[Review] The Year in Books 2020 — James McLoughlin

Welcome to the second instalment of the ‘Year in Books’. Last time, I began with a sarcastic quip designed to highlight what a dog’s dinner of a year 2019 had been. I don’t think there’s any need to bother with that this time around. 

In retrospect, I probably owe 2019 an apology. I’m sorry, year-of-our-Lord two thousand and nineteen. I did you dirty. Real dirty. Will you take me back?

Anyway, what was interesting about this process last time – for me at least – was that it gave me a chance to reflect on the previous twelve months in a compartmentalised way. In reviewing what I had read throughout the year, I was also looking back in life in general. Each book represented a different stage in the year, a different mood, a different colour of existence. 

That might be a little harder this year. If we tend to think of chronological time as a series of peaks and troughs, then 2020 has been a fifty-foot ditch with mud-slick sides that toss us on our faces and deliver us back down to the muddy depths every time we try to escape. As the curve graphs went up, so did we slide back down again. We’re all looking forward to the end of this annus horribilis, but maybe there’s a twist yet in the tale. Maybe 2020 will never end. 

Holding that horrifying thought, we can attempt to look on the bright side. All the extra time has allowed me to read a lot more and this year, I didn’t have to do the majority of my reading on the Northern Line. Well, after March, that is.

When 2020 began, like every other year, I was too hungover to read for a few days. Eventually I got around to starting on A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin’s second A Song of Ice and Fire instalment. There’s a simple but accomplished charm to Martin’s prose. It is as light as the themes it delineates are dark. Loads of people die, again. What I liked about this novel, though, was how masterfully it depicts the rapid collapse of order and life-as-normal that follows the slow slide of corruption and incompetence. (Ed: stop shoehorning sledgehammer 2020 metaphors in and get on with it).

Martin’s books are pretty chunky. It took me until the beginning of February to move onto my second of the year. Austerlitz was a Christmas gift, and what a gift. It’s so compellingly written and thematically deep that I immediately – and unsuccessfully – began to try to write a novel in similar voice. That voice – extended and melancholy interior monologue – chimed with the dark cold of deep winter in London. It is essentially plotless. W.G. Sebald focuses instead on a meditative reflection on trauma, loss of identity and the weight of the past. It is utterly brilliant, and though it is chapterless, the prose hovers between the corporeal and ethereal in a mesmerising mix. I finished it in five days. Devoured.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, came next. It would be a tough ask for any novel to leave as much of an impact as Austerlitz, but Half… managed it. It is a masterly reanimation of a seminal moment in modern African history: the Biafran struggle to establish independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. It chillingly relates the various devastations wrought on the lives of people from diverse strata of Nigerian society, from starvation and forced migration to political assassination. Adichie navigates complex themes – moral responsibility, the fallout of the end of colonialism,  race, class and religion – with the panache of an accomplished storyteller. 

Speaking of navigation, I returned to an old favourite for my next book: Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling. I used to love accompanying Bryson on his rambling excursions across our feted isles, relishing the outsider’s perspective on familiar aspects of British culture. My opinion of the UK in general has plummeted since I first read Notes From a Small Island. It doesn’t seem quite so splendid as it once did, and its idiosyncrasies rankle more than they entertain these days. This perhaps mirrors how I feel about Bryson, who often comes across in this follow-up as the archetypal old man shouting at clouds. And though I agree with him to a certain extent at times – particularly his griping about the idiocy of British government – it does get quite tiresome. There are some gems here; Bryson has lost none of his eye for unique observation of common phenomena. It’s just that he’s a little less tolerant than he used to be – or seemed to be. The result is a book half-rant, half-ramble and the journey was more of a slog than it ought to have been. 

As March began, blue skies and tentative buds brought with them new hope, as yet unblemished by the looming spectre of coronavirus. The morning commutes felt a little more bearable and so was my next book: Submarine by Joe Dunthorne. This was an easy read of solid prose, but not earth-shattering. I enjoyed the dry wit of its protagonist and his hormone-driven journey through adolescence. It is fundamentally a novel about establishing one’s place in the world – hardly a pioneering literary conceit, but it does it well, and with unpretentious simplicity.

As panic began to spread around the world at the growing spectre of a global pandemic, Britain slept on the threat. I continued to go to work, and chose, for my next book, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Yes, I know: soon to be rather apt. I actually listened to this as an audiobook on the excellent Borrowbox app, which allows you to download and listen to books from any library near you. It’s like Audible, but free – and occasionally you have to wait for an audiobook to be ‘returned’. 

The version of Brave New World I listened to was a dramatized one, rather than a standard full narration. As such, I’m not sure I got the full immersion into the book’s hellish landscape of narcissists and groupthink, but, having lived in the UK my entire life, I didn’t have to reach far to imagine it. I was still commuting at the time of listening, and I always struggle to maintain concentration with audiobooks while I’m travelling. It’s difficult to envision character and setting when you’re crammed under a dozen sweaty armpits on the Jubilee line or struggling to hear yourself think over the screeching Northern line between Euston and Camden Town. I owe it to Aldous to give the book a read, but maybe I’ll wait until a time when it seems more like fiction again. 

I returned to one of my favourite authors of last year, W. Somerset Maugham, for my next literary adventure. Of Human Bondage is a brilliant portrait of self-hatred, insecurity and struggling to establish oneself in a society that, compared with the present, seems idyllic, even as Phillip, the protagonist, falls into destitution and romantic mania. Maugham is devastatingly adept at weaving narrative from the seemingly disparate threads of life. The prose is exquisite, and you can hardly fail to feel, on completing this novel, that some of the truths of life have been illuminated.

By the time I had finished it, we had gone into lockdown. 

In need of some levity, I ran my finger along the spines on the shelf and, naturally, plucked out Heart of Darkness. I’ve read it before. It’s highly likely you have, too. If not, here’s a precis: Charlie Marlow recounts his adventures as a ferry boat captain, when he ventured up the Congo river in the late 19th Century. Thematically, the novel reflects on corruptive European colonialism and explores the nightmarish psyche of one who has fallen into its dark heart. It’s short, intense and heavy. I didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable read, and that might be attributable to the context in which I consumed it. Maybe not. 

I love reading so much that I rarely find anything overtly negative to say about a novel when I finish it. The good things stay with me and, as a writer who struggles to finish an article, let alone a 300-page tome, I find it easy to forgive minor authorly transgressions if the thing as a whole stands up. Nevertheless, the next novel actively made me angry. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – for some reason – is considered a classic of sci-fi. It centres around a supposedly brilliant physicist – who never actually does anything, let alone anything brilliant – who travels to a purportedly utopian planet to challenge its complex societal structures. It has been praised for its realistic depiction of anarchist utopia and Le Guin’s excavation of the concept of freedom. 

Not by this reader. Shevek – the protagonist – is so astonishingly irritating I eye-rolled my way through the vast majority of his passages (which is most of the book). The prose, well-suited to the non-action it depicts, is painfully mundane. I read a review of the book after I finished that lauded Le Guin for folding her thematic arguments unobtrusively into the narrative, never foisting them unsubtly on the reader. My jaw dropped. It is difficult to hack one’s way through the tedious and ultimately inadequate political and social commentary to find a narrative. 

Maybe I’m being harsh. There probably is something here; I know Le Guin is a great writer. But I categorically hated this novel. I hated what it contained, and I loathed the experience of reading it. You might like it. Each to their own. 

My reading pace quickened dramatically after The Dispossessed. Liberated from Shevek’s dull pretensions – and imprisoned by lockdown – I finished Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light in significantly less time. It’s an 800+ page Tudor epic, the final instalment of a staggering trilogy charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. Mantel’s prose is simply exceptional, richly textured and capable of being at once sinewy and sweeping. Her achievement with this final book – and the trilogy as a whole – is to establish a world and a legendary arc that is every bit as definitive for English aristocratic history as War and Peace was for the Russians. Utilising the close third person –‘He, Cromwell’ – we ride around on the protagonist’s shoulders, gaining an immediate and intimate perspective on royal intrigues and national politics. 

It was even, dare I say it, quite comforting as an alternative to the news. I also, during this time, listened to an audiobook of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari’s singular investigation into how humankind achieved such a meteoric evolutionary rise. I think I probably took in less of this than I should – that’s a gripe with audiobooks in general – but there are some fascinating sections, notably one in which Harari explores how people came to believe in gods, deconstructs the entire concept of the nation state and rails against bureaucracy – objectively, of course. During a time in which the fragility of the state, the illusion of its ability (/desire) to protect its citizens, has been laid not so much bare as pornographically exhibited, these passages offer an insight into the machinations of the world. From understanding comes reassurance, or at least for a short while.

These last two were both, as you can probably tell, pretty weighty. I decided to remain in the real world for next book but went instead for the literary equivalent of comfort food. A Street Cat Named Bob, an uplifting memoir from former addict and street-sleeper James Bowen, did the trick. It’s written in prose that a 12-year old would sail through. Bowen has a knack for wince-inducing exaggerative statements. Whoever copy-edited the book obviously knew its intended audience would be more gripped with the heartwarming plot, than with the intricacies of sentence structure and narrative development. Either way, it really is quite a heart-warming and, at times, enlightening book that offers a first-hand insight into the invisibility of being homeless, and how difficult it is to turn one’s life around. 

Bowen adopted the eponymous cat, Bob, a ginger tabby with a penchant for London’s bus network, and began to turn his life around. It says something about the twisted attitudes of society that with a cat on his shoulder he became instantly more visible and humanised and, as a result, able to kick drugs and take control of his existence again. Let’s be honest, most people wouldn’t read this book if its narrative were centred around a homeless man. Using Bob the cat as a framing device enables Bowen to shed light on what life on the streets is really like in the UK. So, while it won’t go down in history as one of literature’s masterpieces, it gives a voice to the often-silent, and for that it is a laudable achievement. 

During this time, I was also flicking through Wendy Cope’s poetry collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. These poems – tongue-in-cheek responses to hallowed bards from T.S. Eliot to Wordsworth – are laced with wit, playful mastery of form and wry pastiche. It can be easy for humorous responses to formal verse to come off as anti-intellectual, but Cope’s poems enliven a glowing affection for work that has come before, adding to, rather than taking down. 

Like many people during lockdown, I took up running. Strava became a daily feature of my life, and as I began to get more confident and take more joy from the simple act of pounding the pavement, I began to take a greater interest in the sport in general. That’s why the next two books I read were both about running: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami) and Born to Run (Christopher McDougall). I enjoyed both of these books immensely and polished them off in the space of a week or so. 

Murakami’s is an affectionate reflection on how running came to influence his life and its intersection with creativity. It is part diary, part training log, a veritable panorama of running insights and memories. Murakami is, of course, an extremely accomplished writer, and veers well away from the sometimes staid and overly-scientific approach to sports writing you might get from a journalist. After every chapter, I wanted to get out and run myself into a similar meditative state.

Born To Run is more journalistic in style, which is hardly surprising given that it was, in matter of fact, written by a journalist. It charts an epic adventure to discover a tribe of naturally incredible distance runners – the Mexican Tarahumara – and to learn their secrets. It’s a sweeping narrative, moving from the urban centres of America to the savage mountainous terrain of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, and details some quite frankly ridiculous athletic achievements. It’s full of larger than life characters – from the reclusive Caballo Blanco to the charmingly enthusiastic Barefoot Ted – and is a wildly exuberant and enjoyable read. McDougall is nothing if not keen, and at times veers too close to the reductive, showstopping ‘eureka’ moments that magazine correspondents tend to. Nevertheless, the book was fascinating and fun, educational and engaging.

Don DeLillo’s Running Dog came next, heralding a return to fiction. It’s not actually about running. That’s just a coincidence. It isn’t really about dogs, either – singular or plural – but that’s by the by. Featuring classic, streamlined DeLillo prose, Running Dog is a tale of intrigue and skulduggery, following a New York journalist tracking an influential senator through a murky underworld of political manoeuvring and bloodshed. It’s nowhere near as accomplished as DeLillo’s later masterpieces. It’s slightly pulp-y. Nevertheless, there are signs of what would come to establish DeLillo as one of his generation’s leading voices, from the moody philosophy to the polished ambiguities and corruptive properties of power and money. If you’re looking to get into DeLillo’s work and aren’t quite ready to tackle White Noise, Running Dog is an easier entry point.

As June came around and ‘stay at home’ became ‘stay alert’, I was burrowing my way through another David Mitchell book. If you’ve read anything by Mitchell before The Bone Clocks will feel familiar: six interconnected stories told from six perspectives, weaving together through time and space to form one cohesive novel. Add in a dollop of fantasy and this makes for classic Mitchell, wrangling themes of mortality (we, reader, are the titular ‘bone clocks’) and power. It’s anchored around the life of its opening protagonist, Holly Sykes, whose narrative arc glues the rest of the perspectives together and bookends the…well, the book. For me, this wasn’t quite as powerful as Cloud Atlas, or as satisfying as Ghostwritten, but it’s a novel of fireworks, fun and fantasy that certainly livened up my lockdown days for a couple of weeks. 

My next novel took me all of 3 days to read. Normal People, by Sally Rooney, was all the rage (again) because of its recently released BBC adaptation. I started watching the show before reading the book, which was a mistake because it came across as just another hackneyed doomed-school-romance flick. The book offers more. It is painfully intimate and honest, with simple prose that flows uninhibited like a stream. There’s nothing truly original in the story here but it is the way in which Rooney draws the angst and confusion of its adolescent protagonists that feels fresh and ultimately relatable. At times – as with many a love story on page and screen – it can feel frustrating, because most of the misery and the fallouts could be prevented if people just spoke to each other. But then Rooney pivots, outlining in tragic detail how the perceptions of others can warp our own actions. 

I’d like to be brief, if I can, about the next book in the list. Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe’s supposedly trailblazing story of the eponymous Moll and her bawdy adventures. Billed as one of the first non-serialised novels published in the English language, that’s about all it has going for it. Well done. I hated every second of the experience of reading this book. It is the literary equivalent of trudging through knee-high mud in flip-flops. For three weeks. It did have one good feature: the end. 

With the trauma of Flanders still fresh in my mind, it may be hard to produce an objective summary of Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. While I can’t say I enjoyed this book necessarily, on account of its quite merciless content, it was undeniably brilliant as a work of fiction. Written in the kind of economical , stark prose that I love, it follows Professor David Lurie and the fallout from a violent incident that occurs while he is staying on his daughter’s farm. An incisive and unflinching portrayal of the humiliations of a man stripped of his cynical indifference to the world, this book hits like a sledgehammer. It won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

By this time, the lockdown in the UK had started to ease. The sun was out and bookshops were open again – as were the pubs. This meant more time to buy books and less time to read. Thankfully, I managed to pick up a copy of Islands In The Stream, Ernest Hemingway’s final novel. It was actually published after his death, having been excavated from his notes and edited by his son. In many ways it is classic Ern, following the adventures of an artist and adventurer – a man quite like himself – and rich with sharp dialogue and an uncanny sense for the minutiae of the daily moments we come to treasure. It is more mature and empathetic than earlier Hemingway (or maybe it’s me with the added empathy), bearing all the hallmarks of an aged author struggling to distil the love and enthusiasm he has for his family and the pain of a lifetime of experience into a single, timeless epistle. It fell slightly short of novels like Fiesta or A Farewell To Arms, but for the Hemingway aficionado, it is a vital closing chapter in the oeuvre of one of the 20th Century’s most accomplished writers. 

By this point I’d become aware of a lack of diversity in my recent reading, so I opted for Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. I did not regret it. This is a marvellous accomplishment of literature, weaving together the stories of disparate characters to produce a dynamic, vibrant and polyphonic history of life as a woman in the UK and beyond. To so vividly and convincingly capture the diverse experiences and perceptions that make up this tapestry is quite remarkable. Hypocrisy is not shied away from, but neither is compassion for the stumbles we make from youth through to old age. To read this novel is to live life through a different lens. It’s irresistible stuff, shot through with humour and heart in equal measure. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Evaristo’s work. 

My next novel couldn’t really have been more different. I travelled back to Westeros with George R.R. Martin’s 3rd instalment of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga, A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow. The title is a pretty accurate description of what happens. The novel swoops from sunlit castles to frostbitten mountains and features loads of battles. Martin is adept at letting things play out at a natural pace, though. For some, this might make for a slow and dreary experience, but I enjoy it. The battle descriptions are by the by, but Martin’s excellence comes to the fore in dialogue scenes bristling with latent threat, in developing character incrementally. He’s also good at describing a feast, which is a must for this type of novel, isn’t it? 

By the time I’d finished that, the Covid picture had started to look a little bleaker again. It was getting a little colder, cases were creeping up and we’d shortly be heading into a series of seemingly interminable lockdowns punctured by tiered existences distinguishable only by how easy or not it was to get a pint. On a grey day I flicked through Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. While Blake is obviously a master of rhyme, form and imagery, I couldn’t shake the thought that this is poetry for people who don’t really read (or like) poetry. It all feels a little bit juvenile for my liking, too much biblical allegory.

Since I spend a lot of time reading, editing and selecting short story submissions for this very site, I also like to keep in touch with the wider world of shorts from time to time so I have some idea of what I’m taking about. That’s why – in the short time available – I went to the library and picked up a copy of Colin Barrett’s Young Skins. Set in and around the rural Irish town of Glanbeigh, a desolate arena of fuck-ups, buffoons and beefheads, these are stories that trace the scars of youth with a singular voice. It is dominated by Calm With Horses, the longest story in the collection. Calm With Horses was recently adapted into a film, brutal and dark, but the story surpasses it. Brimming with unforgettable characters, it expertly establishes the unsettling silences in which we struggle to make sense of ourselves and the world that shapes us. 

It took me some time to really settle into Brick Lane (Monica Ali). At the outset, there is much ado about laying the foundations for the vibrancy of the novel’s latter stages, which at times feels tedious, a chore to be ticked off before the real story starts. But once it does, it’s richly rewarding, hopping from Camden to Dhaka and back with consummate fluidity. It focuses on Nazneen, a 16-year old Bangladeshi girl married off to a 40-year old fat guy in London. She begins a disorientating new life in a new country whose language she does not understand, and is at the mercy of her husband’s buffoonish whims and dwindling earning power. It urges reflection on the ways in which passivity is imposed on women in both Muslim and Western cultures, unveils a detailed and empathetic tapestry of the immigrant experience in early 21st– Century Britain and does it all with humour and gravity. A great read, and worth the penance of the first fifty or so pages.

We’re coming up to winter in the timeline now. The weather had taken a turn, which meant less running, and lockdown restrictions were beginning to tighten once again. Faced with endless grey days spent inside, I read ravenously, finishing three books in the next month. The first of these was Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo. I had recently read Hall’s BBC National Short Story Award-winning The Grotesques, loved it, and luckily managed to find one of her novels in the bookshop. The Electric Michelangelo is a novel of love, loss and the art of tattooing written in bravura prose. Where it really excels is in its depiction of life in seaside resorts on opposite sides of the Atlantic. First, windswept, tuberculosis-ridden Morecambe, followed by the riotous freak-show of Coney Island. It is sensuous, atmospheric and suffused with a love of eccentricity and a thirst for experience. At times, the lyricism of the prose gets in the way of the narrative, talking itself in circles, but that’s a minor quibble. Hall is a wonderful writer, and this is a novel that I feel sure I will come back to again. 

Next, I read A Most Wanted Man, a later work of the recently departed John le Carre. I’ve always thought – erroneously – of le Carre as just another author of fiction for the masses. I’m not sure why; it probably has to do with the sheer volume of his authorial output. Like I say, that’s wrong. The only previous book of his that I have read was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which was excellent, but set in a world and a time I have no personal insight into. A Most Wanted Man brings the archetypal le Carre themes –ideological conflicts and red-tape frustrations– into a world more recognisable. He does have a penchant for excessive detail and description, but it never veers close to the mundane. The novel crackles with electric dialogue and the whole thing simmers with repressed tension that threatens to boil over. The characterisation is competent rather than virtuosic, and I was never quite convinced by the love angle which surfaces between two of the protagonists. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, with le Carre’s passing, the world has lost a writer with an almost unparalleled ability to produce clever, timely and relevant novels for large audiences, and that’s a shame. 

And so we come to the final book of 2020 (well, the last one I completed). The Descendants, written by Kaui Hart Hemmings and popularised by the film adaptation starring George Clooney, felt timely in a way. Even though it is set in the upper-class suburbs of Hawaii and centred on the question of what the island’s largest landowners will do with it all, the through-line of this book is the struggle to identify what kind of world we want to leave for those that come after us. Right now, we’re all concerned with getting back to a world we can live safely and prosperously in, never mind future generations. But there must surely be a reckoning with the headlong recklessness that led us to this juncture in the first place, and a long and deep consideration of how we can guard against it in the future. The Descendants doesn’t deal with anything so bleak as a global pandemic, but it does explore the burden of our responsibility to those who follow in our wake. It’s a solid novel; you probably won’t relate to its protagonist, but it does contain stirring passages and evokes a melancholy relaxation in which we can reflect on the trails we ourselves will leave. 

And that’s it. The Year In Books, again. I’m currently reading – along with all the brilliant New Critique submissions – Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I’m only halfway through it, so I’ll save my verdict and summary for next year (hopefully an annus less horribilis than this). This ended up being much longer than intended, much like 2020 – which appears to have lasted for twenty years – so if you’ve got this far: thank you and well done indeed. Let us know what you’ve read this year, how it’s helped you get through, and what you plan to read more of in 2021. 

See you on the other side.

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James McLoughlin is a creative editor at New Critique.