Last week, I published part 1 of my favourite reads of 2020, a post focussing on novellas and non-fiction. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)
Today, I’m back with part 2, my favourite novels from a year of reading. My reading has been somewhat erratic in 2020, following the ebb and flow of the lockdown-release cycle we’ve been navigating this year. Nevertheless, I have managed to read some truly excellent books. So, without further ado, these are the novels I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. As ever, I’ve summarised each one below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.
Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman, Hilary Fane, sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents and fiancé – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the London department store where she works. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a meagre wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. If you loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or The Diary of a Provincial Lady, chances are you’ll enjoy this.
The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns
The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, characterised as they are by her unique world view, a surreal blend of the macabre and the mundane. The Skin Chairs is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. What Comyns captures so well here is how children can often be excellent intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that!
A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also features one of the most striking openings in literature, a genuinely unnerving scene that sets a sinister tone right from the start. A Wreath of Roses is right up there with Mrs Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness for me, top-tier Taylor for sure.
The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
The centrepiece of this somewhat surreal novel, which takes place in the 1970s, is a staff outing for the employees of a wine-bottling factory. Observing this ill-fated trip feels somewhat akin to watching a slow-motion car crash, with the reader powerless to divert their attention as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s characteristically acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
How to do justice to such a deeply rewarding series of novels in just a few sentences? It’s nigh on impossible. All I can do is to urge you to read these books for yourself if you haven’t done so already. Ostensibly a portrait of a complex marriage unfolding against the backdrop of the looming threat of war, this largely autobiographical series is rich is detail and authenticity, perfectly capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. As ever, Manning excels at creating flawed and nuanced characters that feel thoroughly believable. A transportive read with a particularly vivid sense of place.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers
Set in the summer of 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, The Offing tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two very different individuals, both of whom experience a kind of transformation as a result. In writing this novel, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, this lyrical novel is an evocative paean to the natural world. Fans of A Month in the Country and The Go-Between will likely enjoy this.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Archibald Colquhoun)
A beautiful, elegiac novel set in 19th century Sicily, a time when the principality was caught in a period of significant change, one ushered in by the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy. It’s a novel that highlights the need for us to adapt if we want certain aspects of our lives to remain the same. The language is especially gorgeous here – sensual, evocative and ornate, frequently tinged with an aching sense of sadness for a vanishing world. Another transportive read, albeit one with an undeniable sense of melancholy.
The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann
A sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Ten years later, a chance encounter brings Olivia back into contact with Rollo, sparking a rush of conflicting emotions – more specifically, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. This remarkable book expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose. The modernity of Lehmann’s approach, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s.
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor
My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s an excellent book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness and sadness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society. The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of the travelling fair for the summer season. One for Muriel Spark fans, particularly those with a fondness for The Ballad of Peckham Rye.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
As this brilliant novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for this exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. It’s a truly excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. My third reading of this book, and at last I feel that I’ve *got* it.
The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s own eyes. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather.
Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe
I have long had a fondness for the work of Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The Apartment (1961) is my all-time favourite film – I watch it at least once a year, often on New Year’s Eve – while Double Indemnity (1945) and Some Like It Hot (1960) would almost certainly make my top ten. So, a novelisation of Wilder’s quest to make his 1978 movie, Fedora was always going to be literary catnip for me. This is a wonderfully charming, warm-hearted book – at once a gentle coming-of-age story and an affectionate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors – a compassionate, bittersweet novel about ageing, creativity and what happens when an industry changes, leaving a respected artist somewhat high and dry.
So there we have it, my favourite novels from a year of reading. All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead; let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than 2020…
Merry Christmas to you, Jacqui! Some wonderful books in your year end list. I was a big fan of Manning’s trilogies last year, and I loved the Lehmann too. Comyns, Taylor and Brookner made my list this year as well, but different books, so I am really looking forward to A Wreath of Roses and Hotel du Lac. I am also interested in the Bainbridge as I haven’t read anything by her yet.
Ah…thanks, Radhika. I’m hoping to have time to catch up with your ‘best of’ post later today, so it’s good to know we have a lot in common in terms of favourite writers. The Balkans are wonderful, aren’t they? So compelling and immersive – a good trilogy to read during lockdown.
I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Bainbridge, should you decide to try her next year. Thee are parallels with Muriel Spark, I think – and possibly with early William Trevor, too. The sense of malevolence lurking beneath the veneer of respectability which these writers seem to capture so well…
And a Merry Christmas to you too, Radhika. Wishing you all the best for the year ahead!
LRB Bookshop podcast on 30 September was to promote the publication of Trevor’s Last Stories. Several writers and biographers read extracts from his earlier work, followed by an interesting discussion of his fiction in general – including the Dynmouth novel you include here. Worth tracking down. Some excellent choices here, Jacqui. Have a safe and happy Christmas.
Ah…thanks. Simon. I will seek it out. Do they comment on how Trevor’s style developed over the years by any chance? His early novels seem quite mischievous and darkly comic, almost akin to some of Muriel Spark’s work; and yet the later books (and stories) feel distinctly more melancholy. At least, that’s how it seems to me from those I’ve read to date.
Wishing you a safe and peaceful Christmas too, Simon, and a less challenging 2021. I hope you will be able to see your family in Spain at some point next year.
Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, it’s been hard not seeing family for a year. On the podcast they discuss WT’s style and themes in various ways, not explicitly about its development over time, but they do assess the sorts of changes you mention. I hope you enjoy it if you do track it down (NB the LRB produce at least two different literary podcasts; this is the Bookshop one).
Thanks for that, Simon. It sounds excellent, so I will definitely give it a listen. Fingers crossed that you’ll be able to meet up with your family in 2021. It must have been tough for all of you, especially with the COVID situation in Spain…
You did have another great reading year. Quite a few there I enjoyed as well in the past. Elizabeth Taylor, The Leopard, Hotel du Lac.
My reading was erratic and nowhere as successful as yours. My own fault. I picked a few newer bestselling novels and was always either underwhelmed or very disappointed. I didn’t even bother reviewing them. I wish you another excellent reading year in 2021. I hope to be around more again and more regularly.
I have! It’s been a surprisingly satisfying year on the reading front in spite of the chaos in practically every other area of life. I’ve been lucky with my choices on the whole, although it’s fair to say my reading has fallen off a cliff in the last six or seven weeks due to a big increase in work. (Thankfully, we’ve been quite busy at the shop lately, even during the November lockdown, with customers emailing or phoning through their Christmas lists well in advance.)
I’m really sorry to hear that you’ve had a somewhat frustrating reading year by comparison. It’s often difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff with newly published novels as certain titles fail to live up to the hype. I didn’t quite have space for it here, but Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age is a pacey, whip-smart novel about race, white privilege and wokeness in our social media age. You might find it worth a look – along with the Jonathan Coe, of course!
Wishing you a happy Christmas, Caroline, and a better 2021 on every front. I hope you are able to find the time and headspace to write more in 2021 – I do enjoy your reviews!
Happy Christmas to you too. Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll have a look. And thanks for the kind words.
I hope 2021 will be a better year for all of us, if only reading wise. It’s a blessing your busy though, but stressful too. Take care.
You’re very welcome! Better times ahead for all of us, I hope… Xx
What a wonderful list! I have had my eye on ‘Business as Usual’ for such a long time, and I’m so pleased to see it featuring as one of your top books. Have a wonderful Christmas!
Thanks, Kirsty – and a Merry Christmas to you, too. I think you will love Business As Usual – it feels right up your street!
Thanks Jacqui! I might have to get it as a little Christmas gift to myself…
Merry Christmas to you, Jacqui! This is a fantastic list, those authors are among my favourites! I am hoping to read The Skin Chairs soon, it sounds amazing :)
Merry Christmas, Juliana, and very best wishes for 2021! I think we have a lot in common when it comes to our favourite publishers and writers, which is always good to see. The Skin Chairs is vintage Comyns – rather twisted and surreal, but with enough grounding in reality to make it feel believable. Hopefully you already have a copy as it’s not the easiest book to track down!
I loved Business As Usual. Have a lovely Christmas :)
Pure unalloyed pleasure…
And a Merry Christmas to you, Janet – best wishes for the festive season.
Such a delight to see Business As Usual on your list, Jacqui. A very happy and restful Christmas to you. I hope you’ve been rushed off your feet!
Thanks, Susan. Such a delightful book, so I’m happy it made the final cut. Yes, we have been very busy, which is great…although Q1 2021 is going to be tough, especially if the current restrictions remain in place. That said, I’m looking forward to a bit of a break over Christmas, irrespective of what happens in Jan and Feb. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and year ahead – let’s hope it’s less stressful than 2020.
A lovely list Jacqui, you really did have a good reading year. Isn’t The Leopard an outstanding book, one of those that gets richer as the reader has more experience(s). And William Trevor, I think his short stories are close to perfect. I wish you a very happy Christmas and a New Year filled with good books!
Ah, thank you, Jule – and a very Merry Christmas to you, too. Yes, The Leopard is a remarkable novel. No wonder so many people cite it as one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In a way, I’m quite glad to have read it at this point my life as its subtleties might have been lost on me before…And yes, William Trevor is a keeper; I’m looking forward to reading more of him in the future. Wishing you all the best for the best for 2021 – lots of great reading, I hope!
Lots of fabulous reads here by authors I haven’t even started yet! Merry Christmas Jacqui!!
And to you, Jane. You have lots of treats in store here, should you decide to read any of these writers. :)
What a lovely list of books. I am so glad you rate The Balkan trilogy so highly, I loved it so much. Great to see Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann too. I read a couple of those this year too and one of them may be on my list too. I really should re-read Hotel du Lac it is so long since I read it.
Yes, The Balkans more than lived up to expectations. It’s always a risk, isn’t it, when something comes so highly praised; but in this instance its reputation was fully justified. Maybe I’ll read The Levant Trilogy next year, depending on how the next few months pan out. I’m very much looing forward to seeing your list, always a great source of recommendations for me. I’m also wondering which book we might have in common…The Skin Chairs, maybe, or Business As Usual? I shall have to wait and see!
I loved The Bottle Factory Outing! Great list Jacqui – hope you have a very Happy Christmas xx
Thanks, Cathy. Merry Christmas to you too, and all the best for next year.
What a great list, Jacqui! So agree about the Manning, and I really must read the second trilogy. She writes so well. Have a wonderful Christmas and let’s hope for a better 2021!
Me too! Maybe I’ll read it next year, that’s if I’m still around… As you say, let’s hope for brighter things ahead for 2021.
An impressive list Jacqui. I have read a few of these. Will read Mr Wilder and Me when I can get hold of it. Wishing you a safe and happy Christmas and a good start to 2021.
And to you, Gert! The Jonathan Coe is wonderful. Warm and affectionate without a hint of sugariness. I found it such a joy to read. X
Want to read that particular Elizabeth Taylor. As for The Caravaners, I included it in my best of the year round-up too. It was just what I needed. You’ve sold me on The Skin Chairs as well by comparing it with Shirley Jackson. And you know how much The Balkan Trilogy means to me… in short, a rather wonderful list you have there!
Thank you! Funnily enough, I think it was your post on the von Arnim that prompted me it take it off the shelf. The baron is such a marvellous creation – the sort of person who is fascinating to observe at a distance but absolutely insufferable to deal with in real life. As for your other comments, you might have given me one or two ideas for your subscription books. ;-)
Have you read Manning’s Levant Trilogy, too? If so, do tell me how it compares to the Balkans – I’m hoping it’s just as good!
We have several favorite authors in common as I’ve read seven of your authors and five of your titles. The Caravaners is a favorite von Arnim of mine and I hope to read more of her work next year. Weather in the Streets and The Balkan Trilogy are high on my TBR list. Happy holidays!
And to you, Grier! That’s quite an overlap between our respective favourites – how fabulous to hear. I thought The Caravaners was wonderful, almost better than The Enchanted April in some respects. And the other two you mention as future possibilities seems right up your street. I hope you get a chance to read them next year!
A lovely list, and I have read a good number of them. I am looking forward to getting hold of a copy of Business As Usual at some point as so many reliable bloggers have loved it!
Oh, it’s great – very much the type of book I think you’d enjoy, especially in the current climate. Handheld have brought out some terrific books over the past 24 months, so it’s interesting to see two of their titles in my final list. A good indicator of quality, I suspect.
I’ve not read any of these apart from The Leopard – not even the Elizabeth Taylor! Olivia Manning and Anita Brookner are in my plans however…
Oh, I think you’d really like the Taylor! It’s surprisingly sinister for her, especially the opening…
So many delicious books on this year-end list: you’ve had an amazing assortment to enjoy despite the stresses of 2020. What would we do without books and stories to nourish our souls in these hard times: we’d manage, and many do, but what a comfort they are. I was wondering if the Brookner would make the cut…I absolutely love the idea that we can return to and rediscover joys in a read that we previously dismissed (for a variety of maybe-good-at-the-time reasons). It’s a simple element of hope.
Yes, the Bookner was a shoo-in this time around. As someone termed it back then, it was as if I had sensed some unfinished business with that book, something that I’d been unable to let go of or figure out on the second reading. It was only on the third one that everything seemed to click into place…As you say, it’s a good sign!
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Happy New Year Jacqui!
Fascinating list as ever. I wish I shared your love for Hotel de Lac, I reread it not that long ago and it’s still a novel I respect rather than love.
The Offing though, wonderful, and while it’s a bit of a cheat to include three Mannings as one entry on your list they’re so good I can’t really complain.
I read Elizabeth and her Garden as my second von Arnim. Fun but I suspect The Caravaners is the better novel. I’ll definitely check out the Taylor which sounds fabulous.
Interesting to return to the same characters ten years on with the Lehmann. One doesn’t see that so often and it sounds like it works here.
Happy New Year to you too, Max! I hope you had a good break over Christmas with plenty of time to read and recharge the batteries.
I get it about the Brookner, I really do. It’s a hard novel to love, but this time around I felt I finally engaged with it – either more fully or on a different level. Either way, it touched a nerve, and I couldn’t get enough of it…
As for the others, we’re very much in agreement about The Offing. I’m so glad you loved it. He’s definitely a writer I want to read more of in the future, maybe with The Gallows Pole or one of his crime novels.
The Balkans were amazing too. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to start the Levant trilogy at some point, although I’m a bit nervous about planning anything at the moment when the wider world still flees so uncertain…
The Lehmann is terrific and very much the type of book I would recommend to you. It’s actually quite a step up from An Invitation to the Waltz (the earlier novel featuring the same pair). As you say, it’s a risky thing to do to return to a much-loved set of characters, but Lehmann really pulls it off. It’s probably in the same league (and style) as some of Elizabeth Taylor’s best novels – it really is that good!
Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to seeing your books-of-the-year round-up, whenever you get an opportunity to write it. Always a highlight, for sure.
I’ve been tempted by the Balkan Trilogy for a while and it’s just come up on Netgalley via Random House’s Cornerstone imprint, so I’ll be reading the three parts this year and looking forward to that.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is also one I’ve had my eye on for years, waiting for it to cross my path and the right timing, but it remains in my view.
And more Elizabeth Taylor and Von Arnim to be tempted by, you do happen to fall upon the best, with your discerning eye for a good read Jacqui. So many temptations of the kind that endure here.
Wonderful! The Balkan Trilogy is brilliant — and a great series to read while our ability to travel anywhere in real life remains restricted. One of the things I love about Manning is her ability to capture the cultural fabric of a city, something that goes beyond the typical atmosphere or sense of place. It’s something that comes through very strongly here. You’d like the von Armin, too, I feel. Your post on her German Garden was one of the pieces that prompted me to read her in the first place, so I have you to thank for that!
I well remember the first time I had Von Arnim’s German Garden pressed into my hands but a friend in London, she made me read the first chapter but wasn’t able to lend me the book and the next day I returned to France and about a month later my own copy arrived, such anticipation – forever imprinted on my memory – and what a devilish author, so not what I was expecting, but pure delight!
I can’t wait to start The Balkan Trilogy and experience it just as you say. Perfect reading for these times indeed, not surprised they are in reissue.
How lovely! Yes, von Arnim is delightful. Ideal comfort reading for these stressful times…