I imagined at the start of lockdown that I would play catch-up this year by reading all the still-unread books on my shelves. Great idea!
However… new releases inevitably proved too tempting. So my favourite reads during 2020 include both old and new releases. At times, I’ve found it a challenge to read long form, when news stories seemed evermore urgent. I overcame this problem by turning to books I can’t resist—those delving into writers’ lives, whether fictional or non-fictional. And that’s where I will start with year’s round-up.
Lampedusa by Steven Price (Picador 2020)
I read Lampedusa as the reality of Covid-19 unfolded, as the virus started to spread from Italy. I was in France at the time and decided to dash home to Scotland. Steven Price’s novel, set in 1950s Sicily, depicts a time when Europe still reeled from the destruction of the Second World War. The novel imagines the last days of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa as he struggles to finish his novel, The Leopard, a classic of Italian literature, published posthumously. Once wealthy, he now lives in poverty with his wife in the bombed ruins of their mansion. An intimate novel, ultimately uplifting, and one that has stayed with me.
Barnhill by Norman Bissell (Luath Press 2019)
In a similar vein, Barnhill is a well-researched, fictionalised account of the time George Orwell spent on the Isle of Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Norman Bissell adds much to my appreciation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. At Barnhill farmhouse on Jura, Orwell contended with great hardship, growing his own food, catching fish, while battling with poor health and caring for his son, Ricky. The novel moves back and forth between Jura and the literary world of London during Orwell’s final years. As an aside, I was delighted to learn he took the steamer between Glasgow and Jura, passing the Isle of Bute where I now live!
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Granta 2013)
Following the joy, last year, of reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and essay collection Coventry, I picked up Leaving the Atocha Station—the first in Ben Lerner’s trilogy—hoping for the same auto-fictional thrill. Leaving the Atocha Station follows Adam, an American poet, during his writing residency in Madrid. I loved this witty novel! Initially the narrator inhabits a zone of uncertainty owing to his poor Spanish, and he almost enjoys mis-communicating with the people around him. He repeatedly loses his way in the streets of Madrid, constantly on the verge of spinning out of control with his medication, hash and booze. He tells lies about his family because he can get away with it—no one in Madrid knows his background. But gradually his Spanish improves and his lies start to catch up with him. I expect I’ll read the next two books in the trilogy pretty soon.
The Love-charm of Bombs—Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury 2013)
As we all entered lockdown, I found myself—along with many writers!—dwelling on how to write fiction in the era of Covid. So, I looked back to see how writers approached their fiction during the Second World War. The Love-charm of Bombs provided a lengthy yet compelling reading experience at a time when I struggled to tear myself away from news bulletins. Lara Feigel gives a detailed insight into the writing lives, loves and wartime occupations of key writers of the era—Graham Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber 2018)
Two intertwined storylines are set in Vineland—a 19th-century utopian community, but now an unfashionable suburb. A modern-day family grapples with complex relationships between generations. A traditional family in the 1870s aspires to climb the social ladder. We meet Mary Treat, the real-world naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, and this provides an enchanting thread, the most seductive part of the novel for me.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Clerkenwell Press 2017)
A Separation delves into the minutiae of a marriage in the process of disintegration, and is mainly set in rural Greece—a Peloponnese landscape scorched by wildfires. The atmosphere is menacing, conveying a sense of impending disaster regarding the main character’s missing husband and the future of the natural environment. Kitamura’s writing is precise, exquisite. The narrator’s observations about her husband, boyfriend, in-laws and hotel staff are penetrating. Simply breath taking.
Ghost Species by James Bradley (Hodder & Stoughton 2020)
Ghost Species is a captivating novel and it formed a wonderful, early highlight for me in 2020. The story brings together a tech billionaire, a secretive laboratory in a remote location in Tasmania, and the vexed issue of species resurrection. The relationship between scientist Kate and Eve, a child, is beautifully and sensitively drawn. It’s an emotional read. And, if you’d like to know more, read this piece in Los Angeles Review of Books – “Writing Fiction in the Era of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between Anne Charnock and James Bradley.”
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press 2020)
Without doubt this contemporary novel is both powerful and brutal. The parallels are clear between the unnamed narrator’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe and species extinction. Absolutely, I feel the author achieved what she set out to achieve. So, full marks. The narrator is an aspiring writer who works shifts as an emergency-dispatch operator. She appears to believe she has no control over events affecting her life. In the same way, I suppose many people, in the face of rolling ecological disasters, feel a similar attitude of surrender-to-circumstances. This intimation of defeatism Ieft me feeling dispirited, but I’m certainly glad to have read The Inland Sea.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Picador 2020)
I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novels, particularly Cold Earth (see last year’s favourite books). Summerwater is a quiet novel with multiple points-of-view, much to my taste. I see this novel as a subtle form of eco-fiction, with a contemporary setting on a holiday park in the Scottish Highlands. By turns, Summerwater is dark and light, menacing and humorous, centred on everyday family tensions and holiday dramas.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel (Picador 2020)
I held high hopes of this novel, and it delivered! I particularly enjoyed the tense relationship between the main character, Vincent, and her half-brother, centred on his theft (or appropriation as he saw it) of her five-minute video collection. A complex narrative, multi-stranded, about the wealthy people brought down by a Ponzi investment scheme. But for me the novel also described the conflicting attractions of city life versus living closer to nature and wilderness. As such it seemed to speak to our pandemic experience.
The Divers’ Game — Jesse Ball (Granta 2019)
Impressive and deeply unsettling, The Divers’ Game holds a mirror to the current splits in society and the fear of otherness. The story is set in a future where poorer people and immigrants are segregated. They’re treated with contempt and cruelty. Society is controlled by fear and the population enacts bizarre public rituals, grotesque—in my minds’ eye, reminiscent of Goya’s darkest work.
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (Dialogue Books 2019)
I met Yvonne Battle-Felton in the Second Life Book Club during lockdown where our avatars gave readings! Remembered is an historical novel opening in 1910 in Philadelphia amid city riots. The main character, Spring, explains to her dying son about their family history. And so the novel develops as a multi-generational story, which takes the reader through the years of slavery and emancipation. It’s a novel of revelations, about the heart-breaking decisions mothers were willing to take to undermine the plantation owners.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books 2012)
Last year I dipped into this essay collection, but this year I read Sightlines straight through. Kathleen Jamie’s landscape writing is poetic, authentic and unshowy. She takes the reader to the most remote islands of Scotland as she studies petrels and gannets, seals and orcas. In her essay “Pathologies,” Jamie takes the reader into the pathology lab of a Dundee hospital as she inspects diseased cells through a microscope, detecting those details that signal a patient’s chance of survival. It’s almost an odd-one-out essay in the collection, and it completely swept me away. I’ve thought of it repeatedly during this pandemic year, as Jamie’s microscopic observations offer a strange consolation.
A Month in the Country by J L Carr (Penguin Books 1980)
How have I not read this gorgeous short novel before? It offers proof that novels do not need to be doorstoppers to convey emotional depth and offer real insights about our relatively modern history. A Month in the Country depicts the poverty of post-First World War life in rural Yorkshire, where a de-mobbed and shell-shocked young man renovates a Medieval fresco in the village church of Oxgodby. Art, history, romance, and an archaeological mystery. Wonderful.
Next on the reading pile:
The Silence by Don DeLillo, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici.
Happy reading, everyone! And here’s wishing you a happy holiday season even if it’s a quiet one!