2020 in review: The year that was

Top 10 fiction books of 2020

Novels that hit out at the establishment, stories that wore their sexual identity on their sleeve, tales that took on age-old hatreds headlong — our list of the 10 books of fiction that stood out in 2020, arranged in no particular order

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Apeirogon

by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

When all political negotiations have failed, can the friendship of two men shine a light of hope on the Israel-Palestine conflict? Colum McCann’s ‘hybrid novel’, straddling fiction and non-fiction, is a touching plea for peace based on the real-life friendship between Israeli graphic designer Rami Elhanan and Palestinian ‘terrorist’ Bassam Aramin. They find common ground in grief — both have lost their daughters to the violence — and bond to the point where they become preoccupied with each other’s perspectives as they campaign for peace. Their stories are interwoven with a host of others over the course of 1,001 chapters of lyrical prose, spanning vast expanses of time and space, myth and reality, in a latter-day version of One Thousand and One Nights. Read review here.

Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

Douglas Stuart joins a potent chorus of contemporary Scottish working-class writers with his Booker Prize-winning debut. Shuggie Bain is a stark critique of Thatcherism, depicting the poverty and squalor of life in the tenements of 1980s Glasgow. The eponymous Shuggie is shaped by these circumstances; by a big, dysfunctional family that includes his philandering father and alcoholic mother; and by his queerness, which makes him an outsider. But it’s Shuggie’s love for his damaged mother that gives the book its heart and beauty. A novel with vintage flavour. Read review here.

A Burning

by Megha Majumdar (Penguin Hamish Hamilton)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

A Muslim girl, Jivan, is arrested for allegedly planting a bomb on a train. As she fights her present circumstances, we learn about her past, populated by characters like PT Sir and Lovely, the hijra. Jivan thought of them as her friends, but when misfortune strikes, they desert her in pursuit of their ambitions. Megha Majumdar’s debut is an emotionally resonant tale of prejudice, human weakness and betrayal. It has the raciness of the thriller and the moral depth of a philosophical novel. Read review here.

The Machine is Learning

by Tanuj Solanki (Macmillan)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

The danger of artificial overintelligence has long been a popular theme in fiction. But Tanuj Solanki does not fall into the killer robot routine; rather, he takes an Orwellian-Kafkaesque turn to make a villain out of a faceless institution. In The Machine is Learning, it is capitalism exemplified in a life insurance corporation that is deploying big data through AI to control lives. Our protagonist is an employee caught between ambition and accountability. His journey to consciousness is the heart of the story. Although he and the other characters are representatives of different world views, Solanki makes sure each is a living, breathing, individuated persona. Read review here.

Chosen Spirits

by Samit Basu (Simon & Schuster India)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

It’s 10 years into the future and Delhi is still choking in smog, but today’s anxieties have become concrete realities in Chosen Spirits. JNU has been demolished to make way for a giant mall; social media is an augmented-reality chimera called The Flow. Bijoyini ‘Joey’ Roy works as an Associate Reality Controller for The Flow, managing the channels of a Flowstar. She and her childhood friend, Rudra, are drawn into a world of corporate intrigue. This is desi cyberpunk, with dark takes on very Indian cultural maladies. Samit Basu excels at world-building, creating a future at once familiar and bizarre. Read review here.

Moustache

by S. Hareesh, translated by Jayasree Kalathil (Harper Perennial India)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

Legends are created by a facial appendage in S. Hareesh’s breakout novel, which won him the JCB Prize 2020. When a Dalit youth, Vavachan, dons a moustache for a policeman’s part in a play, it stays with him, transforming him into a larger-than-life figure. Power dynamics of caste are reversed as the man with the tash becomes a byword for terror. It’s a grand novel of history, caste and Dalit assertion in early-mid 20th-century Kerala, combining realism with fantasy. Hareesh’s stunning descriptions make Kuttanad, with its snaking waterways and colourful characters, come to life. Read review here.

Red Pill

by Hari Kunzru (Scribner UK)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

A Brooklyn author with a writer’s block goes to a literary retreat in Berlin hoping to unblock his creative mind. He spirals downwards instead. The centre’s policy of ultra-transparency and the incitement of a fellow resident leave him disconcerted. In this shattered mental state, he turns to an alt-right media propagandist and comes to believe that the only way out of the confusion is the “red pill” — the revelatory dose of reality which will get him out of the swamp of moral darkness.

Hari Kunzru’s novel, with its forensic analysis of the post-truth netherworld, has been called the “prototype for Trump-era novels to come” and “the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel in its purest form.” His pointed prose is as chilling as it is thrilling. Read review here.

The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories

by Nisha Susan (Context)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

A musician finding love in a chat room; three dancers arranging their sex life over email; troll wars unhinging a writer; a daughter’s cellphone chats making a cook uncomfortable — such stories from Internet-era India make up Nisha Susan’s dazzling debut collection. The heroines of these stories are gloriously messy, damaged, politically incorrect, and you find yourselves in them. The girls stick to each other through thick and thin. Men, when they make that rare appearance, are pallid in comparison to the robustly drawn women. Susan, the co-founder of the feminist website The Ladies Finger and of the 2009 Pink Chaddi campaign, makes the personal the political. Read review here.

Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan (Penguin Random House)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

To get over the lockdown blues, do you want to fly away to sun-kissed Capri, attend a lavish wedding, ogle at delectable men and do ‘puppy yoga’ to blow off steam, all the while sitting in your couch? Start reading Sex and Vanity, which, in inimitable Kevin Kwan style, is brimful of bling and the snob’s guide to high living. Described as a homage to E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, Sex and Vanity is about the poor little rich girl, Lucie Barclay Churchill, daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a true-blue New Yorker father. She has always suppressed the Asian side of herself till she meets George Zao. Does Lucie’s hatred of Zao conceal helpless love? Will she be able to move beyond her WASP upbringing to follow Zao? More Barabara Cartland than Forster, Sex and Vanity is the perfect antidote to pandemic pains. Read review here.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First

by Karuna Ezara Parikh (Picador India)

Top 10 fiction books of 2020
 

The debut novel of poet, former television anchor, and model, Karuna Ezara Parikh, The Heart Asks Pleasure First is an exquisite love story of a young Indian ballet student and a young Muslim lawyer from Pakistan. They meet accidentally at a park in Wales on a sunny day and the inevitable happens. But the forces of history are out to get them: as 9/11 and the attack on Parliament take place, religious prejudices rear their head even in small-town Wales, and the two must fight for their beliefs. Is it possible to find a personal truth which is untouched by the great forces of history, politics and old hatreds? Like Anna and Vronsky, Helen and Paris before them, Parikh’s lovers too discover that the world never forgives transgressions. A notable debut that bravely tackles some tough, niggling questions of love and faith. Read review here.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 12:19:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/top-10-fiction-books-of-2020/article33411101.ece

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