And so we limp to the end of 2020. But there’s still much to celebrate. Books! Writers! Here are my highlights of the year.
Early in the pandemic I got really into apocalyptic books. The Plague, Grapes Of Wrath – these were stories of people confronting seemingly impossible challenges, and somehow making it through. I read Mark O’Connell’s Notes From An Apocalypse, a tour of places “where the shadows of the future fall most darkly across the present” (it felt a little on the nose).
Stellar writing abounded. Tara June Winch swept all the prizes for The Yield, a wonderful tale of the power of language. Ali Smith capped off her seasonal quartet with the lovely, nostalgic Summer. Fernanda Melchor throttled me with Hurricane Season. Iris Murdoch’s The Bell impressed me with its brooding, late-summer atmosphere, and Brandon Taylor threw the best-worst dinner party of the year in Real Life. Ellen Van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat was warm and filled with light.
But this year for me has really been a year of non-fiction. I started early on with Jess Hill’s heartrending investigation into domestic abuse in See What You Made Me Do. Then I moved onto a series of books about our relationship to nature. Andrew Darby’s Flight Lines and its quietly subversive argument for global cooperation; Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms, on how whales could be key to expanding our boundaries of care; Feasting Wild, Gina Rae La Cerva’s globe-trotting investigation into wild food; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, about the mind-expanding possibilities of fungi; and Living With The Anthropocene, a collection from various Australian writers about our present moment, containing some of the most incisive environmental writing I’ve read in a while.
Here are the books that have had the biggest impact on me this year:
The Odyssey by Homer – The book I keep coming back to over and over. It has everything I want in a story – action, romance, high fantasy, family drama, political intrigue. But the thing I keep thinking about is how it asks how, after a long and exhausting battle, we can find our way home and come back to ourselves.
The Adversary by Ronnie Scott – This book about a group of gays in inner Melbourne has the best joke I’ve read in a novel this year, as well as some seriously good writing.
Fire Country by Victor Steffensen – Capping off a year of great non-fiction, this book about Indigenous fire management calls for “the new wave of human environmental evolution”. It continues to rewire my brain.
Truganini by Cassandra Pybus – Although we’ll never know what it was like to live through Australia’s colonial wars, Cassandra Pybus does her best to release one woman from the murkiness of colonial records. A shattering book.
The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara – A queer glitterbomb of joy, this reworking of Argentina’s cowboy mythology was my feel-good novel of the year.
The Lost Arabs by Omar Sakr – The sacred and profane collide in this collection of poetry that examines the violent legacies of racism and imperialism in Australia and the Middle East, and the longing to escape the borders around ourselves.
Next year I’m looking forward to The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jnr and, now that I’ve read the poem it’s based on, finally getting all the way through James Joyce’s Ulysses.