Art and Lit’s Books of the Year
Katie Dunbar summarises the Art and Lit community’s favourite books of 2020
Never has there been a year when we have been gifted more time to read, however being cooped up at home has been a dividing circumstance. For some lockdown aided their dive into fiction but for others the looming shadow of the pandemic was, and still is, inescapable. Nevertheless, there have been many fantastic books released this year, so here is our breakdown of the novels you enjoyed in 2020.
The results from our poll revealed that four books were tied in third position. One of these was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a novel following the diverging paths of identical twin sisters after they run away from home aged sixteen. With an interweaving and cross generational plot, similar to that made famous in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Bennett crafts a story which explores not only the identity of her characters, but of America as a nation itself. Spanning across fifty years, the opposite paths of the Vignes twins, enables readers to witness how the past can mould not only the future but individuals themselves. Bennett is an essayist alongside her fictional writing, having had work published in both the New Yorker and Paris Review. This year The Vanishing Half was named Time Magazine’s Book of the Year.
Although tackling heavy social topics, this a witty story which, at it’s heart, focuses on the value and importance of friendship.
Alongside The Vanishing Half, Kiley Read’s debut novel Such A Fun Age was also ranked third. Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, again this is another narrative examining the issue of racial misjustice and prejudice. Accused of kidnapping the child she is babysitting, Read’s protagonist Emira joins her employer Alix, and together they are forced to confront the reality of modern America’s attitudes towards women, class and race. Although tackling heavy social topics, this a witty story which, at it’s heart, focuses on the value and importance of friendship.
Joining Bennett and Read in third place were The Mirror and The Light by Hillary Mantel and Summer by Ali Smith. Two well established and successful authors, these were both highly anticipated releases, each the concluding chapter of two respectively popular series. Local to Exeter herself, Mantel’s final instalment of Thomas Cromwell’s life has been longlisted for this years Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 and featured as a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. In summary, just like Cromwell’s politics, it is a triumphant achievement. At almost 1000 pages, Mantel guides her reader for the final time through the richly decorated Tudor court, immersing them within the web of personal and political gossip. Contrastingly, Ali Smith’s Summer weaves between the past and present, in a book which examines the role, purpose and construction of family. In a year which has been a stream of never ending change, this examination of how we cope and adapt, especially within the family unit, is an excellent accompaniment to 2020.
Matt Haig is surprising the only man who appeared on this list and having written a novel as beautiful as The Midnight Library it is no wonder that this is the case. Books about books are like marmite and very divisive amongst readers. However, Haig’s extended metaphor of the library between life and death is captivating and allows him to explore forgiveness, a topic often brushed over. Haig is a masterful writer who has tackled what many authors view as an impossible task, to address anxiety without evoking this within their reader. Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet, are Haig’s two non-fiction works which tackle this exact topic, and The Midnight Library, is his warmly received return to fiction and number one Sunday Times bestseller.
Exploring the entanglement of family relationships and the strain of grief, this novel is touching and relatable, despite being set in 1596.
Finally, we have reached the top of our pyramid and the book of 2020, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Winner of the Women’s prize for Fiction and Waterstone’s Book of the Year, this is a historical novel which reimagines the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. Exploring the entanglement of family relationships and the strain of grief, this novel is touching and relatable, despite being set in 1596. With a touch of magic and beautiful crafted structure, O’Farrell places us into the position of different family members, enabling us a 360 view of her re-imagined events based upon this forgotten tragedy. Overall, this is a story which encourages readers to reflect on the fragility of life and on how we express love to those closest to us, a fitting topic in a year as turbulent as this.