What are the best new novels of early 2020?
Well, there is so much exciting new writing that it’s actually quite difficult to say. Many of the biggest names in fiction have either just published a new book, or have highly anticipated novels scheduled to appear in the next few months. There has also been a spate of debut novels attracting a lot of praise and admiration.
What notable new books are out now?
Notable titles already published in 2020 include: A Long Petal of the Sea, by the giant of Latin American literature Isabel Allende; a fast-paced techno-thriller from perennial Five Books recommendee William Gibson, Agency; and – sixty years after her death – a collection of early stories by the anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance.
One unmissable work of literary fiction not long out is Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, the follow up to his lyrical, rapturously received 2016 debut, What Belongs to You. As with the earlier book, Cleanness is a portrayal of an American expat living as a gay man in conservative Sofia – his alienation and struggle to form long-term relationships – and it unfolds by way of episodic vignettes. Greenwell writes with absolute candour, and in prose so elevated as to have spawned its own sub-genre of literary analysis. (If you like that sort of thing, I recommend Christian Kiefer on Greenwell’s “remaking of grammar in his own image” on Lithub.) Greenwell says he thinks of himself as more of a poet than a novelist, and certainly Cleanness is infused with a poet’s sensibility.
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Standout debuts from January include Kiley Reid’s bestselling Such a Fun Age – a funny and accomplished social satire examining race and privilege through the eyes of a young black babysitter and her employer, which will make good discussion fodder for book clubs – and Irish writer Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me to Ground, an unsettling tale of father-daughter witchdoctors that twines magical realism together with horror.
Just out, and another one not to miss, is Jenny Offill’s Weather, her third novel and the follow-up to her wry, intelligent and heart-rending examination of marital infidelity, art and motherhood Dept. of Speculation, which cannot be recommended highly enough. As with Dept. of Speculation, Weather is built from fragments, some koan-esque and oblique, some directly reported, which Offill reportedly composes, pins to notice boards around her house, and sifts through for many months before settling upon the final formation. The new novel examines how to live and love in the shadow of climate collapse.
What do we have to look forward to?
You may also be pleased to hear that there are new books out shortly from the Booker Prize winners Julian Barnes (The Man in the Red Coat), Aravind Adiga (Amnesty) and Anne Enright (Actress). Hilary Mantel, of course, has twice triumphed at the Booker with the first two instalments of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The third, The Mirror and the Light, will chart Cromwell’s inevitable demise and its publication in March is inarguably the literary event of the year. I’ve had it on pre-order for months, and a currently re-reading the earlier books in breathless anticipation. Join me, why don’t you.
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Fans of Anne Tyler can look forward to her latest novel Redhead at the Side of the Road, out in April, while fantasy fanatics will be pleased to hear that Hugo Award-winner N K Jemison will be launching a new trilogy with The City We Became at the end of March 2020.
After that, Ottessa Moshfegh – one of the most outstanding young literary talents working today – will publish her latest novel Death in her Hands, which follows the darkly provocative tale of opting-out, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and her Booker-shortlisted Eileen. This new novel is a detective story of a sort, centring upon an elderly widow living alone in the woods who finds a note on the forest floor apparently reporting a murder – but no body. As with Eileen, it is a book that plays with elements of crime fiction, but don’t expect a paint-by-numbers thriller that ties off neatly by the end. Dark and character-driven.
Shortly to be released in the US, but already out (and well-received) in the UK are Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist and Five Books alumnus Emma Jane Unsworth‘s Grown Ups which is currently a Sunday Times bestseller in Britain. Also out now in the UK – and available on pre-order in the US – is the latest offering, from the author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (which won – amongst other things – the Bailey’s Prize, Goldsmiths Prize and the Desmond Elliot Prize). Strange Hotel is a slim, stream-of-consciousness novella that portrays the internal monologue of an unnamed woman in a series of anonymous hotel rooms, as she considers identity, trauma and romantic disappointment – and the intellectual defence mechanisms she has developed to survive.
And finally, if alarming news about the Coronavirus has sent you, like me, rushing back into the arms of Emily St John Mandel’s brilliant, beautiful post-pandemic novel Station Eleven, then you will be delighted to hear that she has a new book out in March 2020: The Glass Hotel. Also, coincidentally, set partly in a hotel – this one a luxury glass and cedar monstrosity on Vancouver Island – The Glass Hotel is, in Mandel’s words: “a ghost story with a Ponzi scheme in it”, reportedly inspired by the case of Bernie Madoff. Though not a dystopian novel like Station Eleven, the shipping executive Miranda and her boss Leon make an appearance in The Glass Hotel, marking it as taking place within the same fictional universe.
It’s going to be a busy few months of reading. What books are you looking forward to? Let us know on Twitter or on Facebook.
Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor
February 11, 2020
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