The best literary fiction of 2020

With highly anticipated new novels from Man Booker Prize winners and exciting debuts from diverse voices, 2020 is shaping up to be a remarkable year for literary fiction.

11/08/2020
3 minutes to read

2020 has already been a fantastic year for literary fiction, with Douglas Stuart's debut Shuggie Bain longlisted for this year's Booker Prize and new novels from not one but two previous Booker Prize winners. Aravind Adiga’s gripping novel Amnesty is an urgent and timely exploration of the realities of life as an undocumented immigrant, while for fans of Hilary Mantel the wait is over, with the final book in her trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell published in March. This year also sees a range of diverse debut novels, from Graeme Armstrong’s powerful novel of gang culture in the heart of Scotland, to Dima Alzayat’s luminous collection of short stories. Here is our edit of the most highly-anticipated literary fiction of 2020.

Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for 9781529019278

Douglas Stuart’s blistering, Booker Prize-longlisted debut is a heartbreaking story which lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty and the limits of love. Set in a poverty-stricken Glasgow in the early 1980s, Agnes Bain has always dreamed of greater things, but when her husband abandons her she finds herself trapped in a decimated mining town with her three children, and descends deeper and deeper into drink. Her son Shuggie tries to help her long after her other children have fled, but he too must abandon her to save himself. Shuggie is different, fastidious and fussy, and he is picked on by the local children and condemned by adults as no’ right’. But he believes that if he tries his hardest he can be like other boys and escape this hopeless place.

Summerwater

by Sarah Moss

Book cover for 9781529035438

This devastating novel from the acclaimed author of Ghost Wall is set over twenty-four hours as the guests of a faded Scottish cabin park wait out the rain on the longest day of the year. With little else to do, twelve people sit cooped up with their families, watching the other residents. Slowly, one family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, begin to draw attention and tensions begin to rise as tragedy looms. Summerwater is a searing exploration of our capacity for both kinship and cruelty and a literary must-read in these divided times.

Breasts and Eggs

by Mieko Kawakami

Book cover for 9781509898206

This literary debut, which Haruki Murakami called ‘breathtaking’, is a must-read for fans of contemporary literary fiction. Mieko Kawakami paints a radical picture of contemporary working-class womanhood in Japan as she recounts the heartbreaking stories of three women who must survive in a society where the odds are stacked against them.

You Will Never Be Forgotten

by Mary South

Book cover for 9781529041453

Mary South's bitingly funny debut collection explores how technology can both ruin relationships and provide new opportunities for genuine connection. The ten stories contained in this book are darkly absurdist and savagely critical of our current cultural climates, while at the same time finding hope in moments of tenderness and fleeting interactions. Mary South is a perceptive, distinctive new voice in literary fiction.

The Harpy

by Megan Hunter

Book cover for 9781529010213

Lucy thinks she's happily married to Jake, working from home and devoting her life to their children and their house. Until one day a man calls with a message which shatters Lucy's world: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy's husband, and he wanted her to know. When Lucy confronts Jake they come to an agreement: they'll stay together, but to even the score Lucy will hurt Jake three times. As this delicate game of crime and punishment begins, so Lucy herself begins to change.

The Blind Light

by Stuart Evers

Book cover for 9781529030976

This powerful novel is both an ambitious story of our national past and a brilliant, intimate evocation of a family. During his National Service in the 1950s, Dummond meets two people who will change his life. Carter, a rich, educated man sent down from Oxford, and Gwen, the barmaid who will become his wife. The Blind Light moves from the fifties to the present day, taking in the local and global events that will shape Drummond's family.

The Pull of the Stars

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for 9781529046151

As war and disease ravage Ireland, Nurse Julia Power works in a tiny ward in an understaffed hospital, where expectant mothers struck by an unfamiliar flu are quarantined together. Julia is assisted by two new arrivals, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, and over the course of three days these women will change each other's lives in unexpected ways. The Pull of the Stars is a classic story of hope and survival from the bestselling author of Room.

Little Bandaged Days

by Kyra Wilder

Book cover for 9781529017373

Kyra Wilder’s debut novel is a beautifully written, painfully claustrophobic story of a woman’s descent into madness. A mother moves to Geneva with her husband and their two young children. Unable to speak the language, and with her husband working increasingly long hours, she becomes more and more isolated. As her whole world becomes about caring for her children, Erika is determined that everything will be perfect. But it isn’t . . . Erika has never been so alone, and when the children are sleeping, there is just too much time to fill all by herself.

Correspondents

by Tim Murphy

Book cover for 9781529020397

Tim Murphy’s powerful novel spans the breadth of the twentieth century and the legacy of the post-9/11 wars. Rita Khoury is an Irish-Lebanese woman whose family came to America during the golden years of immigration. When her career as a journalist sees her posted to Iraq after the 2003 American invasion, she finds that her safety depends on her translator Nabil – a young man hiding a secret about his sexuality. When Nabil’s identity puts him in trouble and Rita’s position becomes more and more unstable, they are forced out of the country and into an uncertain future.

The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Book cover for 9781529005103

This stunningly evocative novel set on the remote Norwegian island of Vardø in the 1600s was inspired by the real Vardø storm and the subsequent witch hunt. When a catastrophic storm wipes out almost the entirety of the male population of the island, the women who are left, still grieving for their men, are forced to fend for themselves. Eighteen months later, the sinister new commissioner, Absolom Cornet, arrives with his young wife Ursa. Ursa sees independent women for the first time in her life, and she is drawn to Maren, the young woman who helps her navigate life in this harsh new world. But Absolom is convinced that the women’s behaviour is ungodly and he must bring them to heel by any means necessary.

Read Kiran Millwood Hargrave on the true story behind The Mercies.

Amnesty

by Aravind Adiga

Book cover for 9781509879038

Full of Aravind Adiga’s signature wit and magic, this novel from the Man Booker Prize-winning author is both a universal story and a timeless moral struggle. When Danny – an illegal immigrant in Sydney who has been denied refugee status – hears about a murder that has been committed which he may have information about, he faces a moral choice. Should he come forward with his knowledge of the crime and risk deportation, or should he stay silent, protecting the life he has built but letting justice go undone?

The Young Team

by Graeme Armstrong

Book cover for 9781529017328

In the forgotten heartlands of Scotland, your mates, your young team, they're everything you've got. At fourteen Azzy Williams is a rising star. At seventeen he's out of control. And by twenty-one he'd like to leave it all behind. But finding a way out isn't easy.

The Young Team is an energetic novel, full of the loyalty, laughs and violence of life on the streets. This powerful story about the realities of life for young people in Britain today is inspired by the author's own experiences of teenage life.

The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for 9781509882809

When Vincent, a beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, meets the hotel's owner, New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis, she immediately agrees to start a new life with him. That same night, an unknown person graffittis the window of the hotel with the words 'Why don't you swallow broken glass.' The staff, and a guest, shipping executive Leon Prevant, are left shaken by the malicious message. Thirteen years later, Vincent disappears from a ship owned by the same company Leon worked for . . .

Emily St. John Mandel's extraordinary novel moves between time and place to explore greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, the interconnectedness of our lives and the ghosts of our pasts.

Cleanness

by Garth Greenwell

Book cover for 9781509874637

Expanding the world of his novel What Belongs to You, a debut that the New York Times Book Review hailed as 'an instant classic, in Cleanness Garth Greenwell writes with startling insight about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with ourselves.

In Bulgaria's capital, amid political protests, an American teacher reflects on the intimate encounters of his past as he prepares to leave the country he has come to call home.

Writers & Lovers

by Lily King

Book cover for 9781529033106

Casey has just lost her mother and is still recovering from the end of a devastating love affair. Living in a rented shed and working on the novel she’s been trying to write for the last six years, at thirty-one she feels too old to be so directionless. Then she meets two very different men, who represent very different futures. This funny and moving novel explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.

Alligator and Other Stories

by Dima Alzayat

Book cover for 9781529029895

Alligator and Other Stories explores the many ways of feeling displaced: as a Syrian, as an Arab, as an immigrant, as a woman. Each of these rich, relatable stories highlights the moment when unusual circumstances mark us as ‘other’ – different from our neighbours. Each of these stories is startling and real, delivering an emotional punch which lingers long after reading.

The Hiding Game

by Naomi Wood

Book cover for 9781509892785

The Hiding Game is Naomi Woods’s beautifully written, atmospheric third novel about the dangerously fine line between love and obsession. Set against the rising political tensions of 1920s Germany, the story follows Paul Beckermann as he arrives at the Bauhaus art school and is seduced by the bohemian atmosphere, charismatic teachers and his fellow students. As he spends more time with his new friends, he quickly falls in love with the mesmerising Charlotte, and tensions and rivalries begin to surface. As the existence of the Bauhaus is threatened and betrayals and jealousy splits the group apart, they hurtle toward an unthinkable tragedy . . .

Read Naomi Wood on the influence of Bauhaus design and teaching on the way we live now.

Salt Slow

by Julia Armfield

Book cover for 9781529012590

Julia Armfield was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2019 for her brilliantly inventive and haunting collection of short stories, Salt Slow. These stories explore the body and the bodily through the characters’ experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Salt Slow blurs the gothic with the everyday, and marks the arrival of an ambitious and singular new voice.

The Confession

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for 9781509886197

The highly anticipated third novel from million-copy bestselling author Jessie Burton is a powerful and deeply moving story about secrets, motherhood and friendship. In 1980 Elise meets Constance, a successful writer, and quickly falls under her spell, moving to LA to be with her. Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for answers about her mother, who disappeared after she was born. When she learns that reclusive novelist Constance Holden was the last person to see her mother alive, she is drawn to her door in search of a confession . . .

Read Lucy Scholes on The Confession and portrayals of motherhood in literature.

The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for 9781529002430

Elizabeth Macneal’s bestselling debut novel immerses the reader in the intoxicating world of Victorian London, as the Great Exhibition approaches. All Iris wants in life is the freedom to pursue her passion for art. When Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost asks her to model for him she agrees, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. As a whole world of art and love opens up for Iris, a chance encounter with Silas, a collector of the strange and beautiful, changes everything. Because Silas can’t stop thinking about Iris, and his dangerous obsession is growing . . .

Discover ten weird and wonderful facts about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.


In this episode of Book Break Emma shares her recommendations for the best new literary fiction.