The best literary fiction of 2020

With Booker Prize-winning debuts and highly anticipated novels from literary big hitters, 2020 has been a remarkable year for literature. We look back at the best literary fiction of 2020 and ahead to the most exciting literary books to come in 2021. 

26/11/2020
4 minutes to read

2020 has already been a fantastic year for literary fiction, with Douglas Stuart's heartbreaking debut Shuggie Bain winning this year's Booker Prize and new novels from not one but two previous Booker Prize winners. Don DeLillo returned with The Silence, possibly his most prescient novel yet, and Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, wowed fans with The Pull of the Stars. This year has also seen a wealth of outstanding debuts, 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.

For more inspiration, discover our edit of the best fiction books. 

The best literary fiction of 2020

The Silence

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781529057096

One of America’s greatest literary fiction writers is back with this illuminating and essential guide to our navigation of a bewildering world. Set on Super Bowl Sunday 2022, this compelling novel about what happens when an unpredictable crisis strikes is a profoundly moving examination of what makes us human. A retired physics professor and her husband are hosting a dinner party. One of her former students has already arrived, but another couple has been delayed by a dramatic flight from Paris. As they wait for kick-off, something happens that severs the digital connections in all our lives. 

Read our beginner's guide to Don DeLillo

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Book cover for 9781529050868

This is another beautiful, simple tale about the time-travelling customers of the Cafe Funiculi Funicula from the author of Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Customers include a man who travels to see the girl he couldn’t marry, a son who had to miss his mother’s funeral and a man who travels back to see his friend who died twenty-two years ago. 


Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for 9781529019278
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Douglas Stuart’s blistering, Booker Prize-winning 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.

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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.

Read Sarah Moss and her editor discussing  Summerwater, Brexit anxieties and the strangeness of holidays

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.

Read Emma Donoghue on her inspiration for The Pull of the Stars.

Little Bandaged Days

by Kyra Wilder

Book cover for 9781529017373
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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.

In this article, Kyra discusses the process of writing Little Bandaged Days

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Correspondents

by Tim Murphy

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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.

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The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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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.

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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
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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.

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The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel

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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.

Read Octavia Bright on the capitalist dystopia of The Glass Hotel

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Cleanness

by Garth Greenwell

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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.

Don't miss Garth Greenwell and his editor in conversation.

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Writers & Lovers

by Lily King

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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.

Read Naomi Frisby on Writers and Lovers and changing perceptions of adulthood.

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Alligator and Other Stories

by Dima Alzayat

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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.

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The Hiding Game

by Naomi Wood

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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.

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Salt Slow

by Julia Armfield

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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.

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The Confession

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for 9781509886197
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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.

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The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

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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.

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Best new literary fiction of 2021

Luster

by Raven Leilani

Book cover for 9781529035988

Raven Leilani is a funny and original new voice in literary fiction. Her razor-sharp yet surprisingly tender debut is an essential novel about what it means to be young now. Edie is messing up her life, and no one seems to care. Then she meets Eric, who is white, middle-aged and comes with a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. And as if life wasn’t hard enough, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s family. 

The Most Precious of Cargoes

by Jean-Claude Grumberg

Book cover for 9781529019568

Told with a fairytale-like lyricism, this is a fable of family and redemption set against the horrors of the Holocaust. A poor woodcutter and his wife lived in a forest. Despite their poverty and the war raging around them, the wife prays that they will be blessed with a child. 

A Jewish man rides on a train with his wife and twin babies. When his wife no longer has enough milk to feed them both, in desperation he throws his daughter into the forest, hoping that she’ll be saved. When the woodcutter’s wife finds the baby she takes her home, though she knows the danger this act of kindness may bring. This is literary fiction at its most moving. 

The War of the Poor

by Eric Vuillard

Book cover for 9781529038538

This impactful blend of history and literary fiction tells the story of a brutal episode from the past, when, in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation took on the privileged and the powerful. Eric Vuillard’s portrait of one man, Thomas Müntzer, casts light on a time in which Europe was in flux. 


Best literary fiction of all time

Underworld

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9780330524971

Don DeLillo’s epic saga opens - famously - at the Dodgers-Giants 1951 National League final, where Bobby Thomson hits The Shot Heard Round the World and goes on to encompass fifty years of American history. It offers a panoramic vision of America, defined by the overarching conflict of the cold war. This masterpiece of American literature saw Don DeLillo nominated for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

Dirt Music

by Tim Winton

Book cover for 9781509871131

Georgie Jutland is a mess. At forty, with her career in ruins, she finds herself stranded with a man she doesn't love and two kids whose dead mother she can never replace. She spends her days in isolated tedium and her nights in a blur of vodka and self-recrimination. Until, early one morning, she sees a shadow drifting up the beach below her house. It is Luther Fox, an outcast, a man on the run from his own past. And now here he is stepping into Georgie’s life. He brings hope, maybe even love, but also danger . . . This is a stunning novel about the power of love from one of Australia’s best literary fiction authors. 

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for 9781447294832

When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition.

There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome  but that will define his life forever.

White is for Witching

by Helen Oyeyemi

Book cover for 9780330458153

This spine-tingling novel by Helen Oyeyemi was the 2010 winner of the Somerset Maugham Award. The Silver family, twins Eliot and Miranda and their father Luc, are mourning the loss of wife and mother Lily. Their house, perched high on the cliffs near Dover, belonged to Lily’s ancestors, and to Miranda, it seems like they never left. 

Girl, Woman, Other

by Bernardine Evaristo

Book cover for [object Object]

 This 2019 Booker Prize winner follows twelve characters on their personal journeys over the last one hundred years. From Newcastle to Cornwall and the beginning of the twentieth century to the modern day, each of them is searching for something. These wonderful interwoven stories address issues of race, identity and womanhood. 

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