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Favourite Novels of 2020

recommended by Cal Flyn

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

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Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

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Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn selects her favourite novels from among those published in 2020: the year of the lockdown, a time when many of us found escapism and solace between the covers of a book. Her own book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, a work of literary nonfiction, is out in January.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

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Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn

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I doubt many of us will be sorry to say farewell to 2020, a year that has sometimes felt never-ending. But if nothing else, it has been a good year for reading. Book sales have surged, as many people sought out literary escapism while marooned in their homes, and there have been plenty of marvellous novels making their way into the world, despite the difficulties in promoting and distributing them.

I’m a nonfiction author, but a large proportion of the books I read ‘for fun’ are novels. I find it easier to immerse myself in fiction—partly, I think, because I am not constantly trying to pick apart how they’ve been constructed, in the hope of doing something similar myself. I can relax into them, let the words flow over me, and simply… enjoy.

This year I’ve been writing a series highlighting the most notable new novels of each season (read my entries highlighting fiction published in spring 2020, summer 2020, and autumn/fall 2020 — with apologies to those in the Southern hemisphere), and it’s been a pleasure to take stock of the literary landscape at regular intervals. As with any such list, they are necessarily partial and subject to my own taste and biases. Still, you might find them interesting.

Similarly, here is a short list of my own personal reading highlights of the year: the best new novels of 2020… in my humble opinion, as they say on the internet.

 

Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket

Mackintosh’s debut The Water Cure was a dizzyingly ambiguous novel about three sisters kept by their parents from a world that may or may not have been contaminated by some unspecified disaster. It was dazzlingly good, almost suffocatingly claustrophobic, and so I awaited her second outing keenly. How gratifying, then, to find Blue Ticket a tonally similar, and yet somehow entirely fresh work of dystopian fiction.

Set in an alternate reality, possibly a dystopian near-future (as in The Water Cure, this is never made explicit), we meet our protagonist Calla as she is allocated a ‘blue ticket’ in the government-sanctioned lottery, which decides which girls should go on to become mothers. A blue ticket marks Calla for a child-free future – one in which she might prioritise independence and career. When we find her a decade or so later she has done just that: she is a scientist by day, hedonist by night. But when she becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming pregnant, and does so by underhand means, she becomes an outlaw and we see how quickly society turns on her.

I wrote a longer review of the book for New Humanist magazine, in which I remarked on how speculative fiction allows us to examine moral questions without the normal baggage that we all bring to our reading of a book. “Blue Ticket reads like an allegory,” I noted, “but the moral we are to take from it is not clear.” This is the pleasure of Mackintosh’s fiction: her heroines are as morally complex as the world they live in. A book that stays with you long after you consign it to the bookshelf.

 

Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness

Greenwell’s novel (although it could equally be described as a collection of short stories, or a series of vignettes, or  – as he has described it in the past – ‘a lieder cycle’) portrays an unnamed American man living and teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria. Autobiographical, in the loosest sense, it is a portrait of a gay man navigating a life in an often homophobic country, forging intimate connections, and bearing witness to political and social upheaval.

Cleanness is perhaps most notable for its portrayals of queer sex, which are delicately but unflinchingly written, and suffused with unspoken questions of trust, vulnerability and power. In parts, we are invited to share in our protagonist’s humiliation, as he is truly laid bare upon the page. Desire, in Greenwell’s book, is a strange and shapeshifting creature which spits at and scratches its owner. “Sex is … at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come,” as he has written. “In no other activity, I think, do the physical and metaphysical draw so near one another.” Quite. It’s a clear, calm and rather beautiful book that I admire a great deal.

 

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Susanna Clarke had an enormous hit with her 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a great tome with Tolkienian ambition – telling the story of the ‘rediscovery’ of magic during the Napoleonic Wars – and mainstream appeal. So this slim novel had a lot to live up to. Fans will be delighted to hear that it succeeds magnificently.

Set in a fantastical other world, which (as it soon becomes clear) runs parallel to our own, we find its protagonist wandering an infinite series of ruined halls through which wind rushes, clouds condense and seawater washes. Clarke is said to have been inspired by the surreal short stories of Jorge Luis Borges; her lead character takes his nickname from the 18th-century Italian painter of vast, imaginary prisons.

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Piranesi, we soon learn, is a scientist of some kind, who shares his detailed notes on ‘The House’ and what can be found there with ‘The Other’ – his only company, unless you include the skeletons he has found secreted between the statues of the halls and vestibules. I won’t say any more – it’s a book you should come to fresh –but think of it as the lovechild of Northern Lights and Christopher Nolan’s thrillingly disconcerting movie Memento. Truly rather wondrous, and the product of a brilliant mind.

(I should note that I ‘read’ this in the form of an audiobook read by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who made an excellent narrator, perfectly embodying Piranesi’s pleasant, if confused, manner.)

 

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light

Launched to huge fanfare in spring… only for it to be immediately drowned out by the thumping pulse of Covid lockdowns and border closures, Mantel’s stunning conclusion to her double-Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy took us by the hand and led us, by circuitous means, to the inevitable demise of Thomas Cromwell on the executioner’s block. I knew how it had to end, anticipated it, and yet – after approximately 120 hours in the company of “He, Cromwell” – I wasn’t yet ready to give him up.

Mantel is the most deft and masterful of writers. Ominous foreshadowing is conveyed subtly by way of allusion, sideways glances, and deadpan asides; warnings are missed, mistakes are made, resentments build. Through Mantel’s eyes, the great anti-hero of English history is reinvented as a man of thought and care and canny, who plays his mercurial master like a lute, until he doesn’t. The fall, when it comes, is swift and merciless. Right until the final pages I was still guessing as to how it would unfold. And the epilogue – detailing Henry VIII’s later regret – hangs with me still.

I must say that I missed Anne Boleyn’s acid wit and neurotic energy, but she makes her occasional appearances in flashbacks thanks to Mantel’s habit of weaving and interweaving past and present. Plus, our promise of a troubled future: Bloody Mary rising up in the wings, bitterness twisting and hardening inside her.

What will she write next? I can’t wait. Hilary Mantel could write a shopping list and I would savour it.

 

Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings

I was late to appreciate Sayaka Murata, whose breakthrough novel Convenience Store Woman was recommended by Linda Flores in our interview on the best of modern Japanese literature (“darkly humorous”). But I’m here now, and just in time for the publication of this firecracker of a follow-up, Earthlings.

Earthlings explores many similar themes to that earlier book (fake relationships, emotional weirdness, societal pressure to be ‘normal’), but takes it to the next level. In it, two young cousins on the brink of puberty create an imaginary world for the two of them to share. When Natsuki and Yuu’s blossoming romance causes consternation among relatives, they are torn apart; Natsuki never truly recovers. As I wrote in my fall round-up, “if you appreciate trigger warnings, this book requires them all – child abuse, violence, incest, and plenty more. But somehow the story skates along the top of all this darkness, and shimmers with a deadpan wit. I loved it.”

 

Of course, I read far more than five brilliant books this year. So let me add a few honourable mentions: I zipped through Naoise Dolan’s sharp and funny novel about a bisexual love triangle, Exciting TimesI admired the formal invention and emotional acuity of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, a memoir of abuse at the hands of her partner (which I am counting as a 2020 book on a technicality – it was released in the UK, in January); and Paul Mendez’s raw and ennervating coming of age story Rainbow Milk

And one more, which I can’t bear to leave out: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening was first published (in the original Dutch) in 2018, but made it into English translation in spring and won the 2020 International Booker Prize. When I discussed it with the chair of the judges, Ted Hodgkinson, he said: “I get tingles when I even think about this book.” I have to agree. It’s truly electrifying, and not for the faint hearted.

What have I missed? I’d love to hear the books that made your 2020 top five. Let us know by messaging us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Part of our best books of 2020 series.

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water (selected by The Times as one of the best books of 2016), and Islands of Abandonment, an acclaimed nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places (2021). She was made a Macdowell fellow in 2019.

Cal writes regular round-ups of the best new fiction, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She writes for The Guardian and Granta, among others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water (selected by The Times as one of the best books of 2016), and Islands of Abandonment, an acclaimed nonfiction book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places (2021). She was made a Macdowell fellow in 2019.

Cal writes regular round-ups of the best new fiction, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.