In a year with lots of spare time for reading, several fiction books have stood out as prime examples of escapism at its best.
With all the stress and upheaval that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, one of the small upsides of spending so much time at home this year was rediscovering my love of reading! The escapism that the following books have provided this year was critical for getting me through this difficult year, as well as being an enjoyable way to spend all that spare time!
The following are seven of the best books I read this year and one incredibly guilty pleasure that I read following a Netflix obsession earlier this year…
The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt (2013)
Undoubtedly, the best book I read this year was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, one of the most captivating and enthralling books I’ve ever read. The story follows Theo, a boy living in New York whose life is turned upside down after his mother dies in a terrorist attack at an art gallery. Waking up from the explosion, Theo witnesses the dying moments of a man who asks him to take a famous painting, The Goldfinch by artist Carel Fabritius and his ring, which he instructs Theo return to his colleague. What follows is Theo’s life of sadness, loss, stress and paranoia as he attempts to keep the painting hidden as he moves from place to place, while getting caught up in the criminal underworld of fake antiques and art theft. I really enjoyed this book — although slow to start, by the end I couldn’t put it down. Truly worthy of all of its accolades!
The Secret History — Donna Tartt (1992)
Followed closely behind The Goldfinch is Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. This book is essentially the opposite of a murder mystery, with Richard, the narrator, describing how he and his group of friends murdered their friend on the very first page — it’s less of a whodunnit, more of a why-dunnit. The story follows Richard’s first year at a gothic Vermont college, based on Tartt’s own university, Bennington College, and how his attempts to befriend the elite and aloof group of students studying Ancient Greek quickly descends into a dark and sinister secret they must all keep to save themselves. I absolutely loved this book, and cannot wait to read Tartt’s other book, The Little Friend, in 2021.
Saturdays at Noon — Rachel Marks (2020)
I really enjoyed this book, finishing it in just 3 days! The story revolves around 6-year old Alfie. Early in the book, it becomes clear that he has an autism spectrum disorder, although his father, Jake, blames himself for Alfie’s challenging behaviour. Following the abrupt departure of his wife, Jake asks Emily, a skinhead, hoodie-wearing 25-year old he meets at an anger management class, to be Alfie’s nanny. The unlikely pair are soon inseparable, with Emily and Jake also becoming closer. I’m uncertain if the author wants us to ask whether Emily is also autistic, given her immediate understanding of Alfie, but this was my interpretation of the book. Beautifully written, Saturdays at Noon made me feel sad, frustrated but also genuinely happy when Alfie and his father’s relationship improves. Clearly inspired by her own experience, Marks creates an accurate depiction of what life with an autistic child is really like, helping the reader to understand the condition and the struggles families face just a little bit better.
The Flatshare — Beth O’Leary (2019)
The Flatshare was a really fun summer read! The story follows Tiffy and Leon, who live in the same flat and even sleep in the same bed… just not at the same time. Following both their respective breakups, the pair grow closer and fall in love — a classic rom-com! However, the book has a darker edge, as Tiffy’s previous relationship was highly manipulative, with her ex regularly gaslighting her and following her to her new house. Although it was good to draw attention to these issues, I felt the book glazed over some of the implications for such a relationship, and it could have been handled with slightly more nuance. Overall, though, a really fun and entertaining read!
Never let me go — Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Never let me go is such an intriguing book, I couldn’t put it down! The story follows Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in their rural school, Hailsham, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. I can really recommend not reading reviews in advance, as so much of the mystery of this book comes from learning the context of the story along with its main characters. An interesting look at how we approach medical research and human rights, a very thought-provoking read.
Girl, Woman, Other — Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize in 2019, and I can only agree — this is truly an incredible book. Set across a hundred years, the book follows 12 women of colour living in Britain, from an eccentric gay playwright to a 97-year old great-grandmother on her farm in the north, detailing their trials and tribulations of navigating their rapidly changing worlds. As a white woman living in the UK, these are perspectives I will never have on life, and it was moving to hear about the challenges women of colour face every day. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of the issues of race and gender in the UK today (as we all should), as well as anyone wanting to read a captivating story of love, loss and hope.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo — Christy Lefteri (2019)
This is a really heart-breaking book. The story follows a couple escaping Aleppo in Syria after the destruction of their city and the death of the son, switching between their harrowing journey across the continent to the UK where they are seeking asylum. Lefteri had previously volunteered at a refugee camp in Athens, so although The Beekeeper of Aleppo is not a true story of one family, it incorporates a number of stories from refugees making similar journeys to escape persecution in Syria. This book opened my eyes to the horrific experiences refugees have to endure, and individualised their experience. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to get a sense of what it’s like to be scared for your life in your home country, particularly to anyone who has issues with immigration from the Middle East — having read such a moving story, I can’t believe anyone would still believe that supporting refugees to rebuild their lives is not a top priority for all countries.
Both Girl, Woman, Other and The Beekeeper of Aleppo have been hugely influential books for me this year. You can read more about these here.
And finally, a guilty pleasure…
Gossip Girl: You know you love me — Cecily von Ziegesar (2002)
During the lockdown in March, my housemate and I became obsessed with the show Gossip Girl. After realising it was based on a book, I had to read it! This book is far from high-brow, and definitely has some questionable attitudes towards diet culture, popularity and fashion — it is very much of its era! Having watched the show, it felt almost like fanfiction — the same characters, just slightly different to know I know them. And although it was a fun read and a break from more intellectually stimulating books, I don’t think I’ll be reading the other 15 novels in the Gossip Girl series!
I’ve also read some amazing non-fiction books this year, read more about them here.