With pubs, restaurants and cinemas closed for a large part of 2020, many of us turned to reading in our spare time.
A survey published by The Reading Agency found that nearly a third of the population read more than ever during the first lockdown, with seven out of 10 choosing fiction.
Crime and classic literature proved particularly popular and books about fictional epidemics, such as The Plague by Albert Camus and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe saw a boost in sales too.
So what other types of fiction did we snap up this year? All sorts, it seems.
Waterstones’ bestselling hardback novel of 2020 (as of 17 December) was Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, followed by The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, The Sentinel by Lee Child and his younger brother Andrew, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin, Troy by Stephen Fry and Ghosts by Dolly Alderton.
But whatever your literary tastes, there’s no doubt that 2020 has been a vintage year for new hardback fiction. From The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s first novel since her dazzling Neapolitan Quartet, to Douglas Stuart’s brilliant Shuggie Bain, there’s been something for all tastes. Choosing fiction is highly subjective but here’s our own cream of the 2020 crop.
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‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart, published by Picador
Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning debut novel has been garlanded with praise – and rightly so. Shuggie Bain took Stuart 10 years to write and was turned down by more than 30 publishers but it’s an exceptional book that will stand the test of time. Margaret Busby, chair of the Booker judges, said the book is “destined to be a classic – a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values.” Set in Glasgow, it’s the heartbreaking tale of Agnes Bain, a proud, beautiful mother-of-three and her youngest son Shuggie, who desperately tries to save her as she descends into alcoholism.
‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid, published by Bloomsbury Circus
Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Kiley Reid’s debut novel tells the story of Emira, a young black babysitter who’s apprehended at a supermarket for “kidnapping” Briar, the white child she’s looking after. Her employer Alix, a feminist blogger with the best of intentions, resolves to put things right. It’s a smart, funny and beautifully written page-turner that explores the themes of race and privilege in contemporary Philadelphia. It was voted the debut novel of 2020 in the Goodreads Choice Awards.
‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante, published by Europa Editions
Fans queued round the block when Elena Ferrante’s first novel since her Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child) was published in Italy in 2019. UK readers had to wait till 2020 to get their hands on The Lying Life of Adults – but it was well worth it. Ferrante’s coming-of-age tale of a young girl growing up in Naples and trying to make sense of her complicated family is insightful and compelling. If you loved the Neapolitan Quartet you’ll love this too.
‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
It’s 1957 and Jean Swinney is single, nearing 40 and living an uneventful life in the suburbs with her demanding mother. Jean works for a local newspaper and when a young Swiss woman writes in claiming that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth Jean sets out to discover if the story is a miracle or a fraud. Clare Chambers’s first novel in 10 years is an exquisitely written, compassionate read and grabs the reader’s attention from the very first page.
‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan, published by Doubleday
Donal Ryan’s first novel, The Spinning Heart, won the Guardian First Book Award in 2013 and he’s been longlisted twice for the Booker Prize. Strange Flowers is his fifth novel – the tender story of three generations living in rural Ireland. It starts in 1973, when 20-year-old Moll Gladney catches an early morning bus from her home and vanishes without trace. Her parents search for their daughter but fear they’ll never see her again. However, five years later Moll returns home, followed by a man who transforms her family’s life forever. An outstanding read.
‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman, published by Viking
Pointless host Richard Osman got the idea for his debut novel a few years ago, when he visited a retirement community “full of extraordinary people with extraordinary stories”. This story of four unlikely friends who meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders roared into the bestseller lists in September and has stayed there ever since. Joyce, Ibrahim, Ron and the formidable Elizabeth are all pushing 80 and soon find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Smart and absorbing, with the promise of more books to come in the series.
‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig, published by Canongate
Matt Haig is best known for nonfiction titles like Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet but he’s also written six highly acclaimed novels for adults and children’s books too. His latest features 35-year-old Nora Seed, who views her life as one of misery and regret. But when Nora finds herself in the Midnight Library, a shadowy place between life and death, she discovers she can undo her past regrets and plan her perfect life. A highly original, thought-provoking novel, it was voted the novel of 2020 in the Goodreads Choice Awards.
‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell, published by Tinder Press
The 2020 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction focuses on Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare. Eleven-year-old Hamnet died of the plague in 1596 and a few years later his father wrote Hamlet. Hamnet is a book that O’Farrell, the author of books like The Distance Between Us and The Hand that First Held Mine, has wanted to write for more than 30 years. “I’ve always felt Hamnet’s story has been eclipsed, his short life relegated to a literary footnote,” she says. “He gets very little mention in any of his father’s biographies.” This wonderfully evocative novel is a joy to read.
‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel, published by 4th Estate
The third part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son from Putney who rose to become Henry VIII’s feared right-hand man and fixer. It brings to a close the series Mantel began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize. Mantel brings the Tudor court magnificently to life in this dazzling masterpiece of a novel, which Mantel describes as “the greatest challenge of my writing life, and the most rewarding”.
‘The Girl with the Louding Voice’ by Abi Daré, published by Sceptre
Fourteen-year-old Adunni, the spirited heroine of The Girl with the Louding Voice, has ambitions to become a teacher but after the death of her adored mother her father forces her into an abusive marriage with a local taxi driver who already has two wives and four children. When tragedy strikes she flees her husband and is sold as a domestic slave to a wealthy household in Lagos, only to suffer unspeakable cruelty all over again. Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria and was inspired to write her debut novel by her memories of the impoverished housemaids who worked for middle-class families in Lagos.
The verdict: Novels of 2020
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is destined to be a classic, a novel that stayed in our heads long after we finished reading. It’s a tough call but Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan, the tender story of three generations living in rural Ireland, is our runner-up.
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