It feels silly to say books saved my life this year. But it also feels true. Like many people, I found it harder to read in 2020. There were many periods during which I was too distracted. It was harder than normal to concentrate and I was further inhibited by guilt that the “extra time” somehow mysteriously amounted to less time. The thing is, when I could overcome the distraction (I’m here picturing slaying the small gods of the devices, victory!) and my mind could settle enough to sit with someone, it was a book - that unmasked and uncontagious old friend.
There was an article in the Canadian national newspaper early December that poked fun at the idea of “Best Of Lists” for 2020 (“This wasn’t the year for bold visions, brave new waves, or Best Of’s. This was the year for comfort viewing [and] cry listening.”) It is in this spirit that I offer my Best Of list, not as a triumphant catalogue, but as a scrappy survival pack. These books were for me fellow soldiers, brief respites, and companions in the dark. I read them desperately. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Whatever gets you through.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
I have loved Samantha Hunt for a couple years (devoured The Dark Darktwo years ago) but am so glad I ended up saving this, her first novel, till now. It is haunting and gloomy and close to perfect. Hunt makes the plain feel mythic and the mythic feel visceral. I felt less concerned with being understood while reading this book; as if my interior life had its own substantive reality divorced from the collective. It also made me want to swim (and swim and swim). Luckily I read it in summer.
Abigail by Magda Szabo
I think I went through a sort of reckoning with my girlhood this year, which I will not get into except to notice how it played out in this list of books. There are multiple on the list written from the point of view of adolescent girls, two, even, taking place in all girls boarding schools. Abigailis one of these. I became very invested in this novel.
Cynthia Zarin, wrote in the New Yorker that “ to read Szasbo is to be turned inside out, - as if our own foibles have been written in soap on the mirror, to be read when we wake up from the trance of our own self-importance.” She was writing about another one of Szasbo’s novels, The Door,but the same could said about Abigail. Over the course of the story a suspenseful mystery unfolds, but I read less for that and more for the feeling the blunt writing (translated from Hungarian by Len Rix) left me with: the sense that thought, action and emotion (along with history and the sensations of living) all have equal value and untangling them is just a matter of laying them out, side by side.
Here the Dark by David Bergen
The launch of this book is one of those common events that becomes uncommon, immortalized even, by circumstances that follow it. Like eating a day old veggie burger the day you go into labor. I remember this book launch as the evening before the pandemic hit, or, my last evening out in the world before. It was early March, and I remember people crowding in to get a closer seat, a friend coming up behind me and kissing me on the cheek.
This experience, and the fact the author is a close friend, may bias me towards the book. But I think I can objectively say that this is a beautiful collection of stories. They are tight and clever, ambitious and emotional. I want to write like David Bergen. My favourite story in the book is about a boy and a girl and a tragedy in Vietnam. It is so deeply sensitive to multiple cultural perspectives that it almost feels cultureless; dealing directly with basic human feeling and action; acute and painful. I am also realizing as I write this, that this is the only male-authored book on this list. While this was in no way intentional, I am happy Bergen occupies the spot.
The Shame by Makenna Goodman
I fell down a Makenna Goodman rabbit hole after reading her book. I watched all her virtual book tour interviews, read many things she recommended (some of which made this list), and laughed at her article on buying underwear. My obsessive response to The Shame is perhaps ironic, as the book itself chronicles a similar fall into fixation and asks provocative questions about slippery internet identities, our appetites, and how women view other women. My husband suggests that there’s a metanarrative here, and that I could write about that, but I read this book so hungrily I find it hard to even think about with any perspective or distance.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
The way power moves in Ferrante is tantalizing. I am a better person and thinker while reading her. I am thrilled by her ideas and by the elemental way she expresses them. Her themes—rigor, indulgence, materiality and the cerebral—are reflected in her style and become my point of view as I read. I am validated in my small thoughts. There is a type of almost naive intellectualism that I recognize and crave in her writing. Emotion becomes of utmost importance, while it also remains fluid and changing. This is perhaps crucially different from what is maybe a North American mindset: that emotions don’t matter, but what you feel is a marker of your identity. The Lying Life of Adults might be my very favourite Ferrante, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Musasonga
This is the second book about girls in a boarding school book on my list. It is additionally comparable to Abigail in that it takes place during a time of horrific political crisis. It is set in Ruanda during the civil war leading up to the genocide, in a lychee at the mouth of the Nile. I find it hard to describe this book and the effect it had on me. On one hand, I registered Musasonga’s almost holy project: of bringing to life the terror and resurrecting the lost. On the other, it felt easy and almost lighthearted to read. It is short and rich with vibrant life. I was heartbroken after finishing it, not just because of the horror of this true story, but also because I missed and longed to return to central Africa.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
As a loyal Robinson fan, I was slightly disappointed by this, her fourth book in the Gilead set. It had all the markers of her work, being wholesome and grounding and quiet and wise. But it was sad, and I was sad reading it. This said, it makes the list because sometimes sadness is ok and Robinson remains one of the only authors I would trust to walk me through the dark.
Fair Play by Tove Jansson.
Tove Jansson (along with Annie Ernaux and Amelie Nothomb) was a revelation to me this year. A how-did-I-not-know-about-you-till-now-discovery. Ali Smith, in her introduction to Fair Play, tells readers to “expect something philosophically calm and discreetly radical” from this book. I found it a very satisfying quarantine read. It follows the simple living and coupledom of two older women. There is a quiet sort of stubbornness in both characters that is charming and inspiring. It made me excited for the work of getting old. It made me excited to make art in a less romantic, more pragmatic sense. It also made me want a cabin on an island in the cold with an old boat.
Strike your Heart by Amelie Nothomb
This book reads like a troubling modern day fairy tale. It is whimsical and plaintive at once. Narrated from the point of view of a first born daughter whose mother doesn’t love her, Nothomb accomplishes what I thought only Ian McEwan (in his book Nutshell) could: the (trustworthy and readable) perspective of an infant. The story plays with themes of motherhood and attachement (the mother has a second daughter whom she loves feircely) that I gobbled right up. I only wished it was longer.
The Years by Annie Ernaux
Phew. The pacing of this memoir, written in the first person plural, is unlike anything else. It rushes and then breaks up and then spirals and I am hard pressed to think of a metaphor that is not water. I underlined half of it. I ordered more of Ernaux’s books. I felt the almost visceral presence of history. I doubled back. The infinite present tense felt like being on the internet, in that one is always racing to keep up, but never manages. But it also felt better than the internet because it wasn’t the internet. It was fixed (words to the page, my body with the book) and so I could catch up, stop and give proper attention. I identified deeply with the frantic ache to write minutes and moments into permanency, the harried losses of early motherhood, and both the comfort and the regret in knowing that my singular experience will never mean as much as the collective.