2020, a year in reading: Amid the pandemic's disruptions of everyday rhythms, the narratives that transcended the din
The disruption of reading rhythms was among the smaller casualties of 2020, but these titles were some of the best in fiction, non-fiction and poetry that the year had to offer.
Without being precious about it, I think we can all agree that this year presented us with unique challenges. Even if you weren’t unfortunate enough to experience personal loss, there was plenty to be paranoid about. The disruption of reading rhythms is among the smaller casualties of 2020, let’s put it this way. I too wanted to read much more than I did and therefore missed many recent works of note. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall; acquired but unread. There are several others.
That small but vital disclaimer done, I’ll move on to some 2020 books that I did end up reading.
I read Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half shortly after it was released in June, and it’s the best novel I read all year. I love literary fiction that takes plotting and era-appropriate details seriously, and Bennett is precisely that sort of writer. The Vanishing Half follows light-skinned African-American twins Stella and Desiree from the 1940s to the 1990s. Having left her old life behind, Desiree is “passing” for white, like Coleman Silk from Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain.
This is a novel that’s deeply informed but never weighed down by American history and this balance boils down to the charms of Bennett’s writing — dexterous characterisation, boundless empathy and a willingness to push the emotional limits of a scene (nowhere more apparent than the chapter where Desiree makes up her mind to pass as white). The characters are memorable and have unique, fully formed voices, the narrative tension is expertly managed and it’s really no surprise that HBO is producing a miniseries already, with Bennett as executive producer.
Hilary Mantel finished her remarkable Thomas Cromwell trilogy this year with The Mirror and the Light, a masterful 750-page conclusion to the most successful historical fiction sequence in recent memory. Her command over the complex, often grotesque mechanisms of power and how the human soul is forever altered by them remains awe-inspiring. To read Mantel is to be reminded of the virtues of big-hearted, old-fashioned, incorrigibly ambitious novels.
And while The Mirror and the Light did not win the Booker like its predecessors Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall, it lost to a worthy challenger, the debut novel Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. The narrative is, at its heart, about the strange and irrepressible bond between the eponymous Shuggie, a young boy (who also happens to be gay) and his alcoholic mother Agnes. But it’s about so much else. The horrors of Thatcher’s deregulation measures in ‘80s Scotland, the human cost of mass unemployment, the infinite little cruelties of poverty; Stuart seldom has to raise his voice to tell us uncomfortable truths and that’s the hallmark of a great writer.
Very broadly speaking, newly discovered fiction from long-dead writers tends to be mediocre. These projects were tucked out of sight by their creators for a reason, typically. That so many of them become books today is down to the opportunism of corporate publishers. Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, released in February this year, is one of the exceptions. This collection of 21 stories set during the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1940, a time of cultural and intellectual revival for African-Americans) is up there with the best of Hurston, including her classic 1937 novel There Eyes Were Watching God. She had a brilliant ear for dialogue and here, too, the linguistic details add to the richness of the text. One story in particular, ‘Sweat’, will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book — it’s a kind of cynical converse to O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’, one of the most famous short stories of all time.
Reading Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, a work of speculative fiction set in the “New New Delhi” of the not-too-distant future, was one of the high points of the year for me. The ‘influencer economy’, the texture of lived reality within a Gurgaon gated complex, the doublespeak of creeping fascism — this novel has interesting things to say about all these and more. The prolific Basu’s only 41 which sometimes makes you forget he’s been around for 10 novels across 17 years now (his first, The Simoqin Prophecies, being a 2004 publication). This is his finest work yet and worthy of the awards-season attention it’s been getting, including a place on the JCB shortlist.
Megha Majumdar’s A Burning marks the arrival of a major new talent. This excellent debut novel is a thoroughly modern beast set in contemporary Bengal. It’s an episodic narrative whose pace and impeccably timed narrative cliffhangers are evocative of the ongoing golden era of TV (indeed, I’ll be disappointed if this book doesn’t receive the web series treatment soon, that too in suitably gifted hands) Majumdar employs a light touch, even with the most emotionally fraught situations; her protagonist is a young woman who becomes the scapegoat for an incident of orchestrated, communally (and therefore, politically) motivated violence. Again and again, you find yourself smiling at a bleakly funny putdown or a character flaw deconstructed ruthlessly. But the caustic honesty is also matched by a generosity of spirit, an earnest curiosity about what makes people do terrible things to one another.
S Hareesh’s Moustache (translated from the original Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil) won the JCB Prize earlier this year and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s not every day that you come across a politically charged narrative that’s also supremely funny, irreverent and does interesting things with form and structure. The narrator Vavachan is a Pulaya Dalit man from Kuttanad, Kerala who grows a moustache for a village play — and then refuses to shave it off (only upper-caste men are allowed to keep moustaches in the village). In Hareesh’s fabulism, the very landscape of the region becomes a character, just another daring move from a writer who seems to thrive on large-scale risk-taking.
The third debut on this list, Nisha Susan’s The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook was the last indubitably great work of fiction I read in 2020, chronologically speaking. These are wonderfully inventive stories about what it meant to be a young Indian in the 1990s, while the country was still getting used to the idea of the Internet, mobile phones, online messaging software and how these things changed the day-to-day realities of so many lives.
The titular story, for example, is a wicked little narrative joke that alludes both to the origin story of Facebook (namely, that it began as Zuckerberg and co. ‘ranking’ young women at college according to their attractiveness) — and how the group dynamics of a loosely interconnected set of people has both changed radically and not, post the internet. Susan is brutally effective while describing what-if scenarios using her characters’ dreams and carefully suppressed desires.
With publishers everywhere (but especially in India) producing fewer and fewer poetry titles, this section is going to be a short one. I read only a handful of poetry books this year and only two of them were 2020 releases. Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, her first collection in over a decade, is a late career triumph for the two-time Booker winner. John Kenney writes humorous, approachable poems about finding beauty and intrigue in everyday situations, and his Love Songs (For Anxious People) is a great advertisement for his style. Go on, read a selection in The New Yorker and you’ll be buying the book right after.
As a ‘90s obsessive, I loved reading Jessica Simpson’s memoir Open Book. One of these days, we will sit down and have a proper reckoning about the entertainment industry’s moguls (read: old men) of the ‘90s, and everything awful they did to young superstars like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. Open Book is the kind of painfully honest memoir that gets progressively more difficult to read — in the best possible way, that is. Nobody comes off looking great but thankfully the worst is reserved for John Mayer and Justin Timberlake, two of the worst men of the ‘90s. I dare you to read this book and not think of them as humaniform skid marks afterwards.
Harvard professor Jill Lepore, one of the most accomplished historians in the world today, delivered another classic this year. If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future is a stunning exploration of how the current era’s data-driven electoral politics was pioneered by Ed Greenfield, the Madison Avenue adman whose company Simulmatics would go on to advise John F Kennedy in his presidential campaign. Lepore traces the origins of targeted advertising in this little computers-based operation in 1959 (which had immense novelty value back then).
This book has the scariest paragraph you will read all year.
“They’re collecting data about you in order to send you messages that will affect how you vote. That’s now what our politics has become. Especially [now that] we’re stuck in our houses. That’s really all that we have. We’re not talking to people on the street or even answering the door or chatting with people about what we might do. We’re just bits of data being manipulated.”
I will end this list with three formally innovative non-fiction books that blurred genre lines without sacrificing elegance or narrative integrity.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country is a novelistic memoir and a no-nonsense work of reportage at the same time, informed by the author’s years reporting from Bastar. Bhardwaj is as comfortable interviewing young soldiers as he is talking about Paul Auster or Vladimir Nabokov. And while that itself is a rare quality among Indian writers, what is rarer is the willingness to blend the two ‘modes’ in what is very much an experimental text.
Carmen Maria Machado, author of ‘The Husband Stitch’, one of the most analysed short stories of recent years, published a memoir unlike any other this year. In The Dream House is a dizzying mixture of critical essay and autobiography. It is also a very powerful account of being in an abusive relationship.
Both of these features — the merging of the critical mode with autobiography, and the mapping of abuse (both childhood abuse and intimate partner violence) are also deployed very effectively indeed in Manjiri Indurkar’s It’s All in Your Head, M. I had refused to review the book when it was first released because Manjiri has been a close friend for several years now, and we talk nearly every day. I’m including It’s All in Your Head, M in this list with no small measure of happiness because by now it has received rave reviews everywhere and deservingly so.
This is a book that’s deeply interested in how the body remembers and even preserves trauma, and how unresolved issues from the past can have very real physical manifestations. These are big, important questions but this book refuses to be cowed down by their weight. It is an instant “millennial classic”, an intensely personal narrative that somehow also feels like the voice of a generation.
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