If you’re keen to dedicate some time in the new decade to reading works of fiction – allow me to suggest exploring the following list. You may have seen my top 10 fiction books of 2019 on Instagram, however, just to make my life difficult, I’ve narrowed it down to my top 5 (plus a special mention). I’ve gone with my gut and chosen the books that provided the greatest overall reading experience but on any other day I could’ve chosen differently… so I definitely recommend them all.
I will say that some of these books are quite challenging in terms of subject matter so I’ve tried to highlight that where possible. If you find yourself questioning whether you’ll be able to read certain content, I’d highly encourage you to look into the book even further.
Once again, these are in reading order, as opposed to order of preference, because choosing a top 5 was hard enough!
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I’d been meaning to read The Bluest Eye for so long and it certainly didn’t disappoint. If you’ve yet to read it, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It’s a small book but, as you’d expect of anything written by Toni Morrison, it packs quite the punch.
To briefly summarise, The Bluest Eye tells of Percola, a young black girl who prays for the blue eyes of her white classmates because, to her, those eyes hold the key to her happiness and a place in the world that feels otherwise unattainable.
There are parts of this book that were so difficult to read, however, its worth doesn’t lie in how gut-wrenching it is, or its ability to break your heart and it certainly doesn’t exist to reduce the black woman’s experience to a series of traumatic events or a life of hardship. It does, however, draw attention to the fact that so many black women, from girlhood, face a kind of discrimination that women of other races aren’t subject to.
Beyond the harrowing nature of the story itself, Toni Morrison’s ability to transmit such depth of human experience through the written word is nothing short of genius.
2. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee*
As someone who enjoys historical fiction selectively and typically avoids your usual WWI/WWII stories, I was happy to make an exception for this one because it offered a perspective I’d not yet come across in fiction.
Between 1942-1945 the Japanese occupied Singapore and, during this time, the Japanese army “recruited” (read: kidnapped/coerced) tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery in order to satisfy the sexual appetites of the Japanese army. These women came to be known as ‘comfort women’. How We Disappeared tells the story of Wang-Di whose life was forever marred by her kidnapping at the age of 17.
This is a story about how the secrets we keep can eat us alive from the inside and, whilst it is utterly heartbreaking, the story was truly captivating and a reminder of just how easily historical events are forgotten, overlooked or selectively brushed aside.
I’ll also add that if, like me, you can’t resist a beautiful book cover, the paperback edition of this one is published in February and it is stunning!
3. Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (also published as ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly)
Manchester Happened is a short story collection by Ugandan author, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, which explores the experiences of Ugandans who’ve journeyed to make a home for themselves in Britain – Manchester specifically. Whilst the first half tells the stories of characters who have moved to the UK, the second half looks at the experiences of characters who, after a period of time in the UK, return to Uganda.
As with any short story collection, I inevitably loved some stories even more than others but I truly enjoyed them all.
Both of Makumbi’s published works, Manchester Happened and Kintu, made my top ten and that is because she is a phenomenal story teller: sharp, quick-witted, thorough and so insightful. I’d highly recommend reading either of these books and I’m beyond excited about the fact that she has a new novel, The First Woman, being published later this year.
4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
I won’t say too much about this one because you can read an in-depth review here. This book is a work of art!
Evaristo chronicles the lives of eleven women and one non-binary person, mostly black and ranging in age from 19-90+, whose lives are seamlessly interwoven. It is nothing short of brilliant and beyond deserving of the Booker Prize it was awarded last year.
5. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell*
I wondered whether to include this one because it isn’t published until March but I decided to include it because it’s definitely one to look out for.
This book has been hailed as ‘the book that everyone will be talking about in 2020’ and, whilst I’m usually quite skeptical of such accolades, I’m inclined to agree.
The book tells the story of Vanessa who, at the age of thirty-two is shocked when she discovers that the teacher she believes she had a sexual relationship with at the age of fifteen, has been accused of sexual assault by a former pupil.
The author takes you on such a harrowing journey as we see the ‘relationship’ unfold through Vanessa’s eyes and witness her coming to terms with its reality. I’d advise anyone considering reading this one to prepare themselves for the whirlwind of emotions that will likely accompany any reading of it, however, it is exceptionally well-written and I imagine it’ll prove very popular.
Finally, because most of those books were so (brilliantly) tragic, I’m including a special mention:
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin*
For anyone in search of a lighter read I couldn’t recommend this book more highly!
A Toronto-based Pride & Prejudice retelling with Muslim protagonists, Jalaluddin has managed to portray two people, who just happen to be Muslim, falling in love in a way that is totally unapologetic with regards to their beliefs and absent of the stereotyping and over-explaining I’m sure we’re all a little tired of seeing. It was touching, comical and feel-good in all the right ways and just so refreshing.
I think that ties up 2019 quite nicely and I’m looking forward to bringing you all some truly fantastic books in 2020. Two weeks in and I may have discovered some 2020 favourites already!
*Gifted by publishers