Thursday, 17 December 2020

Books of the Year 2020

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

In a bleak year, reading has provided an incredible solace, and a window out into a wider world from a life whose boundaries have contracted dramatically. And oh, my goodness, what a year of reading it has been!

Here, in the order in which I read them, are my books of the year.

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar


The Pact We Made
is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

An powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara


Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
takes horrifying statistics of children going missing in Indian cities and personalises them, reminding us that, for each and every one, there is a family grieving.

When their friends from school start to go missing, and the police seem wholly uninterested in helping the distressed families, nine-year-old Jai and his friends Pari and Faiz decide to take matters into their own hands and conduct their own investigation. Jai is an avid watcher of police dramas on television and is sure that he knows exactly what needs to be done. But will their zeal just bring them into danger themselves?

The child viewpoint here is wonderfully drawn and Anappara has indeed captured the irrepressible cheekiness of her protagonists. But don’t be fooled. This is not the Famous Five transported to an unnamed Indian city, and the evil that lurks in the basti is no comic book villain who could have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. The journalist in Anappara knows the truth is far darker than that.

A heart-breaking story that nonetheless captures the joyous resilience of children living on the brink.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, illus Anshika Khullar


Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is unlike anything else I have ever read - and I consumed it in two glorious gulps. A joyous celebratory prose poem, it follows the life of a mixed-race (Jamaican / Greek-Cypriot) gay man growing up in London – from a small boy longing for a Barbie to play with, through primary school and high school, to finding a home and family among the Drag Society at University.

It is a story of love and friendship, of acceptance and rejection. Of the complexities of identity. Of the intersections of racism and homophobia, and the strength it takes to overcome them and to be fully and freely yourself.

The simplicity of the language is deceptive. By allowing Michael/Michalis/Mikey/Mike to speak to us directly, in his own voice, whatever his age, Atta gives his words a heart-stopping immediacy, while at the same time exploring some profound ideas.

An absolute joy to read – this is a book I’d like to put in the hands of every teenager and young person still trying to figure out who they are.

Afropean by Johny Pitts


If David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History encompassed the long history of Black people in Britain, going back to the Roman period, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe reaches out geographically, exploring the Black experience in Europe from Stockholm to Lisbon, Moscow to Marseilles.

Pitts finds communities often isolated from the cities of which they are nominally part – some vibrant but fragile, like the illegal favelas clinging to the fringes of Lisbon, others desperate and alienated, like those in the semi-derelict remains of 60s brutalist high-rises in Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris. He finds himself mourning the deliberate undermining of working class solidarity, “spinning the presence of black people as a threat rather than in opportunity.”

He reveals the often buried histories that brought African people to Europe – from the earliest origins of the slave trade via 19th Century colonial empire building to the Cold War battle for ideological dominance.

This is a Europe that many of us, as white, middle-class tourists, will never see. It challenges the comfortable idea of Europe as a tolerant and open society and shines a light on how “the European superiority complex has found its way into your psyche ... transferred through a thousand intimate moments, planted in the fertile, innocent and happy memories of childhood.”

Winner of both the 2020 Jhalak Prize and the 2020 Bread and Roses Prize for Radical Publishing

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste


Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first read it. Set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, it reveals the part played in the war by Ethiopian women

Hirut begins the story as a lowly servant in the household of a wealthy family connection, someone with no power or agency of her own, despised by the lady of the house, treated with intermittent kindness by the master. The only thing she has of her own is a gun, given to her by her late father, who made her promise to keep it always. But when the Italians re-invade the country, it is taken from her, without consultation. She, like all the other women, is expected merely to prepare supplies for the soldiers. It doesn’t occur to anyone that they might fight. But the reality of war against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy changes everything.

Mengiste’s skilful use of language reveals this difference between the almost Homeric view of war when seen from the male point of view, and the direct and personal experience of horror when seen from the female point of view.

A powerful novel about war and colonialism, patriarchy and violence, written from a too-rarely seen point of view, that of a Black African woman.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré


Adunni is born into a poor family in a small village in Nigeria. She wants more than anything else to get an education. When her mother dies, that hoped is snatched away. She is married off, aged 14, to a much older man who already has two wives. Yet, on her path from there, via her time as a house girl / domestic slave to a fabulously wealthy Lagos businesswoman, to her ultimate destination, she never loses sight of her passion for learning – and for teaching other Nigerian girls.

Like Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Adunni tells her story in non-standard English – which doesn’t stop her from expressing herself with passion and clarity. Adunni uses every scrap of learning she can to fuel a burning desire for justice

Adunni’s story is at times desperately sad, but it is also a glorious celebration of the emancipating effect of female education. Adunni’s louding voice needs to be heard.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett


No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK than my timeline began to fill up with people saying how extraordinary it was. And my goodness, it doesn’t disappoint! From the minute that Desiree Vignes strides onto the page, battered suitcase in one hand, her daughter in the other, the characters fizzle and sizzle and the story zips along.

Desiree is one of two twin girls who, years ago, ran away from Mallard to make a life for themselves far away. But while Desiree defied Mallard to marry a dark skinned Black man and have a child “blue black, like she flown direct from Africa”, her twin, Stella, has achieved the seeming impossible, ‘passed over’ as white and vanished.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola


What a joy this book was to read!

Bolu Babalola has taken raw material from folk tales and mythology around the world and spun from it a paeon to romantic love, in all its manifestations.

Here are childhood sweethearts and first date flirtations. Partnerships built up over many years and alliances forged in a red-hot minute. Some of the stories and sexy and others tender, some crackle with wit and some are heartbreaking.

As Babalola says in her Author’s Note, many of the original tales were “rife with misogyny and violence and were created within heavily patriarchal contexts.” She has transformed them, placing the women at the centre of their stories; giving them agency, power, discernment.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu


Boy, Everywhere
is the story of Sami’s perilous journey from Syria to the UK and what happens to him and his family once they arrive Manchester. It’s a tough story, based on first-person accounts from other young people who have made the journey.

At every turn it demolishes myths about asylum seekers. It shows what it means to put your lives in the hands of smugglers, to survive terrifying boat crossings, to arrive in the UK only to be locked up in a detention centre with other desperate people – and then when you finally begin to make a life for yourself in your new country, to face bigotry and rejection.

Sami is angry and frustrated as any teenager would be at being torn from his home and his friends. But he is terrified and guilty and confused. To read his story is to want to shelter and protect him. And there are so many Samis out there.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud


What an incredible finish to the year this was.

Reading Love After Love feels like being privileged to dip at intervals into personal diaries of the three protagonists. Their Trini voices ring out strong and true and full of humour.

The narrative is layered and richly. Every time you think you know which way the story is going, it gives itself a little twist and flies off in a new direction – but one that, once you’ve found your feet again, feels completely right and true.

Persaud captures the paradoxes of Trinidad, the beauty side by side with violence. She examines the special nature of the relationship between a single mother and her only son – and what happens when that breaks down. And she picks apart toxic attitudes that encourage, or at least turn a blind eye to, homophobia, domestic violence and alcoholism.

This is a novel that will make you laugh and cry and catch your breath in your throat. If you’ve time to read one more book before ethe end of 2020, it should be this one.

I look forward to sharing more reading with you in 2021!

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