Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Ruth Gilligan, Setting

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 304 pages; 2020.

Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers proved to be an unexpectedly immersive, totally compelling and incredibly SURREAL novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Set during the BSE crisis of 1996, this is yet another book that could be classified as “pestilence fiction” or “pandemic lit”. (I seem to be reading a string of them recently… all purely by accident… see Nemesis and Anna.)

But this one eschews the bad things that can happen when there is a disease outbreak in favour of the opportunities it can provide. In this case, the ban on British beef — put in place by the EU in March 1996 to prevent people contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) through eating infected meat — meant that Irish farmers were well placed to capitalise on a “Celtic Beef Boom”.

Wrapping the story in a 22-year-old mystery gives it a page-turning, fairytale-like quality.

I told you this book was surreal.

A mesmerising book about meat

It might sound a bit off-putting for a novel to focus on the Irish meat industry but Gilligan tells her story in such a mesmerising way that I did not want this book to end. (And I say this as someone who has not eaten red meat since 1991!)

She does this by creating a cast of intriguing characters, inventing a wholly believable myth about how cattle are slaughtered in Ireland, throwing in some crime and corruption, and then placing a mystery at the heart of the story.

This is all set within the context of ancient customs and rituals (including Catholicism) having to give way to “modern” Ireland, in which the power of the Church was declining while the Celtic Tiger was beginning to take hold.

A mystery to solve

When the book opens we are in New York in January 2018. An Irish photographer is holding an exhibition of his work. The star piece is a photograph he took 22 years earlier of a fully clothed butcher hanging upside down from the ceiling, bloody wounds apparent in his feet. But who is the man and how did he come to die in this way?

This is the central hub of the novel which focuses on four main characters, who each take turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters. These are:

  • Grá, who is married to one of  The Butchers of the title, a group of eight men who travel around Ireland for a year slaughtering cattle following an ancient Irish custom cloaked in secrecy;
  • Grá’s 12-year-old daughter Úna, who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps, even though The Butchers are exclusively male;
  • Fionn, a smallholder dairy farmer, who is looking for a quick way to make a lot of money so he can send his dying wife to Dublin for treatment; and
  • Davey, Fionn’s son, who is in his final year at school, is a bit obsessed with Greek mythology and longs to head to the city to be free of small-town prejudices.

As the narrative unfolds we begin to understand how the crisis impacts each character — whether positively or negatively — and to discover their connection to the dead-butcher-turned-art-exhibit.

Myths and customs

As befitting a story that revolves around Irish folklore giving way to modernity, there is much focus on mythology — and meat. Here’s how Úna describes the rituals that The Butchers follow:

‘They hang each animal by its feet, bleed and skin it, check the organs. Then they clean and process – that means butchering it all into cuts. Then on the last day of their travels, they do a special ritual for the final cow. They split the meat between all eight of them to take home to us, their families.’ The bowls arrived before them steaming. Úna picked up her tarnished spoon. ‘And it’s tastier than any of that rubbish you would find at McDonald’s!’

And here’s how The Butchers came to be created:

She explained how a farmer’s wife had lost her entire family way back in some ancient war, so in her devastation, she had placed a curse which dictated certain rules around killing cattle. Henceforth, no man could slaughter alone; Instead, seven others had to be by his side … And ever since then, Úna warned, these rules had had to be adhered to or else the widow’s grief would be forgotten and the whole of Ireland would become diseased.

I could say a lot more about The Butchers — there really is a lot to discuss and I’ve only covered a fraction of it — but I should end things here. It is, in short, wonderfully realised, ambitious in scope (and plot) and wholly original. I loved it. Five stars!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber: An unforgettable and surreal tale about a woman who picks up hitchhikers in Scotland. The story explores many issues, including meat consumption.

‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett: This is a story about an older man, working in the fur trade, who falls for a younger colleague that he cannot have. This dark novel, with its nod to Beauty and the Beast, is akin to a Gothic fairytale, albeit set in 1960s London.