2020 Book favourites
Here we are again for the round up of this year's most loved novels. It feels like yesterday since I wrote the 2019 edition and to be honest I'm glad that this disastrous year is drawing to a close.
I realised as I wrote this what an eclectic taste I have in books; as 2020's list ranges from political autobiography to historical fiction. I have read so much more than usual this year for obvs reasons so narrowing my list down was especially hard but here are the winners ...
p.s. spoilers ahead
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Nearly thirty-five years after Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, its prequel has arrived and boy it did not disappoint. The Testaments tells the tale of a cult of Christian fundamentalists who overthrow the US government in a political coup forming the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. It has been fifteen years since the events of The Handmaid's Tale, and the cracks are beginning to show in the seemingly impenetrable Republic. The novel is narrated by three women, Agnes, Daisy and the indomitable Aunt Lydia.
Agnes is a young girl from a troubled family, engaged to a commander three times her age who, like Aunt Lydia, escapes her fate by expressing a desire to become an Aunt. Across the border in Canada lives the third protagonist Daisy. She is the adopted daughter of two undercover Mayday agents. Following their assassination by Gileadean operatives, Daisy is asked to travel to Gilead to obtain intelligence from an unidentified mole. The girls are ignorant of their true origins but once their relevance to the Gileadean regime and the threat they pose becomes evident; their lives will never be the same.
Many would be forgiven for believing that the third protagonist, Aunt Lydia, is nothing more than a victim of internalised misogyny; carrying out her extreme punishments on handmaids out of perverse pleasure or misguided faith. Atwood shows us a different story, as Aunt Lydia describes her former life as a US civilian. In the time before, Lydia was a middle-aged, wealthy, divorced judge from the tri-state area who is captured by the new Gileadean army, imprisoned and subject to physical and emotional abuse. This is a world dealing with the aftermath of nuclear disaster; she should be evicted to the radioactive colonies for a slow, painful death since she is menopausal and can provide the regime with no children. Or, she can accept the offer of a privileged position as "Aunt Lydia", charged with bringing trainee handmaids into obedience and the new order. Lydia chooses life and plots her revenge.
Like the Handmaid's Tale, the novel ends with a metafictional epilogue, set in 2197, discussing the "Ardua Hall Holograph" aka The Testaments written by Aunt Lydia and the role Offred may have served in the late Gileadean era. This is a juicy tidbit for fans who, like me, were frustrated at the cliffhanger left to us in The Handmaid's Tale. Whilst this was a joy to read I have to say it didn't pack quite the same punch as its predecessor; Atwood's famously raw, biting portrayal shone through but was dimmed a notch by juggling the storylines of three very different characters. Her decision to use three narrators certainly allowed for more scope; but this was at the expense of the ability to completely step into the protagonists psyche in the way we had previously done with Offred. I simply did not feel as intimate with the characters as I had with Offred, but accepted this in favour of The Testaments high-speed tempo. Atwood is that rare gifted storyteller that will make you feel removed from reality whilst subconsciously acknowledging the very real possibility of that dystopian world springing to life.
Atwood has quoted many times The Testaments was written to reveal the inner workings of Gilead via its matriarch. But she hastened to write The Testaments in response to a sinister political climate, events such as the 2015 presidential election of unchecked misogynist Donald Trump and worldwide battles over female productive rights. The Testaments is eery, thrilling and pertinent.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rarely is a thriller this gripping!
The novel is centred heavily around the concept of the other woman and follows the lives of three women. One is a cheat, one a liar and the other an alcoholic; so who can we trust? This psychological thriller is the Brits answer to Gone Girl as The Girl on The Train asks us how much we can really know another person. The novel also delves into difficult issues such as infertility, emotional abuse and the cultural trope of the other woman. It is a compulsive suburban nightmare dealing with the sort of vices that we all have the potential to commit but for the majority of us lie dormant under the surface.
From the beginning we are dealing with the unreliable narration of Rachel. An alcoholic after her marriage broke down, she is unemployed and living with an old university friend. Rachel lingers around her former house constantly to watch Tom, his new wife and baby daughter. She is depressed and woefully unable to let go of the events that have led her to this position. Everyday, Rachel rides the commuter train to Euston and fantasises about the lives of the people who live in the houses alongside the track. One day, she sees something to make her look twice and involves herself in a missing persons case.
Battling with memory loss after drunken blackouts; she has been gaslighted by Tom to believe that she is a violent liability after drinking. But is this true? One morning Rachel wakes knowing that something awful has happened the night before. She is bruised, bleeding from the head and Tom's neighbour is missing. As the novel progresses, Hawkins carries off with ease the familiar plot twist of tricking us into believing we are in possession of all the facts before pulling the carpet from under us and revealing the unforeseen. The literary legend Stephen King remarked that it "kept me up most of the night"- honestly try and put this book down!
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is always a joy to read and I could not wait to get my hands on the final instalment of the Booker Prize winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell aka crumb aka cremuel. Before Mantel's trilogy became so successful Thomas Cromwell was an obscure, misunderstood figure; primarily remembered for his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
The Mirror and the Light charts Cromwell's merciless fall from grace in the twilight years of Henry VIII's infamous reign. Earl of Essex, Knight of the Garter, Lord Privy Seal, Lord Great Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer and royal favourite; Cromwell has reached a level of unimaginable influence as principal statesman. His story is exceptional, he rose from blacksmiths son to second most powerful man in England armed with only his intuition and political savvy. In this story of betrayal and sedition, Mantel deftly scrapes of the dust of history and makes it painfully human. Her wit, detail and textured writing style is second to none and Henry VIII's court leaps off the page.
This is a man who spent his youth as mercenary in France, banker in Florence and merchant in the Netherlands before returning to England and beginning a remarkable political rise. He is a survivor, a social chameleon and too damn sharp for his own good. Cromwell is nothing short of brilliant but the snobbery and jealousy of Henry's less gifted courtiers leaves him vulnerable to attack. It is not long before the increasingly paranoid king is questioning Cromwell's commitment to the Tudor regime. Mantel's use of the third person takes us across all corners of England, of Europe for that matter and into the ancient past to Rome, to times of heroes and of myth. We are all on a virtual tour of Cromwell's psyche; as the spectres of the past threaten to rise and take him down with them into their murky underworld. In fact, the proverbs have already warned us. Cromwell's tale is devastatingly Achillean. He has no family, no powerful friends or noble birth to rely on. Instead he depends on his immense work ethic to maintain a famously fickle mans favour. Heads will roll in this dazzling political satire about a nation on the brink of modernity.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
Barnett poses three potential storylines in this heartwarming novel about love and destiny. The Versions of Us has been recommended for fans of One Day which is my favourite novel, so I practically ran to the counter to purchase this. It explores three different outcomes of the relationship between Eva and Jim and shows how fate and coincidence can have drastic effects on our lives. Barnett subverts the typical cookie-cutter ending and deftly weaves an intergenerational story of love whilst maintaining a tenderness and realism throughout. The novel delves into a time period of sixty years; including the honeymoon of youthful romance, career ambition, parenthood, infidelity, midlife marital crises and the reality of growing old with another person.
Barnett does not shy from the realities of modern marriage. The novel queries is love is worth sacrificing a career for? And is it better to enter into a relationship with the one in old age when all the messiness of life has been expunged? Cleverly written was Barnett's presentation of the seemingly perfect marriage that settles into that steady rhythm that we are all guilty of briefly finding alarming. The tropes of "what if" and "right person wrong time" are explored in a compulsive, intelligent read that does not pretend there is a perfect person or perfect relationship in this world. The novel is anything but straight-forward; it is neither schmaltzy nor distant but always authentic. In the first hundred pages it was a little taxing keeping up with the different plot lines but it is so worth bearing with. The final, comforting note Barnett leaves us with is that if two people are meant to find each other... they will.
Tidelands by Philippa Gregory
The year is 1648. The king is imprisoned, the monarchy is on the brink of abolition and England is engulfed by civil war. Down in the tidelands of Sussex, a young woman named Alinor lives with her two children. Her abusive husband is missing, presumed dead and she is forced to make her own way in a deeply hostile world as neither wife nor widow. Employed as the local healer and midwife, Alinor's beauty and knowledge is a source of anxiety to the villagers, who smile to her face and whisper "witch" behind her back. In a society built on suspicion, Alinor's entire existence is under threat; she can never let her guard down. If you are looking to expand beyond the typical courtly machinations of historical fiction then this novel is for you. It is a breath of fresh air that weaves the unpleasant topic of witches into a human, empathetic story of hardship that you rarely find in a novel or indeed in popular culture.
The working class have been largely abandoned by history and historical fiction but Gregory brings them vividly to life in Tidelands, casting light on the life of the 99%. I was shocked by how much gruelling, physical labour was required of people in their daily lives for such little reward; as teenagers nearly broke their backs collecting the harvest in Tidelands. Unfortunately, in many ways, the novel still heavily resonates today with its policing of female bodies, religious warfare and bitter class divides. One critic describes how relevant a novel about witch trails feels today; "Tidelands is a sobering reminder that the original concept of witchcraft in Europe was sexual but not remotely sexy." The witch mania of the seventeenth century was inherently linked to a misogynic fear of women's bodies and in a world where the Church ruled all; church courts also dealt with sexual crimes. In one scene, Alinor watches with silent disgust as a woman is stripped and humiliated for having sex outside of marriage; there is no mention of the man who was also involved; he is automatically absolved.
The policing of female bodies lives on today through the culture of slut-shaming and the manner in which women are publicly hounded and threatened with rape on social media. Therefore, I read Tidelands with the upmost empathy for Alinor's plight as a figure that has been forejudged by society and abandoned by the man who is meant to provide her with emotional, and more importantly, financial support. Perhaps the most endearing relationship in Tidelands is that between Alinor and her daughter whose devotion to one another in an extremely hostile world is endless. Gregory will take you back to one of the most dramatic periods of English history with considerable skill and flair. For a novel involved with the politics of the Reformation, it is a particularly human and heart-rendering tale celebrating female relationships.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Michelle Robinson. Black, working-class and from the wrong side of Chicago. This is a woman with an indomitable will power, work ethic and spirit, she is one of the most influential women in the world who was recently first African-American First Lady of America. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, Michelle forged a mightily impressive career as a lawyer, thriving in hostile institutions catered toward rich white men. Instead of receiving promotion via nepotism and privilege like many of her peers at university, Michelle achieved her stellar credentials by hard work and a firm desire to leave the world a better place.
Whilst working at a prestigious law firm she met her future husband and from that moment her life was never the same. From political rallying across America in support of Obama's presidency, raising two young daughters and maintaining her own demanding work schedule; Michelle surely came close to achieving the elusive American Dream when she entered the hallowed halls of the White House in 2008 as First Lady. Whilst First Lady, she created the most inclusive, inviting White House in history, supporting vulnerable people across America and beyond whilst supporting her husband during some of the most turbulent political episodes of American history.
But Michelle also speaks candidly of the resentment that flourished in her marriage following Obama's election to the US senate and the demands of his work schedule. She also speaks of the frustration of having to put her career on the back burner as she raised her two young daughters whilst her husband's career prospered. Michelle does not flinch from exposing the harsh truth of raising children in the White House and indeed the immense pressure of being First Lady, First black Lady at that. I can only imagine the abuse and pressure Michelle will have faced from the American political class over the years of relentless campaigning to make America a better place for all of its citizens. Judged from head to toe at every political rally, she was accused of being too involved in the Obama campaign and on a few infamous occasions racially slurred. There is a tendency for former First Lady's to fade into the archives of history but Michelle remains a strong influence, in particular on young black Americans whom she mentors and is a keen supporter of global charities (education charities in particular). Her down-to-earth girls are a credit to her; I found it so endearing that she made the girls make their own beds every morning despite the presence of staff.
It was heartbreaking to read those final chapters as Michelle explains the unfortunate circumstances that lead to Donald Trump's election in 2015 and her family's departure from the White House. There has possibly never been a starker contrast in political opinions and moral values between two rivals for a presidency in US history. This catastrophic change could easily have defeated Michelle and her husband but the opposite is true. She continues to shine as an example of what can happen for those who work hard for a better global future and is a role model for all those who do not fit the traditional mould of power. A woman of substance, style and strength- we all have a lot to learn from this lady.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
An ode to the odd-bod, the loner and the office weirdo everywhere. Eleanor Oliphant will tell you she is perfectly fine; the monotony of her existence does not bother her, nor her lack of friends. In and out of foster homes after a traumatic childhood, Eleanor is now thirty years old and completely fine . Her 9-5 is a mundane accountancy job; she wears the same clothes, eats the same meal deal and weekends are drunk away by two large bottles of vodka and pizza before Monday rolls round again. Shy and socially awkward, she says out loud in deadpan what we would only dream of saying.
Everything changes after she wins tickets to a concert and falls in love with a terrible singer. Eleanor believes they are destined to be together and begins a quest to make herself more "normal" only to realise she has been living a fantasy the entire time. After all, we are all guilty of projecting a fantasy onto a person only to left feeling foolish. Eleanor's failure to pick up on basic social skills has left her mortally lonely; she has never known any different. That is until she meets Raymond, the office techie who is intrigued by her irregularity.
But letting feeling and emotion into her life will prove difficult as unwanted memories begin to surface. Eleanor is such an emotionally strong character that you find yourself wanting to reach into the novel and envelope her in a hug. She actively chooses to change and embrace all the trauma of her past, and all the hurt she has let linger. That elusive emotion of happiness may not be so far away. Ultimately, this novel teaches us that sometimes we must change, change can be good, it can be bad and it can be essential to survival. Honeyman's debut novel is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; as Eleanor's traumatic past comes to the surface her spirits do not falter. This is a novel of undeniable hilarity and engulfing sadness but one we can learn so much from.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
One of those novels that is so entangled in the human condition that you will remember it for years to follow. It is a parallel tale of two children coming-of-age during the horrors of WW2, whose fates ultimately intertwine. Marie-Laure Leblanc is a blind Parisian girl who is forced to flee Paris to live with her great uncle in Brittany following the Nazi occupation. Her mother has passed and she lives with her father, the genius locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. As they flee, Marie's fathers carries possibly the most prestigious jewel of the Museum of Natural History.
Werner Pfenning is an orphan growing up in the rural mining village of Zollverein during the depression. In this bleak climate, he becomes enchanted with the stories aired on his ancient
radio; specifically a French scientific programme. Werner becomes a child prodigy of maths and science, instinctively capable of mending radios; and this convenient talent has him sent to the Hitler Youth Academy and eventually the German army. All the Light We Cannot See is a revel for the senses, brimming as it is with detail and gorgeous imagery of its surroundings. On the surface, the two protagonists share nothing but their sensitivity, their compassion and their innate kindness; as their childhoods are ripped from them by the horrors of war. But the invisible lines that appear to connect the two are sometimes more haunting than the spectre of war; intangible but omnipotent they drive the two together.
Above all this is a story of the goodness of mankind; of peoples conscious decision to be good to one another despite the odds. As Werner and Marie's fates drastically collide, they save each others lives owing to their unconditional compassion for others. A heart-warming novel set in one of history's darkest chapters that somehow brings so much joy. Doerr has such a way with words that you find yourself wanting to savour each page slowly for fear of overlooking the beauty of his prose. This is a story of the magnetic collision between fate, love and history.
Hope you enjoyed the reviews, let me know your thoughts in the comments or find me on Insta !
- Ellie x