2020 was a terrible year for most of us, between a rampaging and terrifying pandemic and a bizarre election that tested the very limits of democracy, but it was a splendid year for fiction. I’m offering my annual “best fiction of 2020” list this year, as I have for decades now. My list is very different from others of note, but, unlike “The New York Times”, I am not giving preference to novels written about immigration, social justice, and other topical issues of the times as I don’t believe that’s remotely fair to authors who write about other topics. You’ll note three novels by Eastern Europeans and/or European authors, which I’ve not yet seen on the major lists. After my top twelve (I always choose twelve), my “also recommended” list follows, and then my “best of short fiction” and “most overrated fiction” round out my list for 2020. I do try to list the books in order of their excellence, which is sometimes a bit subjective, understanding that some books might be higher or lower on someone else’s.
- Ahmed Akhtar, “Homeland Elegies”, is 2020’s best novel, a riveting, powerful, sometimes painful and occasionally funny look at America through the lens of a man whose family’s originally from Pakistan, but who’ve immigrated to America. The novel often feels like a series of essays, and they may well be; the author, a well known playwright, offers often scorching views on American racism, on the difficulties of belonging in a country that’s often unwelcoming to people of color. The author’s father weaves in and out of the novel, once a doctor to Donald Trump, he’s impressed by the ostentatious parts of America; he gambles; he loses everything material in the America con world, and, as in a shocking number of new immigrant novels, he ends up moving home to Pakistan. Akhtar writes brilliantly, with a cold, sharp eye on America and its flaws, but there’s not a whining note anywhere in this brilliant novel.
- James McBride, “Deacon King Kong”, is a wonderful, joyously written novel about life in the housing projects in Brooklyn, an area once settled by Italian immigrants , now given over to Blacks and other minorities from South of our border. Centering around the magnificently rendered character of Deacon King Kong, a nickname for an older man who’s recently lost his wife, though he continues to have long conversations with her in his head, and a number of his cronies who live in these projects. McBride creates an enchanting cast of secondary characters, whose lives revolve around their friendships in these projects, as well as the church nearby, built in tandem with the Italians who are moving on to newer, whiter neighborhoods. There’s a mystery involved, which will bring the Blacks and the Italians briefly back together, but McBride, in the character of the Deacon, lyrically and lovingly recreates through fiction a time and a place, home to people whose lives are frequently written off by the general culture. McBride’s language is somewhere midway between lyrical and poetic, almost musical; the projects are just beginning to be attacked by the drug people. Making these issues very real and very important to those living in these projects, McBride offers a vastly different look at these residents, moving them from the often tired world of sociology and back into the world of a life of complexity, nuance, beauty, wit, through characters of exceptional rendering.
- “The Pull of The Stars”, by Emma Donoghue, is exceptionally, if accidentally, timely, as it deals with the Spanish flu pandemic that hit the world immediately as World War I was winding down. The novel centers around a thirty-year old unmarried nurse, who lives with her brother, recently returned from World War I and unable to speak (an early version of what we now call PTSD). The nurse is in charge of a small ward where pregnant women with the flu are housed; the constant emergencies that she must deal with are brilliantly rendered; men, in particular, are likely to learn more about the vicissitudes of child-bearing than they probably ever knew before. Our nurse has some education in midwife skills; she is under the strictest supervision of the Catholic nuns who run the Catholic Hospital in Dublin. As she/the reader learns the stories of the various pregnant women under her care, we learn of the stringent harshness of the nuns, and of The Church itself. When a supervisory nun offers her a volunteer from the charity orphanage where this young woman has lived since her (bastard) birth,the bonding between these two women is a beautiful thing to watch, as it flowers into a kind of intense love, and the nurse learns the horrors of the “care” that such women had lived through as “bastard” children in super-Catholic Ireland of the times. And when this volunteer catches the flu, because she hadn’t had it before, our nurse understands how cheaply such lives are to The Church, and her awareness and rebellion form the heart of the last part of this brilliant and essential novel for our times. A real historical woman doctor of the era has several appearances in this novel, whose bravery and presence help our nurse to her newly found enlightenment and independence of mind. The scenes of work in such a crisis of health care will remind readers of our own pandemic; Donoghue’s novel is a real page turner; it’s written beautifully and deals with essential, proto-feminist issues that still resonate in our own, allegedly enlightened era.
- “The Cold Millions”, by Jess Walter, is the second of two exceptional historical novels on this year’s best fiction list, along with “The Pull of The Stars”. Both novels integrate real historical figures, which adds to the interest of the books. “The Cold Millions” of the title are the working men who toil in the mines and in the timber interests of new, huge corporations in and around the new city of Spokane, Washington in the early years of the twentieth century. These men are brand new immigrants, who speak dozens of different languages, all trying to get a start in America; their working conditions and housing are appalling, and a group called The Wobblies are attempting to create an international workers’ union. The chief of police, John Sullivan (a real figure) is pretty much a flunky of the rich corporate elite and is repeatedly charged with breaking up workers trying to assemble on the streets of Spokane and exercise their rights to freedom of speech. Two brothers, Irish born and orphaned, are propelled into this world; the older is the idealist/Wobblie, and the younger more attuned to trying to start and build a life, find a wife, start a family. Violence erupts on the streets; men are jailed; the fiery Elizabeth Gurney Flynn arrives to help aid the cause (she’s one of America’s most fascinating early women unionizers, and Walter presents her as the real leader she was). Two wonderful women, who are stage entertainers, make for fascinating love objects in the novel, which also presents the second of these and Gurney Flynn as early feminists. This novel is full of fascinating characters, and reminds us that these attempts to unionize were only around l00 plus years ago, and the book’s a cautionary tale about equality of the lack thereof; the corporate men live extravagantly–one has recreated The Alhambra in Spokane as his mansion–so that the times portrayed in this novel have distinct parallels to our own world today, where, again, the contrasts between extreme wealth and poverty are much of issue. “The Cold Millions” is also a real page turner, flawlessly written and structured.
- “High As The Waters Rise”, by Anja Kampmann, is a debut novel by a young German novelist, which I just finished reading and was blown away by its complexities and the most magnificent writing in any novel this year. Kampmann’s is a world of Central and Eastern Europe; two young men, who grew up in tiny villages, one in Hungary, the other in what was sometimes Poland and sometimes Germany. They escape the constrictions of life there and become workers on oil rigs, in places as different as Mexico, the North Coast of Africa. On one random night after a rough day working the rigs during a terrible storm, the Hungarian friend vanishes into the storm/night, never to be found again. The way that Kampmann writes about grief and loss of one male friend of another male friend is some of the most sophisticated and elegant writing about grief I’ve ever read. Matyias, the surviving friend, is encouraged to leave the rig job and take time to mourn, and he wanders through Tangier and Italy and back to the small village where he grew up: no one from his childhood, including his long awaiting girlfriend, is alive anymore; his sense of isolation combined with grief is moving and gorgeously rendered. Kampmann’s writing about male/male friendship is astonishing; we’ll see Matyias return to places he’d traveled with his dead friend, and see him visiting women he’s met and bedded , too, most of them poor and trapped. His long walks through the edges of decayed cities and dead villages make Matyias the estranged 21st century worker, whose skills have been globalized, who makes good money, but believes he’s leading a senseless life: thus Kampmann revisits the idea of the anomie of the worker from earlier in the 20th century with brilliant effect. “High as The Waters Rise” is a magnificent first novel by a brilliant new talent.
- “My Dark Vanessa”, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, is one of 2020’s most complex and absorbing novels. A young teenaged girl from very rural Maine manages to get a spot for herself in a prestigious girls’ boarding school on the Maine coast. Isolated and nonconforming, she comes to the attention of her English teacher, presumably because of her poetry and her exceptional writing skills in his class. But this man lures her into a complex sexual relationship, manifesting symptoms of a classic pedophile, but the character/author doesn’t quite see this relationship so simply. The novel is full of detail about which of these two has power over the other, and how and where and when; Russell refuses the easy out, and includes the story of another girl, who freaks out when this teacher (after our Vanessa has left school but continues this affair) puts his hand on her knee: Vanessa rather laughs her out of the room. The author proposes that Vanessa has gained some wisdom along with the partial ruination of her girlhood; “My Dark Vanessa” looks at this problem of sexual involvement between teacher and underaged student with nuance and complexity; Vanessa herself is a fascinating character, and the novel’s rejection of the binaries of the “Me, Too” movement make this novel great literature, much in the tradition of the l9th century novel.
- Niall Williams, “This Is Happiness”, is probably a little read or noticed novel, and it’s in a genre unto its own this year. Admittedly an idyll, Williams examines life in a small rural village on the West Coast of Ireland, just as electrification is coming to rural Ireland with inevitable changes to the character of life there. Not every family wants this electricity, besides. A strange man arrives in this village to supervise the electrification; his old first love, whom he scorned as a young man, still lives in the village. The family with whom he lives for this period of time has one young teenaged son, who will wander the village and environs with this new man, who’ll introduce him to the beauties of Irish music (and to its alcohol). Williams’ writing is as near to poetry as you’ll read in fiction in 2020; his sense of place, of Ireland’s weather and its beauty and the rituals of the year, which define time as well as place, are gorgeous; his writings on the rituals of Easter, both its meals and its church rituals, are utterly riveting. This is a novel in which one might think that very little happens, but a lot happens as the love interest between the new man and his old girlfriend rejuvenates, as the teenaged son falls in love with all three of the village doctor’s daughters, and the like. Small town life, we know, can often be mean and gossipy and nasty , but Williams has opted for an idyllic view, full of the best kind of writing memory can induce. “This Is Happiness” was the most beautiful novel I read this year.
- Martha McPhee’s “An Elegant Woman” seems to have garnered little notice this year, but it’s also one of the year’s best novels. Combining a family saga with historical fiction, and based upon the real story of the author’s own great grandmother and succeeding generations of this family, the novel presents the idea that we all live by family myths, even when they may be proven to be wrong over time; these are the sustaining stories of family life. The original woman of the title has left her husband in small town Ohio and taken her two young daughters off to Montana to start a new life, no easy task for a single mother with children in the days when Western states were brand new to The Union. Gambling on the train to Chicago to secure tickets West for her daughters, this first generation woman seeks and finds teaching jobs in small towns across Montana, while parking her daughters first on a farm with a childless couple, and eventually leaving them alone in an apartment; one daughter is allowed to go to school, while the other basically mothers her. With a later flip in identities, the latter daughter “borrows” her sister’s high school diploma/transcript and goes East to become a nurse, marries money, becomes landed gentry for awhile. The author presents us with generations of very strong women and a family bonded over the values offered by their grand or great grandmother; two of the women are “the elegant woman” of the title, though it mainly refers to the courageous but always ladylike original settler. The tight bonds between and amongst generations of both the women in this family and their cousins in Los Angeles, born of the second sister, are beautiful, and when the descendants eventually meet in the last tiny town where their ancestor had lived and become a school principal, you’ll find some of the best writing of 2020.
- “Monogamy”, by Sue Miller, is one of the finest novels about relationships in any book of 2020. It’s a novel about real adults for adults. The narrator, a fortiesh woman just coming out of a divorce, falls in love with a robust, Rabelaisian man who’s just opened a bookstore in Cambridge (Mass). He’s a man of great passions and appetites, who maintains a lovely friendship with his first wife; both parties have children from former marriages, who are drawn to each’s ex, but never in ways silly or unrealistic; the merged family of today (as represented both by President Biden and Vice-President Harris) is a newish phenomenon in literature, and Miller writes about it with astute psychology and a kind heart: it’s that kind heart that will see our protagonist through the disappointment of learning of her bookstore husband’s extra-marital affair only after he has dropped dead. Thus, her period of mourning involves anger and grief, an eventual reassessment of her marriage and its fullness, helped along by her own and her husband’s grown children and his ex-wife, who remains her best friend. “Monogamy” is a lovely book about love, and about its disappointments, and how those disappointments are resolved and allow our narrator to move on yet again into another relationship. All the people in this novel are interesting and sympathetic. It’s rare and vindicating to read a novel in which people wish each other well, in which space is given and emotions are managed. “Monogamy” is an optimistic novel, and , as such, stands pretty much alone in the fiction of 2020.
- “No Signal-Area”, by East European writer Robert Perisic, is one of this year’s great treats. The setting is somewhere like Croatia or Serbia, somewhere in the former, falling apart former Yugoslavia. The small town’s only industry, making turbines, has long since died, and the town is full of unemployed and disgruntled men who spend much of their days drinking. In come two men with a scheme to get the factory moving again, making turbines again: they’ve got some up front money from “an investor”, and have to sell one or two turbines to a dictator somewhere in Africa. As the factory begins to come to live again, and the men return to jobs of yore, the reader becomes aware of the long friendships amongst these men, whose lives have been shattered by the death throes of socialism, Eastern European style. A variety of subthemes and subplots run through the novel; the first turbine, when finally ready, gets lost in the waters of this port city during a huge storm, and one of the two men has to travel to Africa to try to sell a second, yet to be made, turbine (said turbines are long out of date everywhere). So we then are privy to the excesses of international corporate capitalism: the novel’s greatness includes the spoofing of both socialism and capitalism, and how both systems screw the workers. Several love stories enhance the novel’s structure and plot(s). When a local woman, desperate for work , figures out how to market and sell the second, useless turbine as a work of art through a London dealer makes the novel hilarious, postmodernly mordant, full of both irony and wit. The novel contains periods of real sadness, and when the men return to work, we see their spirits lifted, their understanding of old eccentricities abound; they are once again, briefly happy: the novel’s quite poignant in these sections. It’s structured brilliantly, so that it’s neither depressing nor ghoulish nor silly, even if irony almost takes over. “No Signal-Area” (which refers to the inability of cell phones to work anywhere in the area) is a sweet, gentle (if occasionally violent) novel about lost people, whom two economic systems have used and failed.
- Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” is a complexly structured, beautiful, oft bittersweet novel about twin sisters, born in the rural South in a town that prides itself on the light skin of its native Black population. And it’s a town with no future, and , at sixteen, these sisters run away to New Orleans, where their paths will forever diverge: one marries an abusive man, and she returns home with her very black daughter; the other sister gets a job in a department store, and decides to “pass” as white. This latter twin will marry her boss, and ends up living in great affluence in Los Angeles. Her doubts about her choice and her sometimes, and increasingly so as she ages, missing of her sister are beautifully rendered by Bennett. The twin who goes home’s daughter is rejected in the town because of her dark skin, and she will become the connecting link with the sister in LA, as she and her LA cousin, white as can be, meet through the theater, in which they both are interested. The inner lives of both sisters are brilliantly rendered and equally fascinating and the journeys both take are often heart wrenching. The very Black daughter gets involved with a transgender person, and the two of them, understanding life on the margins, form a beautiful life together, as well; this subplot is also beautifully and tenderly written; choices made by all the characters deal with rejections they face early in life, or the refusal to remain so by making exceptionally difficult choices. “The Vanishing Half” is a very powerful novel, written with subtlety and great craft.
- “Swimming in the Dark” , by Tomasz Jedrowski, is so beautifully, poetically/lyrically written that the writing itself, as in “High As The Waters Rise”, is alone worth reading this exceptional novel about the complexities of a same sex relationship between two men, just out of college, in Poland before the Solidarity Movement changed Poland’s history. Apparently in the still Communist days of Poland, all college graduates were expected to work on a farm after graduation from college as part of the intellectuals learning what it’s like to be part of the working classes. At this summer farm, where these men and women are picking the beet crop, two young men begin a homosexual relationship; the narrator is the more emotional of the two, more a product of urban life and culture, while the other is a small town/rural man who sees his future as part of The Communist Party. This beautifully narrated and gorgeously written affair has its finest times during this summer, but the relationship will continue; the rural man understands that his way upwards in the party involves his courting of the daughter of a high government bureaucrat, and believes that he can both court and presumably marry this woman and keep his relationship going with the (male) narrator. The descriptions of their times together constitute some of the very finest writing about a same sex relationship, but our narrator is overinvolved in liberalizing politics and can only save his hide from probable prison by getting out of Poland, which he does only through the intervention of the high Party functionary’s intervention. The novel’s written ex post facto, as our now American narrator has watched from afar as the old Polish Communist party is supplanted by Solidarity, leaving him wondering about his old lover, and the choices he made to secure his future, or so he thought, through making contacts in the Party and marrying the daughter of the high placed bureaucrat. The novel’s about longing and love and missed opportunities in a country, Poland, that believed homosexuality to be a crime. Reading ” Swimming in The Dark” is like reading a long prose poem, the writing is that beautiful, the love never allowed to fully blossom.
Here’s a (no doubt not complete) list of other novels I highly recommend from 2020, in no particular order:
“The Mountains Sing”, by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
“Apeirogon” , by Colm McCann
“What Are You Going Through”, by Sigrid Nunez
“Writers and Lovers”, by Lily King
“The Children’s Bible”, by Lydia Millett
“Payback”, by Mary Gordon
“Cleanness”, by Garth Greenwell
“The Saint from Texas”, by Edmund White
“Pew”, by Catherine Lacey
“XO” , by Zander Miller
“Afterlife”, by Julia Alverez
“Memorial”, by Bryan Washington
“Missionaries”, by Paul Klay
“The Lying Life of Adults”, by Elsa Ferrante
“Love After Love”, by Ingrid Persaud
“Want”, by Lynn Steger Strong
“A Burning”, by Megha Majundar
“Hurricane Season”,by Fernanda Melchor
“Simon The Fiddler”, by Paulette Jiles
“Abigail”, by Magda Szabo
“The Death of Vivek Oji”, by Akwaeke Eneti.
“The Mirror and The Light”, by Hilary Mantel
“little gods”, by Meng Jin
“The Night Watchman”, by Louise Erdrich
“How Much of These Hills Is Gold”, by C. Pam Zhang
“Shuggie Bain”, by Douglas Turner
“Love”, by Roddy Doyle
“The Tunnel”, by A. B. Yehoshua
“This Mournable Body”, by Tsitsi Dangerembga
“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars”, by Joyce Carol Oates.
“The Death of Vivek Oji”, by Akwaeke Enezi
Best Short Fiction of 2020: “Sorry for Your Trouble”, by Richard Ford; “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”, by Deesha Philyaw and “Collected Stories” by Shirley Hazzard.
Most overrated/disappointing novels of 2020: “Jack”, by Marilynne Robinson; “Luster” , by Raven Leilani; “The Margot Affair”, by Sanae Lemoine.