It’s hard to narrow it down, but, gun to my head, here are my 10 favourite reads from 2020:
‘Without a Map’, by Meredith Hall, in True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Lee Gutkind, Ed.)
In 1972 the author, broken, abandons her life and wanders, on foot, from Europe to the Middle East, trying to outwalk her demons – ‘Silent, solitary, moving – step by step, I measure the distance between me and the woman I thought I was going to grow up to be.’ But, as she discovers, demons cannot be outwalked. This gorgeous lyric essay broke my heart, and showed me the power and possibilities of creative nonfiction. On the basis of this essay I’ve purchased Hall’s book length memoir, with the same title, but haven’t read it yet.
‘The Coffin Maker’, by Elaine Chiew, in The Heartsick Diaspora
An unusual love story, set in 1945, in Japanese occupied Singapore. Chiew’s collection of short stories concerns the Malaysian/Singaporean diaspora, with stories set in various time periods and geographic locations, all infused with poetic imagery – ‘the interpreter was backed by a halo of light; it filigreed through her silver-threaded kimono, so that for a moment, the coffin maker imagined she’d hidden flickering fireflies inside her robe.’
‘Stone Mattress’, by Margaret Atwood, in Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales
Revenge is a dish best served Atwood, which is to say, cold. Ice cold.
‘Paradise’ by Hannah Lillith Assadi, in Take Us to a Better Place
A beautiful and hopeful tale about a teenage Syrian refugee struggling to build new life in Arizona with her father and brother. Read the story here. Or get the entire anthology, free on Kindle, here.
The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr
A fascinating book, which applies a scientific/historical/cultural approach to understand how stories are processed and interpreted. Useful for writers and English/Literature students alike.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
A novel with an interesting premise and structure – the first section takes place in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds following the protagonist’s murder, as her brain is emitting its final signals, before shutting down for good. This book taught me a great deal about the struggles of women in Turkey, and their ability to remain resilient in the face of adversity. It made me cry.
‘The Husband Stitch’, by Carmen Maria Machado, in Her Body and Other Parties
The structure; the adaptation and subversion of fairy tales/wives’ tales/urban legends; the ambiguity; the symbolism; the message… Amazing. Read it here.
‘Black-Eyed Woman’, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, in The Refugees
A ghost story, featuring ghosts and hauntings in all senses of the word – memories, the past, guilt, ghost stories, ghost writing, actual ghosts… – and a layering of stories within a story. The rest of the tales in this collection feature Vietnamese refugees who are all haunted in a metaphorical sense, and this story, the first in the book, sets that theme. Read it here.
‘Brownies’, by ZZ Packer, in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
A short story about racism and white privilege. The story is told in such a way that the message is only revealed at the end, when the protagonist experiences an epiphany, and hopefully the reader does too.
‘Bad Boy’ by Kristen Roupenian, in Cat Person and Other Stories
This is a nasty little story, about a couple who torments and controls their friend for their own amusement and pleasure. The use of first person plural and reported speech makes the couple seem even more menacing. With friends like these…