“2020 will begin on a high note,” I wrote at the end of 2019’s “Year in Reading” post. As far as reading goes, at least, I wasn’t wrong: the books I was so looking forward to were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm, and I enjoyed them both thoroughly.
It hardly needs saying that 2020 turned out to be anything but a good year overall. Was it a good reading year? I wish I could say that I turned the relentless isolation of the pandemic into an opportunity to read deeply and voraciously. I feel perhaps unduly ashamed of how difficult I often found it to concentrate, of how often I gathered promising stacks of unread books from my shelves determined to make my way through them only to reject them one by one — usually for no good reason except that in the moment, they just didn’t appeal — and put them back where they came from. Maybe it was the long hours I put into learning about and then laboring over online teaching; maybe it was the suppressed but constant struggle to keep at bay the worst fears and feelings about the pandemic; maybe, also, it’s not embarrassing but understandable to be uneasy and distracted in the midst of a global crisis, and so to fall back more often than you’d like into the passive forgetfulness offered by television.
And yet, looking back over my posts for 2020, though they are far fewer than usual (blogging, not just about books but about anything, also became harder this year, from screen fatigue and because of the way time kept seeming to pass without actually passing, if that makes sense), I find that I did read a lot of good books, ones that held my attention, that delighted or moved or provoked me in all the best ways. I also read — or at any rate finished — fewer books that really disappointed me, probably because I was less likely this year to press on with something I wasn’t engaged by. Of course, a number of books that I read were in the middle, in that largest zone that stretches from “not really my thing” to “good but not great.”
In a tradition that stretches back to 2007, the year I began Novel Readings, here’s my look back at the best, the worst, and some of the rest of my 2020 reading.
The Best Books I Read In 2020
Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead was the last book my book club read before our meetings went virtual; I think our dinner out to discuss it was also my last pre-lockdown social event! When will we six (sometimes seven) meet again?! This fall was our 10th anniversary, so it seems particularly sad that we haven’t been able to get together in person: Zoom just isn’t the same. We all loved Drive Your Plow — rare unanimity. The novel is extraordinary: strange, intense, compelling, and morally serious without ever being didactic:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms … the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.
I was mesmerized by Miriam Toews’s Women Talking — I’m glad I overcame my initial skepticism to give it a try. I found it “at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are?”
It seems inevitable in retrospect, but that shouldn’t diminish the extraordinary fact that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is as brilliant as the first two novels in the trilogy. I thought it was not quite as good as Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s such a high bar that the comparison doesn’t really reflect badly on it. The last 100 pages or so of The Mirror and the Light are particularly remarkable, not least because I read them knowing exactly what was going to happen and yet was utterly gripped. “It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell,” even Mantel’s version of him, but the series is so good that “she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.” What will Mantel do next? I would love to read her novel about Elizabeth I, if she would ever write one.
I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Maggie O’Farrell, but Hamnet and Judith exceeded my expectations:
In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.
One thin silver lining of our locked-down world is the movement of many interesting cultural events online: I really enjoyed “attending” O’Farrell’s Hay Festival interview.
Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey was a delight, though by that I don’t mean to imply that it is a slight or easy nbook. Out of a very unlikely premise (and the risk factor is actually one of the things I appreciated most about the novel), Rooney created something that is at once grim, tender, and morally consequential.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was one of the long-unread books I plucked from my shelves and actually read, and I’m so glad I did: I absolutely loved it. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that is quite like it:
It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do.
Steven Price’s Lampedusa also exceeded my expectations, joining “Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel.”
Turning to non-fiction, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life is “a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” I enjoyed it both for the story she tells and for the connections between it and my own work on needlework in the context of Victorian historiography.
Like Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet had malingered on my shelves for some time; the meditative comfort I have found in jigsaw puzzles since our stay-at-home protocols began inspired me to take another look, and it turned out to have found its moment:
It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death.
Last but not least, I was both gripped and impressed by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing:
Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable.
Other Books I Liked A Lot
I expected to like Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater, which I reviewed for the Dublin Review of Books (one of a sadly small number of writing projects I accomplished in 2020). I did like it, though I did not love it: it is a lot like Ghost Wall in scope and subject, and equally terse and intelligent, but I would like to see Moss do something more expansive, and also less emotionally reticent. Still, a “lesser” novel by Moss is still better than a lot of other books, and as with Ghost Wall, I also think this is one that gets bigger and better the more you think about it:
The novel has the tense atmosphere of a thriller and clues to its eventual crisis are deftly deployed throughout, but its multiple layers mean that the most important revelations are less about what ultimately happens then about how the novel asks us to interpret it. How can we live together in a world being reshaped by the weather? What expectations should we bring to communities no longer defined by the artificial borders of nationalism? What really makes a good neighbour?
William Trevor’s Love and Summer was very good – not as good as The Story of Lucy Gault, for me anyway, but good enough (and so beautifully written) that it solidified Trevor’s place on my list of writers to read more of.
Elizabeth von Armin’s sharply funny Father was a real treat and deserved a post of its own, which it didn’t get. I highly recommend it for fans of Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, or the Mapp and Lucia books.
I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Jones’s comic family novel We’re All In This Together, which I thought had “the intimacy and precision of an Anne Tyler novel but is done in bolder colours, with stronger contrasts and, especially, deeper shadows.”
I also enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, though in the end I couldn’t escape the feeling that its premise was less an urgent reason to group its subjects together than an ingenious device for doing so and then marketing the results. Still,
it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time … lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.”
Square Haunting made me long to be back in Bloomsbury, where for some reason I have always felt strangely exhilarated and also very at home, as if I can be more myself there than elsewhere.
I found Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel engrossing: it is interesting and highly readable. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite make sense of it all: “I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all.” That left me dissatisfied, though it also raised questions for me about what I look for when I’m reading, and why.
Books I Expected to Be Better
My book club really enjoyed Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, so we chose Detective Inspector Huss to read next. I didn’t like it, though she’s a good character and the novel had a lot of interesting aspects. Maybe it was a poor translation?
Sandra Newman’s The Heavens had been on my reading radar for a long time: I proposed it to the TLS for a review, in fact, and they turned it down. Now that I’ve read it, I’m relieved, as “I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole” — though, I concluded, “it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.”
My Least-Liked Book of 2020
I know how much Dorian likes the Bernie Gunther books, and he writes so convincingly about them that I decided to try the first one, March Violets. Bernie and I (or Kerr and I) did not get along:
While I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)
Maybe the later books improve, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great concept for a series and that this one is well executed in other ways. With so many other books to choose from, though, I’m unlikely to try Kerr again any time soon.
My Biggest 2020 Reading Project
My one larger writing project for 2020 was a feature article for the TLS in honor of P. D. James’s centenary. I thought rereading all of her Adam Dalgliesh novels, which took up a lot of my summer, would be more fun than it was. They are all very good, but they are good in particular and strikingly similar ways — ways I ultimately found limited, or limiting, as I explain in the essay.
Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New
Overall, that’s really not a bad year’s reading, especially for an otherwise pretty bad year! It proves that — gloomy, difficult, and uncertain as other things might be — a good book is still a good book and worth celebrating. As for 2021, well, it feels foolhardy to express much optimism about it in other respects, but I’m excited about the first book I have lined up, Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. I got Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and Anne Enright’s The Gathering as Christmas gifts (thank you!), and I’ve got Edna O’Brien’s Girl and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom on their way thanks to Boxing Day sales. The next book lined up for my book club, also, is Elsa Morante’s enticing Arturo’s Island. We aren’t able to ring in the new year with much confidence or enthusiasm, but it is both comforting and cheering to have these books to look forward to.