Best Literary Fiction of 2020

Belonging and acceptance, ecological disaster, Shakespeare's child. The best literary fiction published in 2020.

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

 

Akhtar, Ayad. Homeland Elegies. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316496421.

In this achingly intimate novel-cum-memoir, Akhtar explores the existential themes of belonging and acceptance that consume immigrants to the United States, specifically, a Pakistani Muslim family in a post-9/11 world. As they work to embrace their new country, the beating heart of this story centers on the protagonist’s complex relationship with his father and his homeland.

 

Alam, Rumaan. Leave the World Behind. Ecco. ISBN 9780062667632.

In this tense dazzler of a novel, a remote rental cottage in the Hamptons appears to be the perfect spot for a family to unwind. After one wine-soaked evening in the hot tub, the adults are heading to bed when there is a knock at the door. This is not a scary home invasion but something else entirely: the start of apocalypse.

 

Beah, Ishmael. Little Family. Riverhead.ISBN 9780735211773.

Five children, wise beyond their years and portrayed with exquisite tenderness and grace, band together for safety in an abandoned airplane in an unknown African country. They survive by stealing food by day and telling stories at night to tamp down the nightmares of buried memories. Then a new nightmare arrives as a sinister figure threatens the family’s fragilely constructed invisibility.

 

Beha, Christopher. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. Tin House. ISBN 9781947793828.

In Beha’s flawlessly constructed look at class, media, celebrity, and the limits of data, Sam Waxworth’s work as a forecasting prodigy at Interviewer magazine brings him in touch with the family of Frank Doyle, disgraced for his racist rants but Waxworth’s childhood hero for his baseball stories. A multifaceted perspective on our contemporary world.

 

Gyasi, Yaa. Transcendent Kingdom. Knopf. ISBN 9780525658184.

Moving between Gifty, a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, and the tragedies of her Alabama-based Ghanaian American family, Gyasi’s illuminating novel portrays both inner turmoil and social issues while limning the conflict between science and religion.

 

McCann, Colum. Apeirogon. Random. ISBN 9781400069606.

Two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, have each lost a beloved young daughter—one to a military error, the other to a suicide bomber. These two men improbably come together as “Combatants for Peace.” Based on a true story, this exquisite novel, filled with Middle Eastern history and a wealth of bird lore, suggests a path toward reconciliation.

 

McConaghy, Charlotte. Migrations. Flatiron: Macmillan. ISBN 9781250204028.

Set in an undefined near future, this arresting, lushly written work details ecological disaster and the longing for place as Franny Stone travels to Greenland so she can follow the world’s last flock of Arctic terns on its final migration. A consummate blend of issue and portrait, warning and affirmation, with an expertly folded-in mystery to heighten the tension.

 

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf. ISBN 9780525658696.

Happiness for Jivan, a young woman from the slums of Bengal, India, is a job, a new phone, and a Facebook account. After witnessing a horrific act of terrorism, she writes her first post about the incident, landing her in the crosshairs of the inept police. This searing novel, featuring racial unrest and police brutality, is as fresh as today’s headlines.

 

Marcom, Micheline Aharonian. The New American. S. & S. ISBN 9781982120726.     

With lyrical prose, interwoven with a heartbreaking and harrowing travel narrative through Central America, Marcom humanizes the politically charged rhetoric around undocumented immigrants and refugees as she traces the story of Emilio, a deported Guatemalan American college student navigating his way back to California. A raw but beautiful meditation on the ambiguity of home.

 

O’Farrell, Maggie. Hamnet. Knopf. ISBN 9780525657606.

In piercingly poetic language and remarkable historical detail, O’Farrell magically transports readers to 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon, where plague has devastated the country and robbed young Will Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes, of their son, Hamnet. Though their profound grief is laid bare on the page, their love for their son and for each other will eventually become manifest in Will’s finest play.

 

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

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