Books of the Year 2020

I’ve read more books this year than I’ve ever read in a year before. It’s been a very strange time, but these are the books published this year that have resonated with me.

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

Tambudzai’s life is not going how she expected. In her 30s, living in a hostel, unemployed, in a country that’s hostile, there are multiple structural barriers preventing her progress. An examination of a woman and a country. A masterpiece. Longer review here.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)

A woman widowed from her abusive husband; her young son, and a gay man hiding his sexuality. Their bond asks the question what really makes a family? Betty, Solo and Mr Chetan have lived in my head since I read this in the first half of the year. Gorgeous. Longer review here.

So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central)

Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection celebrates women and girls. Their triumphs, their tribulations, their crushes, their loves, the way they support each other to rebuild themselves and their lives. The language and the characters fizz. Longer review here.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Macmillan)

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Carey’s memoir isn’t your average celebrity memoir. Open, honest and reflective, Carey looks at her traumatic childhood, her marriage to Tommy Mottola and her career. A fascinating insight into who she is and how she became one of the most successful singers in the world.

The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)

The story of three women, in three different time periods, lived in the shadow of the Bass Rock. They’re linked by what one of Wyld’s minor characters – the brilliant Maggie – describes as a serial killer: toxic masculinity. Maggie’s idea of a map showing places where women have been killed by men has haunted me all year, as has the final page of the novel. Longer review here.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Named for Shakespeare’s son who died – probably of plague – and the play that was probably written about Shakespeare’s grief: Hamlet. Really though, this is the story of Agnes (Anne), Shakespeare’s wife. Beautiful and vividly told. O’Farrell’s well-deserved acclaim was long overdue. Longer review here.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (Picador)

A novel in two-parts exploring Natsuko’s sister’s desire for breast implants and then Natsuko’s questions around whether or not she wants a child. An examination of the expectations placed on women from a working class Japanese perspective with a bonus send-up of the literary industry. Longer review here.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)

A ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive, same-gender relationship. It questions notions of the canon through a range of devices and genres while delivering a devastating portrait of domestic abuse. Longer review here.

Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz (Faber)

An investigation of the body as a site of trauma and of desire. Diaz connects the body to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. This is also a celebration of queer love and language that elevates and transcends. Longer review here.

Bad Love – Maame Blue (Jacaranda Books)

19yo Ekuah has an on / off affair with up-and-coming musician Dee. Later she meets English teacher and spoken word night organiser Jay Stanley. The two men exert different pulls on her life, but Ekuah has to work out how she wants to live. I was rooting for her all the way. Longer review here.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King (Picador)

Casey’s in her 30s. Single, a waitress trying to write a novel, living in her brother’s friend’s shed, she meets two men: Silas is a teacher and a writer, but unreliable; Oscar is slightly older, an established writer, widowed with two young boys. Casey has to decide whether to accept or reject a conventional life. I wrote about her choices for the Pan Macmillan blog.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

Okojie is the queen of stories that take you to unexpected places. Her latest collection is a wild ride of time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. The incredible ‘Grace Jones’, about an impersonator and her past, deservedly won the 2020 AKO Cane Prize. Slightly longer review here.

Thanks to the publishers (as listed) for This Mournable Body, The Bass Rock, Hamnet, Breasts and Eggs, and Writers & Lovers. All other books are my own purchases.

Reading Diary #2

It’s been longer than I thought it would be, but life, eh? Here are some of the things I’ve read since last time. I recommend all of these…

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)

Ingrid Persaud’s stunning debut novel Love After Love asks what makes a family? When her abusive husband dies, 40-year-old Betty takes a lodger in the form of Mr Chetan. Along with Betty’s young son, Solo, they become a family – of sorts. But the revelation of a terrible secret sends Solo to New York, after which Mr Chetan decides to move into his own place.

Held together by a thread, Betty begins dating again, Mr Chetan rediscovers an old flame, and Solo gets to know his uncle and cousins. Told in patois, this is a lyrical and beautiful portrayal of single motherhood, a young man finding his place, and a gay man who has to hide his sexuality in a country that doesn’t accept him. Love After Love is a big, beating heart of a book.

Fleishman Is In Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire)

I avoided this novel for months because I thought I was going to hate it. Reader, I loved it. 41-year-old Toby Fleishman is enjoying his new-found freedom. His favourite dating app is full of up-for-it women who he doesn’t even need to take to dinner first, he has a great job as a doctor, and shared custody of his two kids. Then his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Rachel, disappears and he’s left juggling work, dates and playdates. 

I’m a sucker for a woman walks out of her life narrative, but this one is especially delicious. Toby’s story is narrated by his ‘crazy’ friend Lizzie, who’s known him for twenty years. This allows the cracks in Toby’s narrative to be exposed, revealing not only the lies he’s told about his marriage but also how readers of the Great American Novel have been lied to by white male writers for decades. A pitch-perfect rendition of heterosexual (middle class) marriage. 

Glass Town – Isabel Greenberg (Jonathan Cape)

Isabel Greenberg’s latest graphic novel interweaves Brontë history and their juvenilia. Charlotte is alone, following the deaths of her siblings. Her creation Charles Wellesley returns to Charlotte from Glass Town and convinces her to write one more story. From here Greenberg goes back in time, imagining the initial creation of the Brontës’ worlds as Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell grow up. In Greenberg’s version, the ‘real’ and imaginary worlds melt into each other creating a metafictional delight, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the Brontës. 

Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner (Borough Press)

As you might have noticed from this list, there’s a special place in my heart for stories focused on women over 40. Okay, so Manon Bradshaw, protagonist of Susie Steiner’s excellent debut crime novel, is 39, but it’s close enough and she’s a hero. She’s single, internet dating a string of ‘fucktards’ and scraping by when it comes to dealing with domestic matters. 

Bradshaw’s investigating the disappearance of a young woman from the home she shared with her boyfriend. We get chapters from the perspective of the young woman’s mother, her best friend, and also Bradshaw’s partner at work, DC Davy Walker. 

There are a couple of things about this book that make it different from your average police procedural: it shows how information can trickle through in investigations, or indeed stop entirely for a while, and it made me snort laugh more than once. Quite something, as I read it at one of my lowest ebbs during the lockdown. There are now three books in the series, the latest having been published last month. I’ve already got my hands on both follow-ups. 

My Shitty Twenties – Emily Morris (Salt)

Age 22, studying full-time, working part-time and partying hard, Morris discovers she’s pregnant. The father’s response to Morris’ decision to keep the baby is to tell her to Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vommity twenties. Goodbye and with that, Morris becomes a single parent. 

Her memoir takes us through the pregnancy considering her fears, the amount of stuff you need (and how much it costs), and how her family and friends reacted to the news. Morris is open and honest about the good and the bad and, most impressively, has created a page-turner. The TV show is being created as I type; I can’t wait to see Morris’ story on screen. 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Kathleen Rooney (Daunt Books)

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a walk across Manhattan and through her whole adult life. Boxfish, inspired by 1930s advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback, has quite a story. A working woman who rises to prominence as a poet and ad writer in a time when it was rare; a divorcee; a mother of a grown son. But this is also the story of NYC and its inhabitants. As the night progresses, Lillian meets a driver, a family out for a celebration meal, some newly made friends with an unconventional lifestyle, and a street gang. Lillian holds her own throughout. A tale of a smart woman and a smart city.

All review copies from publishers as listed, except Love After Love and Glass Town which are my own copies.

BBC National Short Story Award: The Sweet Sop – Ingrid Persaud

Day four, ‘The Sweet Sop’ by Ingrid Persaud.

The Sweet Sop (Extract)
Ingrid Persaud

If is chocolate you looking for, and I talking real cheap, then you can’t beat Golden MegaMart Variety & Wholesale Ltd in Marabella. Think of a Costco boil down small small but choke up with goods from top to bottom. When me and Moms had that holiday in Miami by her brother we were always in Costco. But till they open a Costco in Trinidad go by Golden MegaMart. They does treat people real good. As soon as I reach they know I want at least thirty jars of Nutella chocolate spread. And don’t play like you giving me anything else. I tell them I have my reasons and that is what I want. But they always trying. Just last week you should hear them.

‘Eh, Slim Man, we get a nice chocolate. It just come out. Rocky Mallow Road. Why you don’t eat a good chocolate nah man instead of this chocolate in a bottle?’

‘I good.’

‘Is Cadbury I talking about. Try one nah. On the house.’

‘Look don’t hurt me head with no foolishness. And hurry up. Man have taxi waiting.’

I never used to eat chocolate all the time so. If is anything, give me a pack of peanuts or green mango with salt and pepper. Anything salty and I in that. Everything changed when my old man Reggie died. Now the only thing I eat is sliced bread with Nutella. Moms think I am going mad. I might be going mad. That is a question for the doctor them to decide. But what is as true as Lara can play cricket is that I am getting fat. Man, let’s give Jack his jacket. I am enormous.

Computer work like I have mean you don’t need to leave the house. In fact, most of the people I work for operating the same way rather than in an office set up. To stop me and Moms getting all up in each other’s business, I turned the garage into a studio apartment as soon as I started working. I have my own toilet and bath and a small kitchen with a fridge. She is in the house proper but this way me and Moms don’t have to bounce up every day. I am not a man to take more than two-three little drink but you see that woman. Ah lord. When she start up with she stupidness I does want to take a rum straight from the bottle. Is always the same tune. Victor, this bread and chocolate thing is your father fault, god rest he soul. You should have followed my example and don’t have nothing to do with he. One minute you was a good looking, normal, young man and then that worthless devil sit on your head. Now look at you. You is one big booboloops. You forget how to reach the gym? I don’t understand what happen to you. You don’t go out. You only home eating this bread and chocolate morning, noon and night. Chocolate and bread, bread and chocolate, chocolate and bread. Watch me. Your heart can’t carry this size. Keep up this madness and you go be using a plot in Paradise Cemetery before me.

Born in Trinidad, Ingrid Persaud has had lives as a legal academic teaching at King’s College London, a Goldsmith College and Central St Martins trained visual artist and a project manager. Although she came to writing later in life, she has always been preoccupied with the power of words, both in her academic work and her exploration of text as art. Persaud is the 2017 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her work has appeared in Granta, Prospectand Pree Her physical homes are London and Barbados which she shares with ‘The Husband, teenaged twin boys, a feral chicken and two rescue dogs’.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now: https://commapress.co.uk/books/the-bbc-national-short-story-award-2018