A student’s top ten books of 2020

By Isobel Warner

If 2020 was good for anything, it was reading. As an English Literature student in her final year, it feels like all I have done for the last three years is read. Multiple lockdowns have given me the chance to finally get through some of my reading (lengthy) list. Therefore, here are the top 10 books that I read in 2020. At such an awful time, books have given so many people solace.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

There is no better place to start than this masterpiece of a book: it is worth all the hype. Winning the 2019 Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other not only reinvents socially divisive concepts of race, gender, feminism, nationality, sexuality and class, but our idea of a novel by partially or completely removing punctuation, paragraphing, and capital letters. The novel consists of twelve characters and chapters, whose lives weave together to create an incredible story. A book which will have you thinking for a long time afterwards.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

This debut novel is simultaneously a hilarious and heart-wrenching story of Queenie, a Black British mid-20s woman who is trying to “adult” and navigate her life. Queenie is subject to the many problems which 25-year-old women face, ranging from terrible Tinder dates and one-night stands. Most importantly, the novel depicts discrimination which is heightened and furthered by the casual racism and microaggressions from white people in 21st century Britain.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

*Content warning* include graphic scenes of self-harm, chronic disability, abuse and trauma.

Focusing on the main character Jude, this heart-breaking novel follows four men as they leave college and establish a life in New York City. The longest book on this list and one that could be deemed the most taxingly emotional. A Little Life is a horrifying but extraordinary read, and one which will stay with me for a very long time.

American Wife – Curtis Sittenfield (2008)

How does a Midwestern librarian end up in the White House? This is the question which Sittenfield attempts to answer with her fascinating novel American Wife, a fictional but nevertheless blatant tale of Laura Bush’s life; former First Lady and wife of George Bush. A story of loss, reading and opposites attracting, I absolutely loved this book – a slow burner, but a great one nonetheless.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens (2018)

The story of Kya and the marshes has been a standout for so many readers this year. I was reluctant to like it, but I could not help but love this novel. Its beautiful imagery, a loveable but vulnerable female protagonist and simultaneous murder plot. Try to get this one read before the sure to be incredible film adaptation: produced by Reese Witherspoon and starring Daisy Edgar-Jones. It will be on our screens soon.

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami (1999)

I was sent this book as part of an Instagram book exchange, and I don’t know who sent it, but I am very glad someone did! This was my first Murakami novel, and so I didn’t really know what to expect – certainly not the elusive yet fantastic, mundane but mystical plot I was given. This is actually on my list to re-read, as I am certain I did not do it justice the first time round, but if you are looking for a bit of a challenge, this is certainly the book.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Published this year, The Vanishing Half is an incredible exploration of the fragility but inescapability of race and family ties respectively. The complexity of passing for a different identity is at the core of the plot, both in terms of race and gender. The two protagonists, twin sisters, Diseree and Stella, are complex but warm characters, inspiring both sympathy and interest from the reader, as a fantastic, plot driven book. 

Educated – Tara Westover (2018)

I am a lot more of a fiction girl (as you might have guessed from this list), but this memoir by Tara Westover is definitely worth its spot on my top 10 books. The book follows Tara’s desire and journey in becoming ‘Educated’ after growing up in a survivalist and extremist Mormon family, where any outside intervention (such as the government, medicine, and the public school system) is completely forbidden. A simultaneously horrifying but inspiring tale of a girl’s journey for education, Educated is a brilliant read. 

White Teeth – Zadie Smith (2000)

White Teeth has been on my ‘to read’ list since I was born, and the pandemic finally gave me the time to read it: it was definitely worth the wait. The novel follows, Samal Iqbal and his Bangladeshi family, and Archie Jones, an Englishman who marries Clara Bowden, a Jamaican immigrant. The cultural melting pot of 1980s North London is the predominant location of the book, and this exploration and satire of post-colonial Britain is at the core of the novel.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood (2019)

Finally, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, had to be on the list. I actually preferred this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, predominantly because of the emphasis on the international relationships between Canada and Gilead which I found particularly fascinating. The novel is structured by three female protagonists and narratives running simultaneously, the timeline skipping back and forth between a world pre- and post-Gilead. If you like dystopian, I definitely recommend this novel.

And thus, concludes my top reading experiences of 2020; the year of the couch potato. And whilst no answer is wrong in this list and no answer is right, I am by no means stating that these are the best books going – please, by all means, show me a list of your own. I am hungry for books and looking to build my list for 2021, whatever this year may hold – pandemic or not.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage.