My books of the year 2020: Part 3: Fiction 

The three best fiction books I read in 2020 – and a scattering of others I'd also recommend.

This is the third in a short series of articles about the best books I read in 2020. You can read the introduction here and a reflection on The Mirror & The Light here.

I’ve selected three books as my top fiction reads of the year. I went through a whodunnit phase, had a great time with what would be John Le Carré’s last novel Agent Running in the Field, PD James’s Children of Men and Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Where The Crawdads Sing and The Glass Hotel, American Dirt and My Sister The Serial Killer were transporting and engrossing, great reads all. The following three books are the ones that are most present still for me at the end of this year of years.

  1. The Mirror & The Light, by Hilary Mantel

  2. Outline, by Rachael Cusk 

  3. Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

The Mirror & The Light

In preparing this review of my year’s reading I’ve gone back to my highlights and notes from The Mirror & The Light and it needs its own article. If you’ve not seen it already it is here.

This book, and the trilogy it completes is such a staggering achievement as a work of literary art it absolutely has to be my book of the year.

If you’ve not read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies go back and read those first. If you’ve tried to read them but not quite connected, I sympathise. Watch the TV series and then go back and read them.

Mantel maintains that this is the best book of the three and I am not going to argue. Ironically the previous two won the Booker Prize, while The Mirror and The Light didn’t make the short–list. One of the judges, Lee Child, said that “there were better books” and I really look forward to reading Shuggie Bain, which won and the other three. They would have to be something remarkable to beat this book for me, however.

Outline, by Rachael Cusk

Outline took me completely by surprise. Utterly original, it's a series of conversations that tell stories and that depict characters the protagonist – who may or may not be the actual author – meets while teaching a writing seminar in Athens one summer. We learn very little about the protagonist explicitly, but pick up a sense of her from the conversations.

Coming back to it now, several months later, to write about why it has – and had such a hold on me – the best I can offer is some of its flavour in a quote or two:

It is interesting how keen people are for you to do something they would never dream of doing themselves, how enthusiastically they drive you to your own destruction: even the kindest ones the ones that are most loving, can rarely have your interests truly at heart, because usually they are advising you from within lives of greater security and greater confinement, where escape is not a reality but simply something they dream of sometimes. Perhaps, he said, we are all like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost.

There is a thematic connection with The Mirror and the Light, in that it is about what Julian Baggini's calls The Ego Trick ("‘I’ is a verb, masquerading as a noun"). We invent ourselves from moment to moment, sometimes through reflections glimpsed in the eyes of others. This can seem like a depressing insight, until you grasp its power and the agency we have in making ourselves. Outline hints at the inner politics, the inner game, of who you are and who you will decide to be, the story you tell yourself when you look in the mirror.

In the strange intense summer after the first lockdown of 2020 in the UK, still in the grip of Covid and its cloying after-effects on my health, this book felt very real to me.
Outline has a deep but somehow nourishing melancholy to it. There’s a sense of consciously seeking refuge in a moment, of enjoying a sunny place in a distanced way, as a trauma recedes for a while, even if it has not been resolved. An aftermath can only be avoided for a short time. Eventually you have to start digging out your life from the remains. Even knowing that, there is solace in the moment of pause, while you wait for your sense of self to come back into focus.

There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

It was perfect in the moment that I read it, but it has a hold on me still. I’ve the next book in the trilogy ready for when I’m ready; which will be soon.

Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

I'd like to connect some themes from the two previous books with this first–rate work of science fiction. Ancillary Justice is a book I turned to for escape; wanting to go to some other worlds far from the weight of life in 2020, but found more there than I'd expected. Set in a far future where a colossal empire that must constantly expand to sustain itself has intelligent and conscious spacecraft that each maintains small armies of ancillaries – human bodies which they have co–opted as agents or avatars: individual but connected elements of the same mind.

In Ancillary Justice there are selves and collectives and different versions of the same self. As the story develops there is a kind of split-personality disorder occurring in a leader that threatens civil war.

The best science fiction invokes a kind of intellectual vertigo, settling you in a reality you think you understand and then spinning your perspectives around like one of those astronaut training machines where the gyroscopes simulate the disorientation of losing all control and bearings in space.

One of the other themes in the book is communication. There are layers to the languages and communications, awareness of languages distinct weaknesses and strengths, even though the languages are imagined and never explicit. A recurring example of this is that the lingua franca of the empire is non-gendered and the default gender is expressed as female. Native speakers are bemused by the importance of gender in other cultures, just as people in those cultures can spot them as other because they struggle to identify not just the gender of words but of people.

The perspective of the speaker is defined not just by language, but by location – or locations – in which their consciousness is speaking. Conversations take place in parallel in different places, informed by events and conversations that linked minds are having.

Non-verbal communication too is important with a gesture mentioned indicating one thing or another but what precisely the movement might be is left to the imagination. For example:

… She made an averting gesture.
… I frowned, and she made a placatory gesture.
… I made a small, doubtful gesture.

There are also unintentional communications – the artificial intelligences and their ancillaries can read emotions from people's micro-expressions, changes in perspiration, breathing and heartbeats:

Station could certainly see a large percentage of its residents with the same intimate view I’d had of my officers. The rest—including me, now—it saw in less detail. Temperature. Heart rate. Respiration. Less impressive than the flood of data from more closely monitored residents, but still a great deal of information

Apart from the thrill of perspective shifts and strange ideas, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice's playfulness and respect for the importance of language and conversation in understanding who we are and the idea of self.