Books from Lockdown
My 2020 fiction reading list
I hesitate to say that the first lockdown gave me more time to read but the slower pace of weekends, and fewer alternatives, meant I was able to get through more fiction books than normal.
Throughout last year I kept a note of these books, in part to track what I’d read, but also to see if I could learn anything about what makes a book good for me. To keep things interesting, I tried to read a mix of the different genres I enjoy – from the ‘New Vanguard’ of women writers to historical and science fiction.
In general, I learned that the spaces in which the stories take place really stick with me. I can instantly recall the dusty fields of A Different Drummer or the uncomfortable, uneasy feel of Frances' flat in Conversations with Friends. And while both Kerala (The God of Small Things) and the island of Aeaea (Circe) are lush settings, they had almost completely opposite effects on me given the stories that take place within them. The dense wildlife of Circe’s home grants her freedom and power, the rubber plants and foliage of Ayemenem are claustrophobic and suffocating. How characters move about, interact, and think in these spaces is really important and particularly poignant given how static everyday (real) life is currently.
The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey – 3/5 Interesting world and main character, but the plot was a little uninspired. The revelations at the end of what was essentially a dark ages whodunnit were underwhelming nor did they feel 100 percent coherent. The book did capture the day-to-day rigmarole of life at that time quite well, and the relationship between the priest and his parishioners was interesting.
Exhalation, Ted Chiang – 4/5 Some really excellent, immersive short stories (the opening story about one-way time-traveling windows, another about sentient digital pets), some that were good but not amazing (an archaeological story about Creationism), and others that missed the mark (about a mechanical nurse). The collection was an interesting read, and it was the first time I’ve read a curated set of short stories, but I wasn’t blown away.
Now we shall be entirely free, Andrew Miller – 4.5/5 Immersive historical fiction, with excellent pacing. I liked that the chase was the most important part of the novel and Miller’s use of clever pairings of characters (a deaf man falls for a blind woman). It avoided the cliches of a romance, and the 19th century setting felt particularly vivid. I found the beginning a bit slow and felt out of place compared to the rest of the book, but the rest more than made up for it.
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney – 4/5 I really like Rooney’s style, and how she documents the mundane aspects of life — similar to other contemporary novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry or Rachel Cusk’s Outline, that are much more about the emotional story than the ‘physical’ plot. I found it jarring that, despite Frances being so introspective, she had this blindspot for her own precocious intelligence. Someone that sensitive to their own self would surely be more critical of their convictions. This could be deliberate, but I’m not so sure – across both Normal People and Conversations with Friends Rooney seems to privilege academic intelligence that divorces it from the characters' self-awareness.
Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow – 4/5 A nice coming-of-age story, and I really enjoyed the historical backdrop – it was quite steampunk. The ‘power of words’ device that charges the novel was really cool but not entirely convincing. I don’t think it would have hurt the novel to have just a bit more world-building around the magic itself. I did think that the settings, particularly Nin and Yule Ian’s world, were very well done – they were a mixture of His Dark Materials’s universe-hopping and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West transporting.
A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley – 5/5 Exactly the kind of book I like, and one of my top three books this year (along with God of Small Things and Unsheltered). It had the slight pastoral element that reminded me of William Faulkner, but also elements of Paul Auster too — particularly when he turns to Dewey Willson and his father. I thought that the way he weaved the physical movements of the different characters was really clever. The final chapter — going back to the child Mister Leland – was shocking; it managed to capture the innocence of children contrasted with the brutality of Southern racism. It leaves this horrific hint of how a child might grow up unwittingly to become part of the racist institution.
God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy – 5/5 Really excellent. I found it hard to get into at first, but probably because the style is very different to the books I’d read immediately before. The book is a tragedy, and you spend a lot of time trying to work out how the foreshadowed event plays out. There is a moment near the end where it clicks, and it was satisfyingly different from what I expected. I like how Roy used the similes and wordplay of children, and captured how such dark events would appear to a child. The jumbling of time periods worked well. Unlike A Different Drummer where the physical paths of the actors crisscross, here it is the events of multiple time periods that cross, with Roy weaving tragedies that play out across multiple generations of the same (almost cursed) family.
Circe, Madeline Miller – 4/5 Very enjoyable and stitched together Greek myths I was aware of (Theseus and the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, the Odyssey) with other parts of Greek mythology that I was much less aware of (birth of the Minotaur, creation of Scylla, end of Odyseus’ life). It was a nice contrast to Song of Achilles, whose story is very active and roaming in its geography. That said, at times the static nature of the book’s location made the stories a little piecemeal. I really enjoyed the final few chapters, and the portrayal of motherhood was really moving. I also really enjoyed how Miller builds Circe as a character who is immortal but far less powerful than others in the world (both immortal and mortal).
Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver – 5/5 Brutally depressing, particularly at the beginning, and a little close for comfort in terms of how it charts the trials and tribulations of academic careers! I like how the central themes of the book revealed themselves slowly – the environmental and anti-capitalist narrative develops as the novel progresses. I enjoyed alternating between time periods (unsurprisingly) and the parallels were really clever. The linking words (some phrase in the last paragraph of the previous chapter becomes the title of the next) felt a little unnecessary, but overall I loved this book.
Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker – 4.5/5 Enjoyed this cover to cover – unlike Miller’s retelling of the Illiad, this is clearly magical realism rather than mythology. Barker’s treatment of the death of Patroclus was particularly good, and the ending was very powerful. The particularly enjoyed the frankness of Briseis (and the other captured women) – it realises their agency despite their physical confinement. Despite the horrors of their treatment, Barker makes this a story of defiance even if in ways that, on face-value, might be interpreted as defeat (hence the title I guess).
Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Christopher Beha – 2/5 I just never got into this book. I was hoping it would be Auster-like in its setting, but both the story and the writing style felt thin and uninteresting. The group of wealthy/famous individuals who fall from grace are not only unlikable (which would be fine), but also a bit boring. At times I was drawn in, but more of the time the book felt like an airport novel. The baseball link was underdone, the discussion of statistics and rational action weak, and the story just seemed to sputter on.
Everything Under, Daisy Johnson – 4/5 Really enjoyable, in a brutal kind of way. The tone is murky throughout, like the churn of canal water, and it was tiring (in a good way) to read the main character Gretel addressing her mother directly. The Oedipus retelling was clever, though I found the concept of the Bonak a little too complicated at times – I’m not sure I fully got the resolution scene near the end. But the story has stuck with me, and it really captured the gnarly world of the canal.
A Drop of Patience, William Melvin Kelley – 5/5 A more straightforward, linear story than A Different Drummer but almost as powerful. Some of the same ideas come through here – whether blacks should cater for whites (in this case as consumers of music), the awkwardness of liberal white attitudes, and what drives people’s ambitions. I found Ludlow a compelling character – he is really flawed – and Kelley cleverly distinguishes between the character’s genuine inner monologue and his speech as a way of highlighting these imperfections.