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Editors’ Picks: Notable Novels of Fall 2020

recommended by Cal Flyn

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn

Thicker Than Water
by Cal Flyn

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After coronavirus-induced chaos threw publishing schedules out of whack earlier this year, fall 2020 is shaping up to be a bumper book season. But with hundreds of new titles flooding onto the shelves, it can be hard to identify those that are most deserving of your time. Here, Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn highlights some of the most anticipated new novels of the coming weeks.

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn

Thicker Than Water
by Cal Flyn

Read
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Keen readers are absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to novels in fall 2020. In the first half of the year, many publishers – in the face of widespread tour and book festival cancellations, and with many independent bookstores closed due to coronavirus containment measures – chose to postpone new book launches to later in the year. The result is something of a publishing logjam, as dozens of big-hitter novels all come out at once, while the Covid-19 crisis rumbles on and the United States prepares for a highly contentious election-by-post.

So there are plenty of excellent new novels coming out in the next few months, but the usual methods of publicising them may be disrupted. It’s never been more important, then, to stay up to date on the hot new releases, and especially to keep an eye out for the interesting debuts that might struggle to attract the attention they deserve in a crowded field.

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One debut that has managed to cut through the noise is Raven Leilani’s Luster. Out now in the US and Canada (but not available in the UK until January), this novel has been endorsed by the likes of  Zadie Smith, Brit Bennett and Ling Ma, and highlighted as one of the most anticipated new novels of fall 2020 by everywhere from Vogue to Lithub. It’s about a young black woman working in publishing who begins an affair with a white man in an open marriage—then later comes to live with the couple and their adopted daughter in their family home. The book is an ultra-self-conscious interrogation of power balances, race, loneliness and non-monogamous relationships, and if that sounds intriguing you may be keen to read an excerpt published over at The Cut.

Another first novel making waves is Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain; only just out in the UK, it was published to enormous acclaim across the Atlantic in the spring and has already been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Stuart, a Glaswegian living in New York, has written a bleakly beautiful novel of an alcoholic mother and her son struggling to get by in the brutal, hyper-masculine culture of 1980s Glasgow. It will break your heart. And an honourable mention to Gabriel Krauze’s searing biographical novel of gang violence Who They Was – longlisted for the Booker Prize ahead of its UK publication in September, and still apparently in search of an American publisher which I hope will be resolved ASAP.

Other box-fresh novels of note include the French literary superstar Nina Bouraoui’s new novel All Men Want to Know. Hardly a debut, but this is the first time that Bouraoui’s work has been translated into English. This new work of autofiction, in an award-winning translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, is a dreamy, fragmentary account of Bouraoui’s coming of age as a French-Algerian gay woman, which has been a publishing phenomenon in continental Europe.

Five Books alumnus Yiyun Li‘s latest novel, Must I Go – released at the end of July – portrays a woman in her eighties as she reflects upon her life  – and the suicide of her daughter some decades previously – by way of annotations in the diary of a former lover. Fans of Li’s work may be aware of her harrowing and remarkable book Where Reasons End, written after her 16-year-old son took his own life. This too is a poignant, experimental literary work wrought of intense pain – written with Li’s trademark intelligence and emotional complexity. By no means an easy read, but worthwhile.

Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) fans may be excited to learn of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s new anthology, The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, in which they have gathered 91 stories by authors from Jorge Luis Borges to Stephen King, by way of Ursula K. Le Guin and Angela Carter. There’s also a lot of buzz around Lauren Beuke’s dystopian thriller Afterland out now – billed as The Children of Men meets The Handmaid’s Tale. In it, a mother and son journey across a post-apocalyptic United States, where a pandemic has wiped out 99% of the world’s men. (Tom Hunter, our friend at the Arthur C. Clarke Award, also advises us to keep our eyes peeled for a new novel from Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagantin October.)

We have some real treats to look forward to in the coming weeks. Daisy Johnson (who became the youngest ever author to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her previous book, Everything Under), is imminently to release her second book, a work of gothic horror called Sisters, which is bound to be a novel on everyone’s lips throughout fall 2020. It’s about a pair of uncannily close teenage siblings who move to the north of England after an incident at their previous high school in Oxford. Eerie and oppressive, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson.

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Fellow literary wunderkind Emma Cline (author of The Girls, the stylish novel of personality cult and murder that was just everywhere in the summer of 2016) is also publishing a collection of short fiction: Daddyout 1 September. And, Americans: don’t miss The Discomfort of Evening by the Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, when it’s finally released in the US later this month. I discussed it with Ted Hodgkinson a few months ago; he called it “absolutely extraordinary,” adding: “I get tingles when I even think about this book.”

In September, Five Books favourite Marilynne Robinson is to publish her latest novel, Jack – the fourth book set in her mythical world of Gilead, Iowa. Existing fans of the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning Gilead sequence will be intrigued to hear that Jack is the story of Jack Boughton, the bad boy son of the local Presbyterian minister, and his relationship with a beautiful and brilliant African American woman who becomes his common law wife in segregated St Louis. Robinson is surely one of the greatest living English language writers. Find a brief excerpt over at the publisher’s website, here.

Other fall 2020 novels of note include Yaa Gyasi’s hotly anticipated second book, Transcendent Kingdom – a follow-up to her sweeping family saga Homegoing (2016), which catapulted her to celebrity. This new novel follows a Ghanaian-American PhD candidate at Stanford University as she seeks experimental explanations for her family members’ dysfunction.

Martin Amis will publish his fifteenth, Inside Story, said to be an autobiographical novel inspired by the death of his friend, the polemicist Christopher Hitchens. It begins during their time as young magazine writers, and includes appearances from stars of the London literary establishment of that era, including Iris Murdoch, Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and his step-mother Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Nick Hornby – author of the brilliantly funny and poignant High Fidelity, among other things – will publish his latest, a love story between a 40-something schoolteacher and a younger man called Just Like You. And Susanna Clarke, of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fame, will publish her second, Piranesi. Jonathan Strange was a massive doorstopper of a storybook about two men rediscovering magic during the Napoleonic wars, and I simply can’t wait to get my hands on this new one, which promises to be another high concept work of literary fantasy set in an alternate reality.

Another personal highlight is the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata’s new book Earthlings. I loved her charming and weird Convenience Store Woman, the first of Murata’s novels to be translated into English, and this latest work (which I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of) is, to an extent, more of the same. It explores many of the same themes – emotional weirdness, societal pressure to live a ‘normal’ life, phoney marriages, cold fish protagonists – but while Convenience Store Woman rolled gently along, Earthlings is a firecracker of a book. 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.

Any list like this can barely hope to scratch the surface, but I trust this brief list of fall 2020 novels gives you somewhere to start from. As ever, we’re desperate to hear what books you are most enjoying and most looking forward to – so don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She has been a contributing editor for The Week magazine and a reporter for The Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine and others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water, a work of narrative non-fiction about colonialism in Australia, and the forthcoming Islands of Abandonment. She was made a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in 2019.

Cal regularly interviews experts on the subject of literary fiction and nonfiction, nature, environment and psychology: find those interviews gathered here. She also writes regular round-ups of the best new books, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.

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Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn is a writer, journalist and the deputy editor of Five Books. She has been a contributing editor for The Week magazine and a reporter for The Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine and others. She is the author of Thicker Than Water, a work of narrative non-fiction about colonialism in Australia, and the forthcoming Islands of Abandonment. She was made a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in 2019.

Cal regularly interviews experts on the subject of literary fiction and nonfiction, nature, environment and psychology: find those interviews gathered here. She also writes regular round-ups of the best new books, which can be browsed here. Follow her on Twitter: @calflyn.