The best books of 2020: From contemporary Arabic novels to pandemic dispatches

Ben East writes about the year’s best works, a list dominated by dark stories

One of the few benefits of living through a pandemic is that we suddenly had a lot more time to read books – and though some publishing dates were delayed, in the end it was a treat to be able to lose ourselves in historical epics from Hilary Mantel and Maggie O'Farrell while rooting for Dubai author Avni Doshi at the Booker Prize. Pure page-turning, best-selling escapism came from the likes of former Dubai resident Stuart Turton, and the best non-fiction reflection of the year we've lived through was revealed in Yale's A World Out Of Reach: Dispatches from Life Under Lockdown anthology from scientists, doctors and writers. In times of trouble, we often turn to authors for answers or succour. The selection of books below certainly provided that.

Fiction

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself," Dubai author Avni Doshi told The National this year. And that was before she'd been shortlisted for the Booker – the first UAE-based author to do so – for Burnt Sugar, her tale of a complex mother-daughter relationship in middle-class India. It turned out that Doshi was just pleased for her debut to be published at all, given it had taken seven years and eight drafts, but this was a distinctive, thrilling exploration of motherhood. Staying with the Booker, the UAE was also referenced in Colum McCann's ambitious, sprawling collage of a novel, Apeirogon, based on the real-life friendship between a Palestinian and an Israeli, both touched by tragedy.

Fellow longlistee C Pam Zhang similarly trampled all over convention with How Much of These Hills is Gold, a memorable refashioning of Wild West cliche with Chinese immigrant children forced to fend for themselves amid the fading embers of the Gold Rush. Identity, dislocation and migration also featured heavily in Eva Nour's beautiful The Stray Cats Of Homs; written in pseudonym by a Swedish journalist, the bare bones of this harrowing, heartbreaking but somehow uplifting story of survival was told to her by a Syrian refugee who would became her partner.

Of course, it was also a year where burying ourselves in the past to make sense of the present seemed to make a lot of sense. Naturally, the magnificent final piece in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light, featured heavily in the reading lists during the early days of lockdown, but it was another novel set in the 16th century that really spoke to our times.

Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet was a beautiful, potent exploration of the life and loss of William Shakespeare's son – who probably died of the plague – from the point of view of his mother.

Arabic novels in translation

The pandemic’s effect on the publishing industry had a partial effect on a thinner year for contemporary Arabic novels in translation than usual, although there were interesting older books that finally made it into English from the likes of Sahar Khalifeh, Ibrahim Al Koni and Adel Kamel.

Still, in the first week of January, Saud Alsanousi's Mama Hissa's Mice (translated by Sawad Hussein), partly set during an imaginary civil war in Kuwait and seen through the lives of three childhood friends, confirmed the former International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) winner as one of the most accessible contemporary writers in Arabic.

Fellow IPAF nominee Najwa Binshatwan explored Benghazi's complex experience with slavery in The Slave Yards (translated by Nancy Roberts). The Libyan academic used the research from her PhD to underpin the compelling story of Atiqa and her journey to discover the truth about her exploited family's roots in North Africa.

Dima Wannous made the IPAF shortlist for The Frightened Ones (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) the year after Binshatwan, and it's great to see important novels like hers, exploring the deep psychological effects of living in permanent fear in Syria, being turned around in translation so quickly. Jaquette also translated Adania Shibli's Minor Detail this year, an even more traumatising portrait of everyday life under occupation and violence immediately after the nakba.

Finally, Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim's debut novel God 99 has been long awaited in English. Sneaking out late last month, it was an inventive journey into the lives of 99 people who have been disrupted by war. We marvelled at the brute force of this collection of stories, brilliantly translated by Jonathan Wright.

Crime and thrillers

In a year where page-turning escapism was certainly in order, one of the most gripping thrillers was actually one that spoke to our times. Rumaan Alam's Leave The World Behind had all the conventions of a crime drama – mysterious strangers knock on the door and threaten to upend a family holiday – but mutated into a locked-down, end-of-the-world disaster story, a social satire and a comment on racial inequality and climate change. Offering no easy answers but constantly posing questions, it was read-in-one-sitting stuff.

Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line also played with form. A nine-year-old from an Indian shantytown resolving to solve the mystery of disappearing children might sound like a Slumdog-style children's book, but Anappara found a deep adult truth in a clear-eyed child narrator who somehow remains fearless when the world around him is so harsh. When that faith in goodness is ultimately tested, Anappara was unflinching in her assessment of a world she's covered as a journalist. Yet it remained that rare thing: a crime drama with an endearing heart.

Staying in India, Vaseem Khan's new crime series featured inspector Persis Wadia trying to solve the murder of a prominent English diplomat in 1950s India at a New Year's Eve ball. Midnight At Malabar House might have had all the trappings of an Agatha Christie novel, but Khan's commitment to the period and Partition was really interesting, as was his depiction of a no-nonsense woman at the heart of the case. All great fun, but these little nuances raised the bar and it's no surprise two further Wadia cases are now in the offing.

Talking of fun, one-time Dubai resident Stuart Turton returned with a mischievous nod to Sherlock Holmes mysteries in The Devil And The Dark Water. Set on board a cramped 17th-century galleon on the way from Indonesia to the Netherlands, superstition, demons and murder most foul are all washing around the decks – with the only available detective locked in chains. A fiendishly complex puzzle of a book thick with period atmosphere, it was deserving of its immediate bestseller status.

Great to see, too, that Abdelilah Hamdouchi's detective story set on the mean streets of Morocco's biggest city was published in translation (by Peter Daniel) this year. The Butcher Of Casablanca: Detective Hanash Crime Novel is Hamdouchi's fourth novel to be translated from Arabic, and the second featuring Detective Hanash, an expertly drawn character struggling to cope with a changing Morocco.

Non-fiction

In a world battling various health, race, climate and social crises, guidance often came via powerful non-fiction writing. Emmanuel Acho's Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man deftly took the American's YouTube and Fox Sports fame on to the printed page to explore white privilege, racial unrest and cultural appropriation.

Going back 250 years, Black Spartacus is a brilliant biography of Toussaint Louverture from Mauritian historian Sudhir Hazareesingh, who calls the leader of the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence "the first black superhero of the modern age". Marcelo Hernandez Castillo also explored race, identity and migration in Children Of The Land, his powerful and painful memoir of movement and belonging either side of the US-Mexico border.

"We're still trying to just stop," he wrote. Which was a familiar feeling in While The Earth Sleeps We Travel, too; a remarkable collection of writing from 27 young refugees. Such layering of voices was also the real strength of A World Out Of Reach, an anthology of mainly non-fiction writing from doctors, scientists, essayists and authors about the pandemic, which spoke clearly and powerfully about an anxious year.

Closer to home, A World Beneath The Sands was an absorbing look at the golden age of Egyptology from Toby Wilkinson, taking in the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and colonialism. Wilkinson expected us to impose our own feelings on whether these Europeans were pure archaeologists or merely cultural looters, but it's still a fascinating study of personal and state ambition.

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