Reading fiction in 2020 was an act of defiance—of turning our attention away from the catastrophes playing out around us to engage in a quiet, imaginative act. And the year’s best fiction offered many paths toward greater understanding and meaningful escape. Whether in the tumultuous halls of power in Tudor England with The Mirror & the Light, a storm-ravaged mansion in A Children’s Bible or a ghost-filled Japan with Where the Wild Ladies Are, readers could find joyful, thrilling distraction, models of resilience and empathy and challenges that somehow made our own feel more bearable.
Here, the best fiction books of 2020.
10. Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami
In her first novel published in English, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami follows three women and their relationships with their changing bodies. There’s 30-year-old Natsu, her older sister Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko. The first half of Breasts and Eggs, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, centers on Makiko’s quest to plan a breast enhancement procedure, and Midoriko’s recent refusal to speak to her. Their interactions are relayed through the dry voice of Natsu in scenes filled with blunt and witty dialogue. Then, Kawakami shifts the story forward, picking up 10 years later and focusing on Natsu as she is single but considering motherhood. While Natsu was measured and judgmental in narrating the story of her sister’s obsession with perfecting her image, she is now uncertain and confused by her own fears about aging. In describing these anxieties, Kawakami takes a stirring look at the expectations put on women by the world and by themselves.
9. Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda
In Where the Wild Ladies Are, Japanese author Aoko Matsuda guides readers through supernatural events and introduces them to otherworldly characters as if they were completely ordinary. That understated and witty touch is what makes this short story collection, translated to English by Polly Barton, so special. Matsuda updates traditional Japanese ghost stories for the contemporary era, giving agency to previously voiceless female characters and playfully breaking down gender roles and stereotypes still so pervasive in Japanese culture today. A translator herself, Matsuda knows how to play with language, infusing her narrators with memorable idiosyncrasies. While each chapter is its own contained short story, some interlink. The result is a reimagining of traditional tales as part of a broader narrative about women and power.
8. Deacon King Kong, James McBride
It’s September 1969 when Sportcoat, the grumpy old deacon of a church in the Causeway Houses project in Brooklyn, shoots local drug dealer Deems in the face. The whole neighborhood is buzzing with the news: Sportcoat pulled a .38 from his pocket and blew the ear off of the boy he used to coach in baseball. Why on earth would he do such a thing? Even the deacon himself doesn’t seem to know. National Book Award-winning author James McBride unveils the answer in this story of comedy and compassion, which pays loving attention to a wide cast of characters. McBride describes their world in densely packed, rhythmic specificities, fixating on the community’s rich local history and the voices that populate it.
7. A Burning, Megha Majumdar
After witnessing a terrorist attack, Jivan, a poor Muslim woman living in the slums of Kolkata, makes a comment on Facebook criticizing her government’s response to the tragic event. It’s an action with terrible consequences, as she’s taken into custody and accused of aiding the attackers. In her exquisitely plotted debut novel, Megha Majumdar writes with absorbing urgency as she details Jivan’s plight. Beyond Jivan, Majumdar introduces two key perspectives: the protagonist’s former gym teacher, PT Sir, who has ties to the right-wing political party that seeks to seal her fate, and Lovely, an outcast with dreams of being an actor and the only person who can prove Jivan’s innocence. In moving between their three voices, Majumdar reveals the intersections of their ambitions and fears, coalescing into an unnerving investigation of corruption, class and tragedy.
6. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, Laura van den Berg
The 11 stories that comprise Laura van den Berg’s beautiful and bold collection feature a cast of contemplative women navigating situations that are strange, sad and unsettling. Among them are the “grief freelancer” who brings in extra income by impersonating the dead, the wife who is unknowingly being drugged by her husband with sedative-spiked seltzer and the daughter who accompanies her ailing mother on a bittersweet final tour of Italy. The characters in these narratives are each broken in different ways, but they all quietly grapple with life’s greatest questions—the meaning of loneliness and loss, the durability of love. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is short fiction at its finest: van den Berg captures the cruelest of traumas on one page, then supplies a healing dose of humor on the next.
5. Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar
Every so often we are gifted a novel that combines deep intelligence, meticulous prose and something profound to say about the state of our world. In Homeland Elegies, Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar gives readers just that in the story of a man very much like himself, who shares his name and was born to Pakistani immigrants in the American Midwest as Akhtar was. From the opening chapters when the fictional Ayad’s father treats Donald Trump for a heart condition in the 1990s, it’s clear we are in a world that is recognizable but not necessarily real. That’s all part of Akhtar’s point: his project uses fiction as a filter through which to tell an essential story about a man facing the turmoil of American life after 9/11 and his family’s attendant struggle to define itself. It’s a delicate balancing act between what’s real and what may not be, yet in Akhtar’s brilliant book the complexities of the American Dream have never been so naked.
4. A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet
On a vacation like no other, a group of families share a lakeside summer home, where the parents care little about what their children are up to. When a catastrophic storm tears through the house, the adults choose to ignore the chaos and turn to the liquor cabinet instead, leaving the kids to seek safety on their own. In the slim and propulsive novel, teenager Evie narrates the group’s struggles in the midst of apocalyptic levels of devastation. Her thoughts on the burgeoning natural disaster capture the dual personalities of a sulking teen, sick of her parents, and a young person forced to grow up too fast. Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet’s novel, which was a National Book Award finalist, is both an adventure story reminiscent of the classics and a warning tale of a grim future told through the eyes of a generation far too comfortable with catastrophe.
3. The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel
Few novels were as eagerly anticipated this year as The Mirror & The Light, the conclusion to British author Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster Wolf Hall trilogy. Mantel’s evocation of Tudor England and her ear for political drama were just as immersive as ever, and the book climbed to the top of bestseller lists in the U.S. and U.K. In 900 richly detailed pages, The Mirror & The Light lays out the downfall of Thomas Cromwell, consigliere to King Henry VIII and powerbroker of the Reformation. It’s historical fiction, but dazzlingly literary in its ambitions and dramatic in the cut and thrust of its dialogue. Mantel’s Cromwell is a character for the ages—rough-edged yet introspective, with a mind as sharp as an axe. Her Henry, meanwhile, is an apt reminder that self-pitying men with oversized egos enjoyed power long before the present.
2. Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
Douglas Stuart’s acclaimed debut novel draws heavily on his upbringing in 1980s Glasgow, where, like Stuart did, Hugh “Shuggie” Bain is growing up with an alcoholic mother and facing a culture of homophobia that makes him feel like an outcast. His father and two older siblings have left home, long before he can. Against the backdrop of a city neglected by the government and in decline, Shuggie and Agnes wrestle for control over their lives, often finding themselves swept away by the waves of her addiction. While the setting is bleak, littered with descriptions of quiet indignities—Agnes’ late-night calls to her ex-husband’s taxi company, lingering mugs filled with day-old beer—the guiding light of the novel is the boy’s enduring love for his mother. Stuart writes beautifully observed inner lives for both characters, capturing Shuggie’s devotion to his sometimes vivacious and glamorous mother and the pain that comes from seeing her transformed into a hateful, unpredictable stranger by drink. The novel, a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Booker Prize, is a gut punch.
1. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half lives just outside the realm of realism, in that space where a touch of fantasy serves to underscore the strangeness of reality. In her second novel, Bennett invents the tiny Black town of Mallard, La., where the residents pride themselves on their light skin, and identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes are growing up in the 1950s all too aware of racial violence and oppression. It feels almost inevitable, then, when the girls run away together seeking better opportunities—and soon Stella makes the decision, easy at first and harder with time, to pass as white. Suddenly, she’s gone, leaving a devastated Desiree behind. Bennett weaves a layered and satisfying narrative that shifts through time and multiple characters’ perspectives to trace the impact of a single decision on Stella, her family and the next generation. An eloquent new entry to literature on that most vital of subjects, identity, The Vanishing Half is the novel of the year.