Best books of 2020: our writers' top picks

Three of our arts writers review their favourite books published over the last year.

multiple writers
14th December 2020
Credit: Goodreads

Exciting times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting times? Naoise Dolan’s debut title is an outright paradox of the time we’ve had this year. That being said, Dolan refers to common things that we are used to now e.g. face masks, since it is set in the heart of the grand metropolis of Hong Kong, where people have been wearing them for several years as a means of filtering air pollution and preventing infectious diseases.

Dolan takes the reader on the adventure of Ava’s somewhat exciting gap year. Flying away from her Irish roots gives Ava time to reflect on several identity traits, two in particular: vulnerability and sexuality; subsequently, Ava lands in a sticky situation when she stays at Julian’s apartment and he pays for everything for Ava but then she falls in love with a lawyer called Edith and lets her stay at Julian’s apartment when he’s in London. Ava is clearly lost in the power dynamic between her and Julian and it is insinuated that this resulted in Ava’s time in Hong Kong being angst-ridden rather than exciting.

Dolan’s writing is niche with a fusion of conflicting motifs

Ava goes on a self-discovery of love which is conflicted with fear – Ava and Edith’s relationship is kept secret, because neither of them are out to their parents. Fear is stemmed from vulnerability, which is apparent when Ava comes across as being very guarded when writing several drafts after breaking up with Edith. With this in mind, Ava has a tendency to misunderstand love – as an English teacher, she questions syntax and the logic behind it and in a similar way finds navigating love complicated. Another trope is class; both Julian and Edith were educated at boarding school and they have high paying jobs. So, if you’re after a Sally Rooney-esque novel with a sprinkle of Queer, exciting times should be on your to-be-read list. For Naoise Dolan, I can tell that this is only the beginning of exciting times.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Published in February, Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice has certainly been one of my favourite reads of this year, as well as one of the most important.

The New York Times bestseller follows the life of fourteen-year-old Adunni from Ikati, Nigeria, who is illegally married off as a minor to raise money for her father. After escaping the abuse of her husband Morufu, Adunni finds herself in Lagos working as a housemaid for Big Madam to suffer her wrath as well. With the encouragement of Kofi and Ms Tia, Adunni applies for a domestic maid scholarship in order to fulfil her mother’s dying wish that she become an educated woman.

NCLA had the privilege of welcoming Daré to talk on November 19th 2020, in conversation with Sinéad Morrissey.

When asked whether the author considers her novel a feminist text, she disclosed that her intention was simply to write something that matters.

Daré began writing from a place of fury about how women are being treated in her home country of Nigeria. Through the voice of Adunni, she was permitted a freedom to express her anger, since the protagonist says it how it is. Daré draws on the real-life condition of black women being silenced throughout society. In the novel, black women of all ages, classes, wealth and positions are silenced and overlooked in favour of their male counterparts. Adunni’s persistence to cultivate a “louding voice” within this climate is what has made this novel an important feminist text for many of its readers.

Through the voice of the loveable and determined Adunni, Daré effectively navigates hard topics of sexual abuse and domestic slavery in Nigeria. Despite the tragedies of our young protagonist’s life, her optimism to make a better life for herself becomes an inspiration, and her unforgettable journey a pleasure to be a part of.

Image credit: Lily Holbrook

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

In a year where books offered the escapism all of us needed, few fictional stories matched Nora Seed’s journey of self-discovery in Matt Haig’s latest novel, The Midnight Library. 

Giving us all an imaginary opportunity to choose the lives we’ve never lived, Haig explores the infinite paths available to any one of us. 

Nora Seed dreams of everything she doesn’t have. What if she had pursued a career in singing? Moved to Australia with her best friend? Become an Antarctic researcher? In this book, Nora visits the magical Midnight Library where she can try it all. 

Sliding from life to life, each move takes her closer to realising the things she truly has to value.

Reading the book made me realise things about my own life. All the moments through school and university life that have set me in a certain direction, without which everything would be different. 

Described by Dolly Parton as ‘a charming book’ and reaching soaring heights on social media, Haig’s work has proven an ideal antidote to lockdown life. 

Peppered with quotes from philosopher Henry David Thoreau, one of the book’s wise lessons that has stayed with me is: ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’

This sums up the novel’s beautiful take on perspective, with each life full of little joys that remain unrecognised if you don’t know where to look.

From the love of family and friends to the blessing of good physical and mental health, Haig explores what it really is that makes us happy.

After coming to the realisation that conventional success isn't all it's cracked up to be, Haig suggests that accepting the life we have is one of the greatest things we could ever wish to achieve. 

Whether it's picking up medicine for an elderly neighbour or teaching piano lessons to a single student, Haig seeks to remind us: ‘Don’t underestimate the big importance of small things.’ 

The Midnight Library is now available to listen to as a series of 10 episodes on BBC Sounds.

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