Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.
In “Infinite Splendours” Sofie Laguna exquisitely, compassionately and wrenchingly transmutes the legacy of trauma into art. The story, framed as a tragedy from the start, ominously builds towards a heinous act that shapes the life of a young boy named Lawrence, then cuts forward in time to suffuse readers in its consequences: the shame; the loneliness; the hurt; the gnawing sense of something undone and the elusive chase to make oneself whole again. The material is dark, but the prose is luminous. Laguna — a generational talent — has crafted a harrowing masterpiece.
Inspired by generations of her own family, Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” is the story of Betty Carpenter’s agonising childhood. Born in a bathtub in 1954 — the sixth of eight siblings — to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Berry’s childhood is suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, pockmarked by the poverty, racism and violence imbedded within the DNA of Breathed, Ohio; degraded further by the corrosive secrets imbued within each Carpenter, which gradually corrupts their familial unity. This is an absolutely gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, graced by powerful and poetic prose.
In Douglas Stuart’s Booker-winning debut “Shuggie Bain,” the fates of Agnes Bain and her children are held hostage by her alcoholism. Stuart’s depiction of it is raw, unvarnished and heart breaking. His novel is an absolute triumph, a masterclass portraiture of lives controlled by alcohol and poverty.
It’s hard to describe Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted “Real Life” in a way that conveys its brilliance without making it sound archetypal. It’s one of those novels that defies its plot description through its execution, its greatness stemming from its specificity of character. Ostensibly it’s the coming-of-age story of a college student named Wallace. That Wallace is black, and gay, is significant; so too that events transpire over one weekend. I think what makes “Real Life” truly special is that although Wallace’s struggles are universal, Taylor’s novel doesn’t set out to achieve a universal statement. This is Wallace’s truth; the honest portrayal of his character is what makes his story more than a mere “campus novel.”
Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga returns with “Amnesty,” the story of a day in the life of Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam, an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a murder, and must decide whether coming forward with information that would aid the police investigation is worth the risk of deportation. As he evaluates the morality and consequences of either decision, we learn of Danny’s past, and his daily struggles to survive as a cleaner in Sydney; living in a grocery storeroom under the thumb of its tyrannical owner; wracked by the fear of the authorities who want him expelled; and the desperate measures he must go to in order to assimilate into Australian society. It’s one of best, and most bittersweet novels I’ve read in some time; as a reader, you are burdened by the knowledge that whatever Danny chooses to do, the ramifications will be ruinous.
“The Mother Fault” is a rare creation. It is a work of powerful urgency, a literary thriller decorated with luminous sentences and meditations on motherhood, totalitarianism, love and independence. In painting a realistic portrait of tomorrow, Kate Mildenhall sounds an urgent clarion for today. She has crafted a brilliantly pacy, visceral and intimate adventure story, demonstrating an unparalleled ability to convey tenderness as acutely as violence. “The Mother Fault” is an emotional and political powerhouse.
“Sheerwater” is a nerve-shredder. It’s a novel of urgent, breathtaking suspense that had me turning its pages fast — white-knuckled, goose-fleshed, stomach churning with unease — as I raced towards its mercilessly poignant conclusion. But Leah Swann looks too deeply and evokes too much honest pain for it to be classified as a mere thriller. Her debut novel is as propulsive as it is heart-wrenching. It is powerful and crushing.
“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is an astonishing piece of storytelling; a domestic masterpiece textured by Joyce Carol Oates’ willingness to probe the forbidden places of grief, and extract its intrinsic blackness. It is a work of intense, forensic observation; a microscopic examination of a family undone by a tragic loss against a portrait of modern America.
“The Vanishing Half” is no rehash of the traditional ‘estranged sibling reunion’ narrative. Brit Bennett is incapable of writing something so simplistic. This is a novel about identity: how civilisation has constructed, cemented and propagated our understanding of race and gender over thousands of years, and how difficult it is to break away from society’s imposed categorisation of every faction of humankind. But there’s not a lick of ostentatiousness here. Bennett’s agenda — the novel’s themes — are masqueraded behind rich, graceful prose and characters portrayed so honestly you can almost see into their souls. It works on a macro level because the smaller stories within are so vivid. There is not one false note in this extraordinary novel.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Rodham” is more than a dazzling and seductive alternate history about a world in which Hillary Rodham decided not to marry Bill Clinton to maintain her independence. It’s a searing commentary on the unjust compromises and aspersions faced by female politicians compared to their male counterparts, and how much harder it is for women to make their way in politics, or any facet of public life; any walk of life, in fact. Hillary is merely the vehicle Sittenfeld uses to showcase this inequality; but saturating her fiction in the texture of Hillary’s reality, with one major twist, adds a brilliant vitality to the work, and a layer of verisimilitude that using a totally fabricated character would not have allowed. This narrative decision is utterly seductive, and Sittenfeld clearly had great fun contemplating the seismic ramifications that one different decision might’ve produced.