As a publisher I am not allowed to talk up my own books, which is a pity, as I truly believe some of them were by far the best books I read in 2020, but such conventions are what they are so here are the non-Aleph books I was enthralled by in this bleak and browned-out year. The first is Overstory (Random House UK) by Richard Powers, one of the most unusual novels I have read in a long, long time, in which trees are as important as the characters they shade, and whose lives are entwined with their human neighbours. It was a book that was designed to appeal to someone like me, a lapsed botanist, who has never stopped wondering whether I should have spent my life studying plants rather than making books. Powers, who won the Pulitzer in 2019 for the novel, is faced with no such dilemma—he embraces both his love of storytelling and trees in this remarkable work. Essentially, this is a book about the natural world and why we need to cherish it, but there is nothing in it that is in the least bit academic or polemical or dull. His stories about trees and the people who build their lives around them, even if they aren’t aware they are doing so, show us exactly how novels can be made fresh and original.
The second novel I grew to love this year, as I immersed myself in it, was Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown and Company). Memoir, current events, history and so on permeate the fiction—it is, in other words, the sort of non-fiction novel that VS Naipaul wrote late in his career (The Enigma of Arrival is one of my favourites), and what Amitava Kumar currently writes with great panache. A novel of this genre needs to be done really well to hold my attention, otherwise it comes off as reheated stale news, and there is nothing worse than that when it comes to fiction. Not that I should have worried. The book is brilliantly structured and written and so full of delights that it is very difficult to describe in a para. Suffice to say, that if you want a remarkable delineation of what it means to be a person of colour (and a Muslim!) in America today you need look no further than this novel. It’s also an amazing and curiously tender examination of the father-son relationship (the author’s father, a doctor who emigrated from Lahore, is an unforgettable character), an enthralling disquisition on art and culture in our time, identity, Trump (he has a walk-on part) and much else besides. Akhtar has won a Pulitzer for one of his plays, and this book has placed high in many Best of 2020 roundups, so it is to be hoped he will gain a large following in this part of the world.
Homeland Elegies provides a remarkable delineation of what it means to be a person of colour (and a Muslim!) in America today
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The last book on my list has also, unsurprisingly, made it to several Best of 2020 lists. Helen Macdonald’s previous book, H Is for Hawk, won major prizes, and was loved by readers everywhere, and her new book, Vesper Flights (Jonathan Cape), is just as good. If the earlier book was about hawks, this one is a book of essays about various marvels of the natural world, especially birds. The title essay is about swifts, and is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I have read now or as far back as I can remember. When I was a boy growing up on a tea estate in Kerala, I would often confuse swifts with swallows (there was an abundance of the latter in the neighbourhood, especially an endemic species, the dusky crag martin, which built nests under the eaves of our house) as they are superficially similar, especially on the wing. After reading this book I will never make that mistake again. Macdonald starts off by comparing swifts to angels— ‘creatures of the upper air’. She then details all their other magical qualities—they rarely descend to the ground and are able to ‘sleep on the wind’, among other things. The essay ends with the author telling us how we can use the example of swifts ‘to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday. The things we need to set our courses towards or against. The things we need to think about to know what we should do next …(and) how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather, in the face of clouds that sit like dark rubble on our own horizon.’ The perfect book for our year of bad weather.