A Look at the Best Books of 2020

Lee Polevoi

 

In 2020, several worthy titles went inexplicably unmentioned by some major news publications. This list of outstanding works of fiction that follows is an attempt to redress the injustice.

 

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

 

Emily St. John Mandel, author of the stunning 2014 novel, Station Eleven, followed that achievement with an even more striking work of fiction this year. The Glass Hotel revolves around two events: the collapse of a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme in 2008 and, years later, a woman falling (or being pushed) from the deck of a container ship at sea.

 

In between swirl a variety of interconnected subplots and a host of living, breathing secondary characters. As with Station Eleven, the author is seemingly peerless at shuffling time sequences and points of view in ways that subtly enrich the text, while never disorienting the reader as to where and what is going on.

 

Rich characterizations, fluid handling of both time and perspective, flashes of sharp humor, and near-flawless dialogue—that’s a lot to ask of any novel, and The Glass Hotel has it all.

 

 

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

 

John Banville, among my favorite writers, is almost ridiculously prolific (he published two novels in 2020 alone). The Secret Guests, appearing early in 2020, was written under his pen name, Benjamin Black. The novel imagines what might have happened in 1940 when, fleeing the Luftwaffe bombing of London, Princess Elizabeth, aged 14, and Princess Margaret, aged 11, were relocated from Buckingham Palace to the estate of the Duke of Edenmore in Ireland.

 

Added to this intriguing premise is a wonderful cast of characters, from a female MI5 operative and an Irish police officer charged with protecting their precious cargo, to the duke’s fractious household staff and some threatening Irish revolutionaries.

 

The Secret Guests is designed as what Graham Greene called an “entertainment.” In the masterful hands of Banville/Black, the novel is droll, suspenseful, and delightfully unrelated to world affairs during this plague year.

 

 

Daddy by Emma Cline

 

Emma Cline, author of the acclaimed novel, The Girls, followed up with an impressive collection of short fiction this year. In Daddy, we meet a host of characters (mostly men of a certain age) burdened with various resentments and a history of oblique misdeeds. They share a persistent loneliness, as well as the nagging feeling they may not be cut out for the task of life in any meaningful way. There’s charm in their ineptitude, although as the stories go on, things inevitably darken. Nearly every story ends on a perfect, ambiguous note.

 

Apparently, every generation has to discover for itself just how badly men can behave. It’s not an inspirational message, but in Daddy, it’s delivered with impeccably rendered atmospherics, revealing internal monologues, and wry back-and-forth conversations. Each story is a gem and not to be missed.

 

 

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

 

Daniel Mason, best known for his novel, The Winter Soldier, published a remarkable collection of short fiction in 2020. The stories in A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth cover a wide array of historical settings. These range from England in 1820 (in the breathtaking opening story, “Death of a Pugilist, or the Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw”) and “The Line Agent Pascal,” set in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, to the adventures of a 19th century female balloonist who discovers a “tear” in the firmament.

 

Mason is uncannily good at inhabiting these and other characters from a long-distant past. He’s equally skilled at writing about nature (“It was a warm summer day, one of those particularly gilded morrows when the air swarms with the motes of pollen, and the scent of wet grass rises from the fields …”).

 

The protagonists in A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth are strong-willed, independent men and women experiencing moments of transcendence, crippling loneliness, and newfound love.

 

 

Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant

 

The biggest discovery of my reading year was the work of Canadian author Mavis Gallant, who died in 2014. A hundred or more of her short stories appeared in the New Yorker many years ago, and they feel as fresh and insightful as if they’d been written yesterday.

 

Set in Montreal and later in Paris, where Gallant lived most of her life, the stories glitter with wit, hum with fascinating subtext, and abound in a kind of aristocratic luxury that’s no longer with us. Purely on a sentence-by-sentence level, she wrote some of the most beguiling prose imaginable: “The child was three months old but weedy for his age, with the face of an old man who has lost touch with his surroundings.”

 

Gallant’s stories, collected in Varieties of Exile (2003) and Paris Stories (2002), are among the most outstanding examples of short fiction in the mid-20th century.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is author of The Moon in Deep Winter, and recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.  

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

 

Image Source:

Painting, “The Reading,” by Vittorio Reggianini

 

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