10 Favourite Books in 2020

10. Eve Out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) – Mauritius

This novel was among the deliveries from the biiiiig Better World Books order I placed in March just as Melbourne’s earlier phase of restrictions began – and wow, it was a compelling distraction. It’s a short, harrowing story of four teenagers trying to survive the violence of their neighbourhood in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital. I follow the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on Twitter and had high expectations for this book. It surpassed them.

 

9. Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett – Kiribati

The arrival of this extraordinary book was a rare and much-needed source of excitement deep into Melbourne’s second (ultra intense) lockdown in September. I came across Australian/Kiribati writer Marita Davies’s work while researching writers from the Pacific and was instantly keen to read this story of a child confronting life on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The importance of climate-related books – especially for younger generations – goes without saying, particularly during a week when extreme weather and coastal destruction yet again dominates headlines in Australia.

 

8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. Brian FitzGibbon) – Iceland

It was a wintry evening in May when I read this gentle novel with my first foster cat on my lap (three more would follow across the two lockdowns!). The story very much transported me along the protagonist’s journey from his Icelandic home to a monastery rose garden in need of loving care. Quiet, slow and meditative, it felt like exactly what I needed at that point of this fast-paced and barely fathomable year.

 

7. Trans by Juliet Jacques – United Kingdom

I ordered this book in Verso’s December sale a year ago and read it as soon as it arrived in January. Juliet’s memoir is an incredibly honest account of the years that led up to her transition, weaving in many insights into the world of gender politics. The media industry comes across terribly and I wish things had progressed since, but I write this in the wake of two very transphobic opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. [PS: if you’re looking for stunning fiction by a trans writer, I recommend jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty which I borrowed from Yarra Libraries a few weeks before this memoir.]

 

6. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle) – Ecuador

This story collection came as a highly anticipated gift from Santiago-based translator Natascha Bruce for #WITMonth Book Swap, organised by Meytal Radzinski in August. When the book was first recommended to me I was slightly tentative, given the subject matter of domestic abuse being very close to home, but I’m really glad I read it – mainly for how astonishingly powerful a writer Ampuero is. I had been struggling to engage fully with books at the time (14 weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown) and this collection shook me out of the stupor.

 

5. The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)Central African Republic

As it was only published in September, this was one of the very last books I read for my project – and it was, without a doubt, the most visually beautiful. It’s one of two children’s books featuring on my 2020 top ten (the other being Teaote and the Wall) and I think there’s something to be said for taking time away from screens/small font just to enjoy wonderful imagery and storytelling in fewer words. Narrated through the eyes of a young girl, the book follows a mother’s process towards getting pregnant and giving birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll. With these important words and expressive images, this book was totally worth the wait.

 

4. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)Macedonia

This was among the most immersive books I sank into this year. After hearing only good things, I read Dimkovska’s between Melbourne’s two lockdowns while I was on a weekend trip to the Dandenong Ranges and predictably got pretty lost in the pages! The story is told by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, who is venturing towards personal independence and romantic love – through communist Yugoslavia and further afield. A memorable book that has stayed with me.

 

3. The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)Suriname

This book was bound to be in my top three of the year – I was completely addicted to the story back in early March. We were still working in offices at that point, and I was reading it right through my lunchbreaks. In fact, my review reminded me that a colleague even comforted me one break when I was visibly upset by a plot twist! Set in the 18th century, it’s a tale of love and cruelty under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch Empire. I’ve recommended it to friends since and apparently they’ve been 100% absorbed by it too!

 

2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia AlvarezDominican Republic

When people ask me about my very favourite books since I began this blog, In The Time of Butterflies always springs to mind. The story reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas’) who symbolised hope and defiance during their country’s dictatorship from 1938 to 1994. To quote my own review, “my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it”. It was also a great chance to learn more about the women whose legacy sparked the 16 Days of Activism – a campaign that I focused on promoting in my human rights work.

 

1. Cantoras by Carolina de RobertisUruguay

There’s no way to put into words quite how much I loved this novel. Set at the time of the Uruguyan dictatorship in the 1970-80s, this is a breathtaking story about five women who together explore the ways we can love one another – from erotic passion to close friendship to unconditional familial love. The book not only made me laugh and cry, but also left me fundamentally wanting to become a better reader and writer. If this sounds hyperbolic, take a look at the book’s Goodreads page – I’m far from the only one who was profoundly affected by Cantoras!

 

Read my full list of reviews since mid-2018

 

Le Journal de Maya by Coralie Frei

cat on cover of kindle, black and white

[note: I read this in the original French as it is not yet available in translation]

a nutshell: at times hilariously melodramatic and perfectly ‘feline’, this diary of a five-year-old Siamese cat will have many familiar scenes for cat lovers such as myself

a line: “this is my philosophy: Patience, virtue of cats”

an image: Frei renders even the simplest of acts beautifully, such as when joy gives Maya the wings to jump and land heavily on the sink

a thought: I thoroughly enjoyed reading these observations from a cat’s perspective – particularly the comment on how humans possess the art of complicating their lives (if only we took a leaf out of our cat’s book!)

a fact: Frei is the first Comorian woman to have written a novel, and has also written poetry

want to read Le Journal de Maya? visit here

Back to Life by Wendy Coakley Thompson

kindle image of cover with black woman and white man embracing, lavender in background

a nutshell: through the lens of a passionate love story between a black woman and an Italian man, Coakley Thompson reflects on race relations in New York City at the very end of the 1980s

a line: “Damn it, what is it with us and them?”

an image: at one point, the characters discuss an interview with mayoral candidate Dinkins, commenting that he talks about the City as his beautiful mosaic, how all the colours make it beautiful, not about that ‘assimilationist melting pot shit’

a thought: it was interesting to read a romance – a genre I’ve not read for many years – and I learned a lot about a corner of NYC society which I had known little about through the author’s concerted contextualisation of this relationship

a fact: Coakley Thompson was driven to write this book following the murder of a 16-year-old black child in Brooklyn on 23 August, 1989 – here’s an article about it in the NYT

want to read Back to Life? visit here

That Other Me by Maha Gargash

book cover with eye watching, next to cat on lap

a nutshell: set in ’90s Dubai and Cairo, this gripping novel follows two young women as they try to lead their own lives – in the shadow of an extremely authoritarian patriarch

a line: “They call us weak, but how can that be when we are able to bear so much.”

an image: I particularly liked the image of thoughts clambering over one another in Majed’s head like tiny red ants scurrying, seeking to build something out of chaos – the pain inflicted by red ants felt like exactly the right image for this abusive man’s mindset

a thought: the characters’ Khaleeji identity was an ongoing focus, with the author noting it was evident in the way that Mariam’s shayla was styled, in the herbs used to stuff baby goats for a special meal, and so on

a fact: as a documentary maker, Gargash’s research & scriptwriting delved into traditional Arab societies which fed into into her novels

want to read That Other Me? visit here

Les Enfants du Khat by Mouna-Hodan Ahmed

Town beside water on book cover, sat on desk next to coffee, pencil and plant

a nutshell: this unique novel follows the life of an eldest daughter who has to grow up quickly due to her father’s addiction to khat, a hallucinogenic herb, which wreaks havoc across society – with particularly sinister impacts on women

a line: “Pourquoi sommes-nous obligés de retoucher son chef-d’œuvre? Sommes-nous plus savant que lui?” | “Why are we forced to retouch his masterpiece? Are we more knowledgeable than him?” – on female genital mutilation (FGM) and God’s will

an image: throughout this hard-hitting novel, Ahmed is unsparing in her depictions of the violence against women that exists not only within Djibouti but globally – from domestic abuse to sexual coercion to FGM

a thought: the book opens with a quote from Pius Ngandu Nkashama about African youth being at a crossroads, and this seems to be the ongoing theme of Les Enfants du Khat – the potential power of young people to generate change

a fact: I was intrigued by the beautiful image on the book’s cover and discovered it was a photo of Tadjoura, one of Djibouti’s oldest towns & an important port for many centuries; Tadjoura evolved into an early Islamic centre with the arrival of Muslims shortly after the Hijra, and is also known for its whitewashed buildings, nearby beaches, and mosques

want to read Les Enfants du Khat? visit here

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis

a nutshell: to me, this was an incredibly profound novel about love in various forms – romantic love, love between friends, love of place, familial love – and a fascinating insight into the Uruguyan dictatorship of the 20th century

a line: “the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now––all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe”

an image: I was in tears at the final conversation between Flaca and her father, and even read it aloud hours later to my boyfriend; I won’t recall it here in case I ruin it for other readers, but I found his words deeply moving

a thought: I finished this book over three weeks ago but can’t bring myself to remove it from my bedside table – there were many lines that I’m still thinking about, including Malena’s heated remark that you do not owe your parents your life

a fact: the title comes from a word for singer in Spanish but, as de Robertis shares in this interview, there’s another word, cantante, which women under the dictatorship in the Uruguayan era used as code for lesbians – the author found a resonance in how it suggests a woman will claim her life, or voice, on her own terms

want to read Cantoras? visit here

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

a nutshell: set in 1981, this heartbreakingly evocative novel follows a young woman as she explores her memories while attempting to flee the violence of her homeland, Jamaica

a line: “Jamaica was too young to die”

an image: a rural sign reading ‘FRESH POETRY & EGGS’ is left to interpretation – spelling or reality?

a thought: I identified strongly with the main character, Jean, particuarly in how she reads constantly – pressing her ear close to the world of fictional characters, as Cezair-Thompson describes it, like a vagrant at a windowpane

a fact: towards the end of the novel, Jean realises she has always believed in egun iponri – ancestors – which the author explains more in this insightful interview

want to read The True History of Paradise? visit here

Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel

a nutshell: through the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi, Figiel tells the fascinating story of a teenage girl, Alofa, trying to make sense of the violence & sex she encounters in society

a line: “‘I’ is always ‘we,’ is a part of the ‘aiga [family]… a part of Samoa’ [also, read the book to discover just how extraordinary the first line is]

an image: I loved the moment when the narrator shared how she imagined a daffodil was a dancer that lives in the sky during their school recitals of Wordsworth’s poetry

a thought: among the book’s vignettes is a scene in which an incomer mocks Shirley Girl, who is fa’afafine (someone who dressed as a girl), following which the locals ignore her and her Samoan rugby player partner breaks up with her – I learned more about fa’afafine in Samoan culture here

a fact: this was the first ever novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States – it is striking that Figiel considers herself first & foremost a performance poet

want to read Where We Once Belonged? visit here

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas

the purple violet of Oshaantu cover with purple splodge

a nutshell: set in rural Namibia, this is a story of friendship between two neighbours with very different husbands – one kind, one abusive

a line: “Child, don’t wait until it is too late … I have seen women who have died in this thing called marriage”

an image: I loved the scene of the women’s okakungungu (working festival / group cultivation) where they sang songs of ancestors and called on their great-grandmothers as they ploughed Kauna’s land before the rains, then sat drinking and chatting in a spirit of sisterhood under the marula (wild plum) tree

a thought: though the society is eminently patriarchal, wives are the backbone of the village and several women are seen to stand up to domineering men – such as when an elderly woman publicly shamed Shange, asking what he feels when he beat his wife who could not beat him back

a fact: through the exuberant descriptions of dishes throughout the book, I learned that dried caterpillars are a Namibian delicacy

want to read The Purple Violet of Oshaantu? visit here

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

a nutshell: incorporating an array of first-person narratives from Latino immigrants to the US, this book’s focal lens is on the complex dynamic between two families from Panamá and Mexico living in an apartment block in Delaware

a line: “You have to think like a gringa now … You have to believe that you’re entitled to happiness.”

an image: Alma recalls how she came to know her husband’s soft spots, like bruises on fruit, which in turn recalled for me the words of another character, Rafael Toro, as he remembered Panamá through the smell of car exhaust and sweet fruit

a thought: a teenage boy lets us in on how he felt it was ‘backwards’ for his parents to have fled Panamá for the US, that is, for the nation that had driven them out of theirs

a fact: Henríquez’s father is from Panamá and immigrated to the US in 1971, while her mother is from New Jersey and worked in Delaware public schools as a translator – Henríquez herself was born in Delaware but spent summers in Panamá

want to read The Book of Unknown Americans? visit here