life through places. Credit: Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
I’d like to recommend two impressive debuts. Forced Out by Kevin Maxwell (Granta) tells the story of a gay, black, working-class, university-educated man who joins the police force as a detective and then endures such corruption and discrimination that he suffers a breakdown and leaves. It’s an engrossing read and a terrible indictment of the British police force. I Am Not Your Baby Mother: What it’s Like to be a Black British Mother by Candice Brathwaite (Quercus) is a memoir about the other kind of motherhood which we rarely see in the pages of magazines where blonde, thin, middle-class women in glossy homes prevail. The book explores childhood, parenthood, womanhood, love, home and family through two generations with warmth, honesty and humour.
Why should fiction be more gripping than books about what really happened? I don’t know, but Matt Ridley certainly bucks the trend. How Innovation Works (Fourth Estate) warms to the “bottom-up” theme of his earlier The Evolution of Everything, moving on to the history of human inventions. No, not inventions, evolutions. Forget the “lone genius” theory. The steam engine, television, the light bulb, even the water closet – innovation after innovation evolved many times independently around the world. Fascinating stories by a master raconteur. It may have been eight years since David Quammen’s Spillover (Vintage) was first published, but its prescience is spookily topical this plague year.
The one good thing about Covid-19 has been the time it has created for slow reading of long classic novels while listening to Wagner’s Ring cycle. My books of the year have been richly rewarding companions. Richard J King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (University of Chicago Press) is both a brilliant reading of the novel and an elegy for the wonders of the sea that we humans are destroying. Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (Fourth Estate) is proof that you can share Thomas Mann’s aphorism “Music, politically dangerous” while also swooning over Wagner.
My New Year’s resolution was to keep a list of all the books I read in 2020. It starts well with some heavyweights but veers sharply into old favourites in March. I have still managed some new books. I loved Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife (Little, Brown). Many of the reviews didn’t do her justice. She is not a high-society bird-brain but an acute and intelligent observer – and very funny. An invaluable source for future historians of Britain. I have also much enjoyed the first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s JFK (Viking). He is very good on the young Kennedy and the family, society and schools that shaped him. The result is a first-rate biography and more; it gives a history of the United States on its way to world power.
David Nicholls is that rarest of literary creatures: a genuinely brilliant, genuinely popular novelist. His latest, Sweet Sorrow (Hodder & Stoughton), is more than just poignant and warm and funny. There are piercing apercus and writing that’s both precise and poetic, lyrical and tough. I’ve come stupidly late to Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (Elliot & Thompson) but happily it made me less stupid with every page. You will emerge from this brisk, non-partisan study of geopolitics better informed and less entrenched in your armchair general’s view of the world.
I was wowed by In the Dream House (Serpent’s Tail). Here, Carmen Maria Machado lets loose the full force of her gothic imagination to recount her real-life entanglement in an addictive but psychologically abusive same-sex relationship, and in language so sensual the violence comes as a shock. It’s so razzle-dazzle that it ought not to work, yet the book is sublime. Sam Mills’s The Fragments of My Father (Fourth Estate) was another standout memoir. In unadorned prose Mills writes of rising to the challenges that family misfortune throws in our paths, her own life on hold as she becomes her mentally ill father’s primary carer. Using the filters of history and literature, she unpicks ideas about the “duty of care”, elevating it from labour to love.
Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane) is a very fine book indeed. Mlodinow worked with Hawking on both A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design. He is himself a physicist of some distinction, but he is also a very skilled writer. Writing of the stubbornness that enabled Hawking to pursue theoretical physics despite his motor neurone disease, he says, “It allowed his spirit to dance in the prison of his limp body.” The great merit of this book is to convey so vividly the dance, the spirit and the prison.
Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited Piranesi (Bloomsbury) is utterly compelling – bewildering, intense, moving, shocking, combining a haunting fantasy with sharp insights about a culture of domination, hierarchy and rivalry and about how the imagination can survive in such a world. One of the triumphs of that imagination is freshly presented in the new edition of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press); a model of editing, which scraps the conventional sentimentalities and lets us read the Sonnets as poems – explorations into worlds of possible feeling, speech and thought, rather than coded memoirs.
Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (Allen Lane) is the most important non-fiction book of the year because it asks the most urgent question: why is the right wing in the West moving so far to the right? Why is it, at this point in history, so drawn to authoritarianism? Why has it given up on democracy? Anne Enright’s gorgeous book Actress (Jonathan Cape) raised an enviable bar: uniquely, in modern fiction, a novelist who can do justice to portraying a modern actor.
It is a strange thing to say about a book that doesn’t mention coronavirus, but The Rules of Contagion (Wellcome Collection) by Adam Kucharski is essential reading to truly process the pandemic. Kucharski, a biostatistician at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explains clearly and simply the mathematics of how infections spread and how to contain them. He describes the power of social media to spread toxic ideas such as anti-vaccination campaigns: the World Health Organisation believes the current “infodemic” is a danger to health in addition to the actual pandemic. An enjoyable inoculation against ignorance.
I spent the early weeks of the spring lockdown reading books I’d read before, or had never finished, or had merely glanced at. Which was what led me to the complete poems of Tennyson and to the sequence of poems we know as “In Memoriam”. It is a long lament for a beautiful dead friend that takes you on a journey from darkness to light. I also particularly enjoyed Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians (Allen Lane), an elegant and accessible biographical study exploring the interconnected lives and preoccupations of four philosophers: Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin. It is superbly translated by Shaun Whiteside.
It just happens that my favourite books this year are by Scottish writers. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador) is a searing, brutal and deeply moving account of poverty, addiction and childhood trauma. It’s a painful portrayal of how these forces crush the human spirit, but it strikes a note of hope about human resilience too. Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes (Fourth Estate) is a glorious mix of feminism, Scottish politics from the miners’ strike to Indyref, and the vicissitudes of celebrity culture – an engrossing tour de force. And Summer by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) is exquisite. Smith is in a class of her own and the culmination of her remarkable seasonal quartet proves it.
In a year of unusually intense reading, several works of fiction and non-fiction have left a deep mark. The one to which my thinking constantly returns is Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives (Bloomsbury), a deeply compelling novel that opens in the early years of the 20th century, during Germany’s brutal colonial rule in East Africa. Oscillating between the personal and political, Gurnah opens the imagination, the connections between that moment, what followed in Europe, and our own struggles to grapple with the legacies of colony and race. The final pages are as devastating as any I have read. A brilliant and important book for our times, by a wondrous writer.
Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (Hurst) is a brilliant challenge to Islamophobes everywhere, skilfully showing that much gothic architecture drew on the forms and innovations of Arab architects and mathematicians. Without the influence of the Islamic world, much that we regard as central to Western civilisation would never have come into being. Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan (WW Norton) is a wonderful book that sets a new benchmark for non-fiction about the complex palace of mirrors that is Pakistan. Walsh has a rapier wit, a talent for skilfully sketched pen portraits and a sharp eye for tragedy, paradox and absurdity. He has produced a beautifully, lightly, fluently written book that is as profoundly nuanced as it is sharply perceptive.
I have found this a wonderful year for fiction. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Tinder Press) felt fresh and clever and knocked around my head for ages. There is nothing new to say about Shakespeare? Oh yes there is… In non-fiction, I found the oddest and most uplifting book to be Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (Bodley Head). It is, to say the least, rare to find such a vast area of life on Earth – fungi – about which one knows almost nothing, and which gives promise of being so important to human life during our next century.
David Edmonds’s The Murder of Professor Schlick (Princeton University Press) is a history of the Vienna Circle that takes the reader from the foundation of a small discussion group in post-1918 Vienna to its dispersion after Moritz Schlick’s murder by a deranged student in 1936, and the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. Cheryl Misak’s Frank Ramsey (Oxford University Press) is an engaging account of the lamentably short life of Ramsey, who died in 1930 at the age of 26, having made contributions to mathe-matics, psychology and economics fully appreciated only 50 years later. Both are exemplary pieces of intellectual history, doing meticulous justice to the ideas and engrossing about the personalities involved.
In this strange year where my concentration was non-optimum, I really enjoyed This Happy by Niamh Campbell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a debut that I tore through over the course of one sticky day. The story of a woman reflecting on the claustrophobic end of a past affair, it’s sharp and bracing, with language almost balletic in its intensity.
It can be hard to find out the truth about “post-truth”. What do the facts actually tell us about “disinformation” and “fake news”? The loud debate about partisanship and confirmation bias can so often feel deeply partisan itself. Thankfully, two books this year can help. To put things in historical perspective, there’s Active Measures (Profile Books), Thomas Rid’s highly readable account of Cold War disinformation campaigns. Rid shows disinformation is nothing new in principle, but also charts the changes that come with the technology of the internet. Meanwhile Nina Jankowicz’s How to Lose the Information War (Bloomsbury) is a rigorous look at Russian state operations in eastern Europe and beyond, which manages to be hawkish without being hysterical.
Some years back, reading Hilary Mantel’s brilliantly creepy Beyond Black, I thought I’d never read a book that I simultaneously admired so much and disliked so intensely. This time, with The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate), the admiration was as great, but the emotion swamping it was grief – sorrow for Cromwell’s tragic end, sadness that there won’t be more of this majestic novel sequence. I also loved Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). So clever, so ready to bite first to protect her rock-bottom self-esteem, Ava is a modern Becky Sharp, doing what she has to do (sleep with him) to live in a banker’s deluxe Hong Kong apartment rather than the grotty flat-share she can afford. A scintillatingly witty novel about emotional bleakness.
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut (Pushkin Press) is the strangest and most original book I’ve read for years. It hovers in a state between fiction and non-fiction, or wave and particle, and makes an account of modern mathematics and science into something as eerie as a great ghost story. There was also Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum (Allen Lane). The author’s article on this subject in the Atlantic earlier this year galvanised many thousands of readers. This richly informed book enlarges her account of the enormous peril in which the democracy we took so casually for granted now stands.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the events of this year, my two books concern the geopolitics of race. Adrian Brettle’s stupendous Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World (University of Virginia Press) is an engrossing investigation into the scale, but in some ways also the startling modernity, of the South’s territorial ambitions. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in French in 1961), which to my shame I had never before read from cover to cover, provided some fascinating insights into present discontents, especially when he refers to a “world of statues: the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridges; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with its stones the backs flayed by whips” – one that he could not be part of.
In this year of living dangerously, books became holdfasts, but also ways of leaving. I loved Edward Parnell’s Ghostland (William Collins), a gazetteer of the unknown that wanders through the uncanny hardwired into our melancholy archipelago; a sort of Sebald goes folk horror. But I also found solace in my 1972 Michelin Guide to Paris, which I read religiously every morning down here in Southampton, its slim green cover guiding me from my room over Shakespeare & Co and into the smoky grey waters of the Seine where I swam; not really believing that last year I actually did just that, in the ultimate gesture of European Union. I may be arrested if I return.
Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew (Picador) is the most enthralling historical book I’ve read this year – a superbly researched account of how architects working in glass and iron brought the tropics to England in the great Palm House in 1848, and the horticulturalists who travelled the world to collect the plants that filled it. House of Correction by Nicci French (Simon & Schuster) is also brilliantly researched – a novel about a woman accused of a murder which even her friends believe she committed. Her months in prison and her attempt to defend herself in court after she realises her own lawyers think she is guilty are so compelling that this is surely a thriller destined to become a classic.
One light, one dark. One anode, one cathode. Sunlit paradise and Stygian gloom. With New Zealand currently established as the nicest and best-run country around, I commend Christina Thompson’s 2019 book Sea People (Harper- Collins), which seeks to solve the puzzle of where the Polynesian people came from and how they spread so swiftly across so vast an area of ocean, with Jacinda Ardern’s Utopia their southerly extension. Nicholson Baker’s Baseless (Penguin Random House USA), on the other hand, concerns a very different puzzle, one that will set your blood a-boiling. The extent to which the United States has employed biological weapons in numberless wars declared and undeclared has long fascinated the author of such memorably curious works as The Mezzanine and Vox, and his efforts to get the Pentagon to fess up about its use of poisons and toxins will dismay just as much as the Polynesian idyll will delight.
I know that Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was not published this year, but the Nobel Prize win did more than bring Louise Glück back into my consciousness; she came to occupy it almost entirely. Reading her in a sustained way is less like being enclosed within a sensibility than being whooshed into an alternative cosmology which still has our familiar world at its centre. You feel both weightless and like lead, at the same time. For pure enjoyment my favourite novel (or sort-of novel) from this year was Rob Doyle’s Threshold (Bloomsbury Circus): disgraceful, full of grace and very funny.
Tropical dreaming: Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms is an enthralling history of Kew Gardens. Credit: Gerry Brakus
In Hamnet (Tinder Press), Maggie O’Farrell takes us inside the daily lives of Shakespeare’s family, left to their own devices in Stratford while he makes his name in London. A brilliant evocation of period and place and a warning that genius often comes with a human cost attached. The chapter detailing the arrival of the plague into England is worth the price of admission alone – and the ending of the book is sublime. During lockdown, I got stuck into Georges Simenon’s novels, both his Maigret series and his romans dur. The Snow Was Dirty (Penguin Modern Classics) is one of the latter and feels incredibly modern. It is brutal, frank about sex and violence, and will make your flesh creep. The plot concerns a brothel-keeper’s son in occupied France. He is venal, unlikeable and meets his nemesis when he is arrested and interrogated, during which his world-view is altered and he becomes a sadder and wiser figure.
Lockdown has been useful for considered reflection on recent political developments. In This Land: The Story of a Movement (Allen Lane), Owen Jones has managed to produce a whodunnit political page-turner and a surprisingly fair account (given that Jones was a player in the Corbyn project) of both an inspiring and tortuous period of Labour history. Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (Allen Lane) is another riveting insider account, charting the fracturing of the Western centre right over the past 20 years, and the terrifying descent of half of Applebaum’s acquaintances into rabid populism. Finally, an honourable mention for John Bercow’s Unspeakable (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), which tracks the unusual political journey, from right to left, of one of the most distinctive public figures of modern times, packed with perceptive political pen portraits. You won’t need to buy the audio book to hear the unmistakable tones of our former Speaker rising from every page.
As its title suggests, David Harsent’s latest poetry collection Loss (Faber & Faber) confronts pain with an honesty that others often claim, but rarely deliver. The darkness in his work has been frequently noted; what is sometimes overlooked is an earned grace that is all the more exquisite for having been so difficult to find – “grace through pain”, as one poem puts it. In my view, we have no finer poet than Harsent in these islands today, and this book is among his best, a masterpiece that is at once an unflinching diagnosis of how we live now and a map, as he writes, “that will take you to the edge of things”.
Evie Wyld’s third novel The Bass Rock (Jonathan Cape) was published just as the country went into lockdown. Not to be missed, it’s as good as her first two excellent novels, a dark exploration of male violence against women set over three time zones on the same stretch of Scottish coast that contains the eponymous rock. While we wait for Jamie McKendrick’s next collection of poetry we can beguile ourselves with his beautiful chapbook The Years (Arc Publications). Fifteen exceptional poems with evocative drawings by the author on the facing page. A complete delight.
I loved Nina Mingya Powles’s Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press), a funny, compact and beautifully written account by a Malaysian-Chinese-New Zealand poet of her attempts to learn Chinese in Shanghai while getting to grips with the infinite byways of Chinese cooking. Marion Turner’s Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press) is a masterpiece. Each chapter pursues a specific theme (how mobile noble households worked, the wool staple and its travails, the opening decades of the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death) and shows Chaucer entangled in it, pursuing his mercantile, military, ambassadorial, familial and poetic business. Turner delights in Chaucer’s poetry. She brilliantly fillets some lines I had never heard before.
Alexander Keyssar asks Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Harvard University Press) and discovers that attempts at reform have been legion. Until the mid-20th century, the focus was on replacing America’s state-wide winner-takes-all systems with district-based or proportional results. The idea of a national popular vote came later, and initiatives for change were largely bipartisan until the 1980s, supported by some prominent Republicans including Gerald Ford and Bob Dole. While white supremacy in the South played a significant role in thwarting reform, it is difficult in any notional democracy to change electoral arrangements once they are in place. Reformers, just as much as gerrymanderers and vote-suppressors, are liable to charges of chicanery.
Almost everything I have read with engagement and pleasure this year has been old publications. I particularly loved Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (New Directions), a pared down story of a Swiss boarding school infatuation, as serious and tragic as any great love, played out to a backdrop of abandonment and postwar loss. I also liked Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (Bodley Head), on the variable (and unsettling) nature of fungi life. For those of us who feel intermittent doom, ornithologist Roy Dennis’s Cottongrass Summer (Saraband) is a perfect antidote – a collection of seasonal memoir essays drawing on a lifetime’s experience of bird conservation.
Many reviewers seemed flummoxed by Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury), hoping perhaps for a fantasy novel more along the lines of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The two share a distinct tone, but Piranesi is far more exhilarating and hallucinatory, a mystery told backwards and inside-out. How she does it I’ve no idea; it’s as though most minds are cameras, but Clarke’s is a kaleidoscope. James Rebanks’s English Pastoral (Allen Lane) is very different, a mixture of terse farming memoir and environmental call to arms. Perfectly judged, it made me cry (twice) and left me with a new understanding of agriculture, and a real sense of hope.
Richard Lloyd Parry
This year I read, or reread, two history books that achieve a rare feat – recreating the humanity of long-dead people, conveying the texture of daily life in remote places, and making it accessible to the non-specialist. Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth Century Japan by Amy Stanley (Chatto & Windus) draws on 200-year-old temple ledgers to tell the story of an obscure, complex woman and to summon the spirit of Edo, the seething, artistically brilliant precursor of modern Tokyo. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W Dower (WW Norton) moves effortlessly from diplomatic archives to pop songs to convey the optimism and rage of the US occupation. Twenty years after publication, it remains one of the great history books of our lifetime.
The art of Edo: Amy Stanley’s vivid work Stranger in the Shogun’s City paints a portrait of a woman living in 19th-century Japan. Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
There is no better literary contribution to the year of Black Lives Matter than Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus (Allen Lane), an authoritative biography of Toussaint Louverture, who led the successful “slave revolt” in Haiti and paved the way for Haitian independence. Toussaint was a truly remarkable man: a former slave who mobilised disparate groups into a resistance movement; a brilliant military strategist and brave fighter; a subtle and skilful politician; an eloquent communicator; a humane and principled man who fought racism while preaching and practising forgiveness and racial tolerance. He demonstrated that an anti-slavery movement could succeed.
James Rebanks’s English Pastoral (Allen Lane) deserves to be called a masterpiece. Four generations of his family building on centuries of their farming in the Cumbrian Fells gives us a poetic, practical, raw and almost miraculously detailed picture of this ancient way of life struggling to survive and to be reborn. This wonderful book was waiting to be written. In This Sporting Life (Oxford University Press), Robert Colls has taken on 200 years of English history through the prism of its culturally neglected sports – common, exclusive, innovative, brutal. He’s written a definitive work not only of our sporting life, but also of our social texture.
Three Shakespeare books – with powerful political applications – have almost made up for the suspension of live performances at the nearby RSC, Stratford. James Shapiro’s subtle and enriching Shakespeare in a Divided America (Faber & Faber) is really a patchwork history of the US, using encounters with the plays as its entry points. Stephen Greenblatt’s exhilarating and mischievous 2018 work Tyrant (WW Norton) is less subtle, but then its target is not truly Shakespeare’s crueller heroes but Donald Trump. The similarities are uncanny. An older British work, Simon Andrew Stirling’s Who Killed William Shakespeare? (The History Press), is not only bonkers but also one of the most convincing validations of Shakespeare I have encountered in a lifetime of nerdy bardolatry.
By spring this year, I was struggling to summon the concentration for long books (can’t imagine why) so I treated myself to some short ones. Josephine Tey’s 1949 crime novel Brat Farrar (Arrow) is a classic page-turner; Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy (Allen Lane) is a sharp and shocking memoir about where the right went wrong. In the US, the Republican Party got Foxified; in Britain, the Conservatives turned into radicals; and in Poland, one politician’s grief drove the country into the arms of conspiracy theorists.
The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J Sandel (Allen Lane) is an existentially important book for the left, by the world’s most influential living philosopher. Its concept of “contributive justice” challenges the prevailing shrivelled view of society as composed merely of individuals with rights and the state with obligations. It complements last year’s The Third Pillar (William Collins) by Raghuram Rajan, the highly respected economist who in 2005 predicted the 2008 financial crisis. That third and vital pillar is community, squeezed out by the market and the state.
A Dutiful Boy (Square Peg) is Mohsin Zaidi’s memoir of growing up gay in a working-class Muslim family and overcoming innumerable barriers to become an Oxford graduate and criminal barrister. But it’s not a reworking of the tired trope of someone escaping the clutches of religious fundamentalism, nor simply the record of a constant struggle against racism. It is about how the bonds of a loving family can transcend these things. Last year’s Homecoming by Colin Grant (Jonathan Cape) is a tapestry of oral histories from members of what is often reductively referred to as the Windrush generation, a group of people who have been treated abysmally by the government in recent years. They are by turns sad, painful, warm, revelatory and utterly fascinating. I think we would live in a slightly kinder and better country if everyone read both books.
The Empty Shield by Giacomo Donis (Eyewear Publications) is an extraordinary political biography. Donis describes how his Marxist politics developed and how renouncing his US citizenship (for Italian) proved harder than leaving the Mafia, with federal agents grilling him and warning how people like him could suffer. It’s a “people’s history” rather than a conventional memoir. Anthony Skene’s complete Zenith the Albino stories featuring Sexton Blake’s pale adversary, edited by Mark Hodder (Blakiana Books), are at last available on Kindle. From the golden age when you couldn’t consider becoming, or facing, a sleuth without owning a crisp set of evening clothes.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador) was recommended to me by everyone I know and now I’m recommending it to you. This debut novel is one I will be thinking about for a long time. Stuart’s sentences are taut, beautifully composed, his characters are infuriating, desperate, funny, incredibly real. Raven Leilani’s Luster, which is published in January 2021 by Picador, is at once hilarious and uncomfortable, diving into a young black woman’s relation- ship with an older man and his wife and child. Leilani does things with language which will have you going back over the sentences, trying to see how she does it. Completely stunning.
Robustly argued, historically grounded and based on patient listening and observation, Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care (Granta) feels peculiarly for this moment, as horizons narrow and priorities clarify. Few more powerful or important books on the welfare state have been written since the days of Richard Titmuss. But if I nodded along crossly to Bunting, a reading of Annie Ernaux’s compelling and beautifully written The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) provoked internal argument. Is it too big a leap from the experiences of a particular slice of her generation to the larger history of modern France? Does all that material detail, often in the form of lists, help or hinder understanding? In the end, I am happy to still any doubts and simply admire.
One of the wonderful things about being a parent is to reread the books of my childhood, and to learn new stories too. Look Up! by Nathan Bryon (Puffin) is the tale of a girl called Rocket who looks up to the stars and convinces others to switch off their phones and look up too. A lesson for us all. Beyond the Red Wall (Biteback) isn’t easy reading for anyone who cares about the Labour Party and wants it to win again. Deborah Mattinson’s conversations with voters in Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke all told of lifelong Labour voters who now felt Labour had stopped listening, took them for granted and patronised them. The seats Labour holds and the people who vote for us are more urban, younger, with more years of education than the country we want to serve again. To understand the task at hand, this book is essential reading.
If you’d asked me to guess what Friedrich Nietzsche was like I would have described a flamboyant, bombastic rabble-rouser. Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite! (Faber & Faber) from 2018 reveals that behind the oracular style lay a shy, anxious, all too human individual. I knew he would be impressive; I didn’t expect to like him too. This year I also read, for the first time, Billie Holiday’s memoir, Lady Sings the Blues (Penguin). If you want a visceral sense of what it was like to be black under Jim Crow, you could do worse than start here. Holiday sugar-coats nothing and does not spare herself, yet her humanity sings out. An American classic.
John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better (Atlantic Books) is – presumably to the horror of Brexiteers – an excellent and highly readable account of how Germany came to terms with its grisly 20th-century history. It did so by embracing with considerable enthusiasm liberal democracy. It replaced a destructive dogma with the values of the Enlightenment. Germany has also shown the democratic merits of devolving power from the centre. Moreover, it placed a premium on competence rather than bluster and treats its voters with honesty and intelligence rather than mendacity. Who could learn a lesson from that?
I loved Julia Bell’s Radical Attention (Peninsula Press), which felt like a very necessary intervention into an era saturated in news but lacking in concentration. And I’m a few years late to Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate) but this vast, immersive novel of walls and plagues could hardly be more relevant or timely. Spanning 300 years from the Restoration to the Great Storm of 1987, it’s a magical, troubling enquiry into the desire to build paradise, and the cost for those left on the outside.
Richard J Evans
The American cultural geographer Bradley Garrett’s Bunker: Building for the End Times (Allen Lane) is a scary, unputdown-able account of the author’s travels to places where he interviews conspiracy theorists and doom-mongers who are building structures they hope will help them survive the coming apocalypse. No book could be more timely as we stay in our own little bunkers to avoid infection, strip the supermarket shelves of loo paper, and squirrel away supplies of food to see us through the shortages that many fear will follow a no-deal Brexit.
Some writers throw reality at you so directly that you know you’ve been hit with a piece of contemporary truth. In This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber), Tsitsi Dangarembga does just that. In the third novel in the series that began with Nervous Conditions, we’re reintroduced to the once brilliant Tambudzai Sigauke, who is now caught in mid-life in post-independence Zimbabwe, trying to move, grow, create, but failing every time. The novel is as grim as every intolerable reality that denies people the means of change, which is exactly why it is my book of the year. Dangarembga is currently facing charges for protesting against the Zimbabwe government’s corrupt handling of Covid-19. The point about facing up to reality, as Hannah Arendt once said, is also to resist it.
Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Fourth Estate) is 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. Christopher Ricks ditto: literary criticism as keyhole surgery, leaving the sense of Bob Dylan’s lyrics triple-locked. (It’s dark with your head up your arse.) There is a marvellous chapter about Joe Orton’s brush with the Beatles, ending with the film director Richard Lester looking through the letter box and seeing Kenneth Halliwell’s naked dead body on the hallway floor. The murdered Orton was just round the corner. William Boyd’s Trio (Viking) is an intricate set of variations on the idea of alternative selves, well beyond the title’s trio, unobtrusively elegant in its formal beauty.
In Greenery (Jonathan Cape), Tim Dee explores the meaning of spring both to himself as a naturalist and to us all at that exquisite moment when life is at its most heightened. Along the way he takes us on a circuitous journey across continents and through centuries of European history, while mingling memory and reportage about two lifelong loves for birds and poetry. The prose is occasionally dense and complex, but more frequently the book brims with the same thrilling sense as the season it charts. At his best Dee writes like no other nature author I know.
The book that took my breath away this year was Isaac Matarasso’s Talking until Nightfall: Remembering Jewish Salonica 1941–44 (Bloomsbury Continuum). Dr Matarasso, who died in 1958, kept a meticulous account of the German invasion of his beloved home, the Aegean port of Salonica. “Where are they taking us?” asked one of the city’s 50,000 Jews as he was herded on to the first of the 19 transports that left the city between 15 March and 9 May 1943. Included in Matarasso’s record, translated into English by his 90-year-old daughter-in-law, Pauline Matarasso, is the memoir of his son, Robert, who, until the Nazis appeared, had no idea that he was Jewish. As Pauline Matarasso reminds us in her introduction, “Memory that does not become history is lost.”
Maria Tumarkin’s 2019 Axiomatic (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is a series of essays on the long traumas caused by extreme violence, from suicide and the Holocaust to the terrors of the criminal justice system. In a culture that denies complexity to those who commit unspeakable acts, or expression to those left behind, Tumarkin offers a profound exploration of collective grief, guilt and narrative responsibility. On the lighter side, I was beguiled by the sheer heart of Okechukwu Nzelu’s novel The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (Dialogue Books), published last year and shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2020 (which I co-judged). “Joy” is exactly the right word for this unforgettable debut, about a Nigerian-British girl coming of age in our mixed-up world.
The first half of Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies (Faber & Faber) has a classic account of the weekend in your youth that became mythical, the time when friendships were formed and bonds were made. 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 of the book, the story darkens and takes on an unforgettable intensity and pathos. William Feaver’s biography of Lucian Freud also comes in two parts. I read the second part, Fame: 1968-2011 (Bloomsbury) this year and found it as engrossing and well informed as the first, and as judicious and well written.
What a life! What a narrator! Hermione Lee’s unfettered access to Tom Stoppard (Faber & Faber) and his private archive over seven years gives us an immensely interesting biography of our greatest living playwright. Insightful, thoughtful and witty: just like the plays. Norwegians are very good at laughing at themselves noir-ishly and Lobster Life by Erik Fosnes Hansen, translated by Janet Garton (Norvik Press), is a very funny and clever book indeed. In Stoppardian terms, On the Razzle meets Arcadia. It is set in a decaying Grand Hotel and written in a gloriously off-beat style delighting in absurdity. We learn much: how to kill lobsters, the intricacies of Norwegian philately, and why no hotel in its right mind should host the Norwegian Association of Undertakers’ Christmas party.
Mary Jean Chan
How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil (Pavilion Poetry) and Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (Profile Books) both speak to one another about the limits of belonging within liberal democracies, and how minorities are still expected to assimilate or be grateful for being included within a liberal framework of multiculturalism that often does not own up to the fact of institutional racism. In a time of Brexit and Trumpism, these books shed light on vital topics while offering us scintillating poetry and crystalline prose.
In this year of cataclysm, Michael Bond’s Wayfinding (Picador) provided a perfect distraction. The book roams across all kinds of territories, from extraordinary feats of navigation and the neuroscience of how we hold maps in our brains, to the waymarks that have been embedded in our place names, and the psychological effects of being lost. I have an appalling sense of direction, and have always been fascinated to see how other people’s brains seem so much more capable; at least now I understand what made pilots such as Amelia Earhart or the astronaut Jim Lovell so good at finding their way.
In Beowulf: A New Translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) the fantasy novelist Maria Dahvana Headley has made an enthralling, scalding, contemporary epic; she combines newly-wrought ancient kennings with US street slang and lights up the women in the poem with unusual sympathy (including Grendel’s mother and the dragon). The thousand years and more since these ferocious hatreds and battles were recorded dissolve: the griefs and the rage are still all too present. Julia Bell’s essay Radical Attention (Peninsula Press) – and disclosure: she’s a colleague from Birkbeck – offers a passionate and shrewd critique of social media; she argues for reconfiguring our interactions with one another along less atomised, more socially reciprocal lines.
A life examined: Hermione Lee gives a vivid insight into the playwright Tom Stoppard. Credit: Linda Brownlee
In Search of Angels (Birlinn) is Alistair Moffat’s latest exploration of Scotland’s past through the eyes of a scholarly hiker. His focus in this magnificent book is the lives of the early Irish saints who came to Scotland to rescue the country from darkness. It was a brave thing to do – Scotland was a wild and frightening place then. And then an astonishing book about books: Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library (Simon & Schuster). This profusely illustrated book is a bibliophile’s dream: massive books, tiny books, coded books, books of fathomless eccentricity – they are all here. One of the most amusing and engaging books to be published for years.
Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross (Sphere) is a crime book with real literary heft. It asks: how far does one sacrifice themselves to protect someone they love? With Caribbean cultural and political touchpoints, the story and the quality of the writing are amazing, with thick atmospherics floating up from the first page. Caleb Femi’s Poor (Penguin) is a fairy-tale ode to Peckham from the point of view of a young black man. As well as a poet, Femi is a skilful photographer and his black and white photos fill the pages. In this book Femi shows there is an underlying richness to what certain people may perceive as poor.
In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (Verso) Andreas Malm saves the reader’s time and makes a case for eco-Leninism. It’s not a secret that climate change will require radical measures, but few have connected the climate and capitalism crises with such acid clarity as Malm of Malmö. He takes inspiration from war communism – when the Bolsheviks were forced to rely on burning wood in their civil war against White Russians backed by the resource-rich empires of the period. The point is that the hyper-transition to a green economy will require more hardship than most are prepared for. It will grow, if not out of the barrel of a gun, then at least out of mass expropriations.
Much of the best scholarship today is distinguished by a vigorous and sustained challenge to old imperialist verities (and, not surprisingly, incites a bogey of “cancel culture” among tabloid hacks as well as establishment scribes). Writers and scholars, often from the old imperial periphery, have broken down decrepit frameworks of thought (and prejudice), exposing the limits of a modernity conceived too narrowly by the early winners and authors of modern history. Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster (Allen Lane), which comes out of a long, if little-noticed, intellectual counter-tradition in Asia and Europe, bracingly describes how our moral and political imagination became so constrained and how it could be liberated.
Ian McGuire’s The Abstainer (Scribner) is another fierce read from the author of The North Water – an Arctic whaling adventure soon to arrive on our screens courtesy of BBC Two. McGuire’s second novel is set in Manchester and begins with the hanging of three Irish nationalists in Salford, in 1867. From this brutal truth McGuire once again crafts compelling and disturbing fiction, rich with atmosphere and carried firmly by a galloping plot. I also loved Fred Uhlman’s 1971 novel Reunion (Vintage), about a friendship between two boys in 1930s Germany, a slender book of beauty and heartbreak. I discovered it thanks to a thread in Ali Smith’s marvellous Summer (Hamish Hamilton): there’s two for the price of one.
At first Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand the World (Pushkin Press) reads like a parody of all the popular science books you see at airports: a series of quirky and connected facts. First it’s a history of painkillers used by the Nazis. Then it’s a history of cyanide, from oil paint to Auschwitz. Then it’s a detour into Einstein’s theory of relativity, and into the debate over quantum physics. Only if you have read the blurb is it possible to know, from page one, that this is in reality a metaphorical novel, constructed out of chunks of science history and, at the end, a memoir. It is a story about nature’s fightback against human interference. In other words it is the story of the 21st century. In a literary industry obsessed with genres, it belongs to none.
Jack (Little, Brown) – the fourth in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series – follows a wayward son who absconded from the rigours of his Calvinist home into a life of petty crime and moral doubt. This is his story: the hesitant wooing of a black schoolteacher, their blossoming love, her family’s rejection of that love and his settling of their future. The segregationist background makes for troubled events; the characters’ inner confusions make for tenderness in the telling. Robinson rewards our high expectations.
Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, (Fourth Estate) made most other fiction feel pale and bloodless this year. There was treasure on every one of its 900-plus pages. Easier on the wrist but still big on ideas was Jenny Offill’s third novel, Weather (Granta), about a Brooklyn librarian weighed down by apocalyptic worries. It delivered gnomic observations, anywhere between a paragraph and a sentence long, as well as jokes, trivia, confessions and tick-box surveys. I also loved the verve of Paul Mendez’s debut novel, Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books) about a black, gay Jehovah’s Witness who runs away to London where he becomes a sex worker. Full of tenderness and soul, it’s a book about shame and humiliation and how you overcome it.
Kit de Waal
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (Doubleday) is one of the standout books for me this year. He’s a master of the craft and has written a family story with humanity and warmth, turning sentence after sentence to die for. My other favourite is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Reading (Picador), your first port of call if you’re looking for a book to recommend or just a bit stuck on what to choose next. But it’s more than a reference book; it’s a personal account of how books have comforted the author and what they can do for the soul.
The madness of Donald Trump was so compelling that it was easy to take one’s eye off the sinister calculation of Vladimir Putin. His is a kind of ghost story. After the death of Soviet communism, the force that rose out of its grave is the KGB, and in its new guise it has been able not only to control Russia but to influence events in the West more effectively than it did during the Cold War. Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People (William Collins) is a masterpiece of contemporary history in which this extraordinary tale unfolds with both an epic sweep and a dazzling clarity of detail. By way of antidote, Sebastian Barry’s way with language is a constant wonder and A Thousand Moons (Faber & Faber) is another golden thread in his unfolding annal of history’s anomalous people.
This year being what it was, I mostly abandoned the idea of intellectual progress and used reading for passive comfort, getting through endless big bland novels about middle-class American marriage. In late summer though I was thrilled by essayist Brian Dillon’s latest, Suppose A Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions), a culmination of decades studying and admiring and collecting sentences. The volume consists of 27 short essays hooked to a sentence each, by the likes of Shakespeare, Joan Didion, Samuel Beckett and Annie Dillard. Dillon’s intelligence is as precise and vivid as ever but here it is also so studded with pleasure, joy and mischief that my weary mind could take it, and was consoled as well as entertained.
Ernest Bevin was one of the towering political figures of the last century yet today he’s almost forgotten. Andrew Adonis’s brilliant biography (Biteback) demonstrates why the success of the postwar Labour government owed as much to Bevin as it did to Bevan. Putin’s People by Catherine Belton (William Collins) is an essential read for anybody who wants to understand what’s been happening in Russia since Putin’s ascendancy. One of the many inside operators quoted here says that under Yeltsin “we swallowed so much freedom we were poisoned by it”. Once Yeltsin had gone other forms of poisoning soon became more prevalent.
I have enjoyed James O’Brien’s brisk, sometimes burly prose since he was a tabloid journalist in the late 1990s, but his latest book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind (WH Allen), is far and away the best thing he has ever written – indeed, a kind of deconstruction of everything he has written and said, or at least propounded. A series of reflections on various topical themes (stop-and-search, white privilege, BLM, transphobia, veganism, obesity) that doubles as a memoir, almost a mea culpa, about the psychological origin of his opinions, and of the force and certitude with which he used to wield them.
Many readers will be sceptical about the central argument of Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (Bloomsbury) – that human beings are fundamentally cooperative creatures – but I would urge them to read the book anyway. Not only does Bregman provide mountains of evidence for his theory, he also masterfully deconstructs the idea that people are selfish at their core. Building a better world requires a more realistic – and less pessimistic – view of human nature so that we can create institutions that draw out our instincts for cooperation, rather than competition.
Among this year’s books, I particularly enjoyed Michael Henderson’s That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket (Constable). Henderson has a gift for the telling phrase and illuminating anecdote, and I often found myself agreeing with him, not just about the glories of cricket’s County Championship but, as an atheist, about the absurdity of modernising the King James Bible, “part of the intellectual property that we all share”, as Henderson writes.
For a book that ends with the excitement, despair and social media derangement of the Scottish independence referendum, Kirstin Innes’ Scabby Queen (HarperCollins) is a strikingly British novel. Clio Campbell, a one-hit popstar and perennially lipsticked political militant, whirls in and out of the lives of Innes’s multiple narrators, from poll-tax protests and Brixton squats to Greek yoga retreats. Picking up the pieces, Innes assembles a rather bleak panorama of strategies for survival in the undergrowth of neoliberalism. Speaking of undergrowth, M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz) is as ominous and bizarre as the title suggests. This funny, unsettling book is better left undescribed, but “post-Brexit England haunted by green fish-people growing out of toilet bowls” should, uh, whet the appetite.
Hymn to the home: Raymond Meeks captures intimate domestic moments in ciprian honey cathedral. Credit: Raymond Meeks
Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart (Liverpool University Press) is a searing critique of white liberal spaces’ claims for inclusivity. Kapil explores the host-guest relationship – fictionalised from a news story but also drawing on her own experience – where hospitality is conditional and the immigrant-guest is the precarious person of colour. The effect is chilling, and it feels not just timely, but prescient. I’ve also enjoyed poet Anthony Anaxagorou’s How To Write It (Merky Books), a practical, beautiful guide essential for writers and readers.
I have been poring over the volume of the remarkable life and works of Peter Beard (Taschen). The American artist, diarist, collector and writer spent most of his life in Kenya documenting the romance of his adopted country and was a passionate campaigner for wildlife conservation. I have also been intrigued by Zoe Childerley’s Dinosaur Dust (Another Place Press), a beautiful and fascinating visual portrait of an unusual community who live around the Joshua Tree Desert in California. Finally, I have taken comfort from Raymond Meeks’ meditative ciprian honey cathedral (Mack), a photographic hymn to the home, what we decide to create for ourselves there and the experience and narrative it gives to our lives.
At the start of the year, I read an early copy of A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press), the prose debut of the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s about an 18th-century Irish-language poem called “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” (“Lament for Art O’Leary”), in which the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill excavates her own rage and pain over the murder of her husband. It’s also about Ní Ghríofa’s life-long relationship with the poem, and her attempt to translate it into English, and the ways in which that work interacts with the joys and struggles of her own life as a poet and as a woman. It’s a strange, intense and very beautiful book, and it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve read.
I have wanted to be transported this year, more than ever. For me, that’s done best by excellent crime fiction, novels that rise above a gratuitously gory murder of a woman or girl followed by 200 pages of predictable police procedural. Fred Vargas, a French forensic archaeologist, does excellence beautifully and consistently, and she understands that the crime is not the point, but a departure. Her latest, 2019’s This Poison Will Remain (Harvill Secker), stars recluse spiders and the usual unguessable plot. It is not her best, but it is still manifoldly better than most. If Vargas wrote a tool catalogue, I’d read that too.
Political verities have been upended by tiny fragments of genetic material. Of the many books tracking the causes of this blight, none has gone deeper than Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (Verso). Malm treats the Covid crisis as one aspect of a general ecological pestilence from wildfires to “extreme” weather. They share a causal factor: “parasitic capital” and its colonisation of “wild nature”. The same forces propelling deforestation and extinction have also liberated zoonotic viruses from their animal reservoirs, conveying them to unwitting human hosts. As always with Malm, this new intervention is darkly elegant and studded with recondite history.
It’s hard to recommend a single science book from 2020, but the one I’ve kept returning to, mentally, is Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character (Atlantic). It is a biography of JBS Haldane, the British geneticist – and Communist – who with a few others teased out how Darwin’s theory of evolution worked in practice. In 1948 he caused a scandal by refusing to condemn the pseudoscience of Stalin’s pet agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, and his evolving views on eugenics give pause in the year that the inventors of the gene editing tool CRISPR won a Nobel Prize. Beautifully written, it’s a reminder that no scientist can be extracted from his or her time.
Such is its hefty size that I set out to read Alexander Lee’s Machiavelli (Picador) at a lick. However, it is so rich in granular detail – not just about the surprisingly hapless man himself, but about Florentine society and the wars that scudded across Renaissance Italy – that I was forced to take it slowly, and was rewarded handsomely. Fiction can’t be escapist enough at the moment, which makes the early 20th-century novels of Rafael Sabatini worth rationing, the better to eke out the pleasure. In Mistress Wilding, a tale of 17th-century love, trickery and rebellion, the badinage is as gratifyingly cutting as the swordplay.
On the question of contemporary fascism, and the debate between those who see in Trump & Co its resurgence and those who do not, few writers have matched Victoria de Grazia for coolness of observation and depth of insight. The Columbia University historian’s latest book, The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy (Harvard), is a singular work that chronicles the life of Attilio Teruzzi, an army officer who became commander of the Blackshirts under Il Duce. Through the story of Teruzzi’s marriage to Lilliana Weinman, an American-Jewish opera singer, de Grazia has produced a masterwork on the nature of fascist politics and culture.
My favourite books of the year are those I thrust into the hands of friends as soon as I finished reading them: the poet Nina Mingya Powles’s delightful essay collection Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press), which encouraged a trip to Chinatown to try boluo bao or “pineapple buns” at the first opportunity; Brandon Taylor’s debut Real Life (Daunt), with its vivid depictions of lust, grief and deep introversion; and, belatedly, the Neapolitan Quartet (Europa Editions), in which Elena Ferrante portrays the complex intimacies and jealousies of female friendship more truthfully than any author I have read.
Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road (Chatto & Windus) is a slim and seemingly slight novel about Micah, a middle-aged IT guy whose ordered life is challenged by a combination of unexpected events. Understated and finely observed, warm-hearted but not sentimental, it offers nothing but pleasure, and reading it this summer proved a welcome distraction from the crisis-stricken world outside. A novel published last year resonated more closely with the events of 2020, despite being set in 1348: James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate) follows a company of English archers traveling to the coast to fight in France, as the Black Death is spreading from the opposite direction. In a middle English of his own making, and through a strange and compelling cast of characters, Meek portrays a society divided by class, property, religion and gender, its inequalities both exposed and made immaterial by a devastating pandemic.
Technically released at the end of 2019, Ben Lerner’s novel The Topeka School (Granta) follows teenage debate champ Adam and his psychologist parents Jonathan and Jane. I loved it for its insights into the “overdetermined mess” of interpersonal relationships. Attentive to confused, buried or ugly emotions, the weight of societal burdens on the individual, and always searching for the vulnerability that hides in the shadow of violence, The Topeka School ultimately felt hopeful to me in its depiction of thoughtful caregiving. These are also good reasons to love Mary Gaitskill’s short memoir Lost Cat (Daunt), an essay recently published in book form, in which she considers her quasi-maternal relationship with two vulnerable children, Caesar and Natalia. “I feel something,” Caesar says over the phone to Gaitskill, “but I don’t know what it is”. I appreciated the ability of both books to approach these ineffable feelings with intelligence, humour and kindness.