It’s hard to know what to say about 2020. I’m so tired of the vagueness of talk about ‘these extraordinary times’, but at a loss for how to describe them for myself.
I suppose I could talk about my 2020. In a nutshell: it sucked, but not as much as it might have. I made it through to the other end with a job (albeit with a 20% pay cut), a home – a new one. I finally escaped from my seven-person shared house into a much smaller, somewhat Covid-safer environment. My new landlady has a dog. I’m healthy. My loved ones are healthy too.
In the other hand, like so many, I can count the number of times I’ve seen my family this year on one hand – my brother is clinically vulnerable, so he and my mum have spent the year even more isolated than I have. My gran became very sick and died during the first lockdown in March – I couldn’t say goodbye or grieve with my family. My dog died right before lockdown started, too. My mental health has taken a massive hit. I don’t sleep well.
Within that: I read lots. There was a long period there were nothing brought me any comfort or enjoyment aside from books, and I clung to that. I feel closer to my friends than I ever have, even though I’ve barely seen most of them this year. I got really into cooking, and I’m getting pretty good at it. I did a lot of knitting, and I’m getting better at that too. I started a bookstagram account, and I’m really enjoying curating that space. It’s my little corner of the internet filled with the things that I love.
This is how I have existed in ‘these extraordinary times’. I built a Covid bunker out of books, filling my head with stories in a mostly fruitless effort to push the anxiety out. But it wasn’t all for nothing – yes, I’m still anxious, but the reading was excellent. Here are a few of my favourites…
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
One of my first pandemic reads, City of Girls lifted my heart at a time I desperately needed it. There’s an entire life in this book – one filled with fun, sex, adventure, self doubt, utter and complete failure and fuck up, destruction, rebuilding, loss and how you go about continuing life after it – there are even periods of contentment. As well as being an incredibley thrilling ride through the roaring twenties in the theatre world of New York City, something about this novel offers some much needed hopeful perspective on things. It’s a visceral reminder that a life is so much greater than the sum of its parts – that there is always, always something just around the corner. And not only that, but, whether you believe it or not – you’re ready to meet it.
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This BOOK. Written like a series of transcribed interviews with one of the most iconic bands of the 1970s, Daisy Jones & The Six narrates the drug-fuelled, heartbreaking, exhilarating years of the eponymous band’s meteoric rise and explosive split, with singer-songwriter Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne at its addictive, star-crossed centre. A book about how people – and relationships – crumble under the weight of ego (and lots and lots of drugs), soul mates (the fucked up, destructive kind), the bitter cost of fame, and maybe, eventually, a little bit of healing. And music. Lots and lots of music.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
On the spectrum of responses to Normal People, I come down strongly on the side of love. It is a book about all of the small and big ways we can meet each other and fail each other over the course of a relationship. As close as we might think we are to somebody, we’re only ever parallel lines, and in that space between lie endless possibilities for connection – and, as Sally Rooney is far more interested in, misunderstanding. Connor and Marianne, the dual narrators of Normal People, fail and hurt each other in seemingly endless combinations throughout this often frustrating (or, depending on the type of person you are, uncomfortably confronting) book about figuring out how to love someone for their entire, complicated self – while bringing your entire, complicated self, open and vulnerable, to the table.
The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Daré
This book was one of my biggest surprises this year. We were sent a copy at work and it hung around the office for ages (that’s how long I’ve had it for – since back when I still went into the office!) before I eventually claimed it for myself – where it proceeded to get bumped off the top of the TBR for the next several months. Sometimes it goes that way. If you’re making the same mistake, I suggest you bump it up to your next read. This book is powerful, emotive and utterly addictive. The story of one young girl, Adunni, and her determination to get an education despite facing the devastating loss of her mother, forced marriage and other immense challenges that would take us into spoiler territory to name, once you start reading you won’t be able to put The Girl With The Louding Voice down until you find out how Adunni’s story ends. True to its title, it is the vibrance of the narrative voice that made this novel stand out. Adunni’s personality is huge and encompassing, and I fell completely in love with her faster and with greater force than I have with a protagonist in a long time. I read this book with a sort of desperation, rapidly flipping the pages, hoping against hope Adunni would get the ending she deserved. Daré is a powerful writer, and I am greatly looking forward to reading whatever she comes out with next.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
At this point it’s fair to say I am a fully paid up member of the cult of Bardugo. After Six of Crows I didn’t think it was possible for me to love her any more – then she goes and throws THIS into the mix. Like Veronica Mars meets Buffy by way of Gilmore Girls (the Yale years), this is a thrilling dual narrative split between Alex Stern (one-time drug dealer, natural ghost see-er of traumatic and mysterious origins) and Daniel Arlington ‘Darlington’, for all appearances the typical Yale rich kid (aside from the whole ‘I can see dead people’ (with the help of substances, anyway) thing) that centres on three key mysteries: what exactly are the origins of Alex Stern? Who is the murderer currently prowling the campus? And what the heck happened to Alex and Darlington that sees the book start with her bloodied and alone in her apartment and him, apparently, vanished?
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
This sprawling, evocative and utterly unique book throws you into 12 vastly different lives. Told mostly from the perspective of Black, British women, this novel of interconnected but separate narratives spanning continents and centuries doesn’t spend much time with each of its characters, but completely immerses you in their lives. The 12 portraits are empathetic but sharp – they dig deep into challenging territory of racism, trauma and heartbreak, but very equally into the satirical, where no one is let off the hook. It gives these women such authenticity and complexity that you feel robbed when their stories end – even as you’re eager to meet the next.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
I can’t decide whether I want Jia Tolentino to be my best friend, or if I just want to live inside of her brain. I love a book of essays, but Trick Mirror took the form to a level of cut throat relevancy I have never experienced before. These works are so of the moment, so cutting and so minutely observed on all things pop culture, feminism, race and politics that I spent half the time shaking the book and aggressively nodding my approval and the other face palming and screaming (internally, obvs): HOW have I never thought of that?! Whether she’s skewering #GirlBoss feminism, the cult of athleisure or her own performance on a little known reality TV show, her perspective is revealing, thrilling and deeply cathartic. Please, just read it.
And there we have it! Well, plus Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Intimations by Zadie Smith, both of which I have read in the last week and fallen utterly in love with. We’ll talk about those more in 2021, I guess.
If you made it to the end of this post, first, thank you. Second, tell me, what are some of the books that got you through 2020?
Happy New Year friends. I don’t know what to expect from this coming year, but there will be good books, and there is comfort in that ❤