• Sarah Taylor

Top ten reads this year

I have read lots of great books in 2020 – here is a list of my favourites!

 

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)


Published in 2019, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters, mostly black women, through their interconnected stories. Evaristo touches on important issues, such as gender, feminism, cultural identity, politics, racism and sexuality, and uses the twelve characters to navigate Black British, predominantly female, experiences. The characters all connect, in some ways more obvious than others, as mothers or lovers or friends. Other connections are more distant: Morgan, for example, is a non-binary activist who gets involved in a Twitter spat with radical lesbian feminist Dominique, who wants to set up a women-only festival space. I read this over a matter of days, deeply engrossed in Evaristo’s powerful and poetic storytelling – but I could easily read it again more slowly, taking time to devour and savour the stories. At times I found myself having to cross-reference the links between the characters, navigating Evaristo’s subtle hints, but this only adds to the joy of reading Girl, Woman, Other and the satisfaction and pleasure in the final, heart-warming narrative connection. Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other – the first Black woman and the first Black British author to do so. Rather controversially, this award was tied with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, although in my opinion, Evaristo should have been the sole recipient of the award. Girl, Woman, Other is a magnetic, clever and emotional novel which brings Black British women’s stories to the forefront.


Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family – Sophie Lewis (Verso)


Sophie Lewis, researcher, scholar and teacher, completed her PhD focusing on gestational surrogacy at the University of Manchester in 2016. Full Surrogacy Now, her first book and published in 2019, is a continuation of this theme: a sophisticated and radical examination into the surrogacy industry. In essence, Lewis argues that all forms of gestation, predominantly surrogacy, are work, due to the intense labour (physical, emotional, mental) that is required. In order to remove (gestational) labour from (working) labour, Lewis argues that it must be freed from heteronormative capitalist structures – in other words, with the abolishment of the family. While it may seem a revolutionary and radical suggestion, almost unattainable, Full Surrogacy Now is a convincing and well-researched interrogation into the discourse on surrogacy and familial relationships. Lewis argues that with the abolishment of the “nuclear” family comes a much more socialist and utopian way of living: communal systems of care and kinship that are outside biology. Full Surrogacy Now is a radical, significant and, at times, complex and challenging addition to queer feminist and communist theory. For those interested in eco-feminism, gestational politics, Donna Haraway or a discourse which challenges binary notions of gender, sexuality and family, Full Surrogacy Now is a worthwhile read.


Real Life – Brandon Taylor (Riverhead Books)


Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, is a highly acclaimed and sharp take on a new kind of “campus novel”. Published this year, it was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Real Life follows Wallace, a young Black queer biochemist from the South, in the middle of a PhD programme in the Midwest. The book takes place over a long summer weekend, where Wallace encounters casual (and not so casual) racism and prejudice from his friends, teachers and colleagues – most of whom are white. He also enters into an intensely sexual and emotionally wrought relationship with Miller, one of his white friends who maintains he is straight. Taylor’s writing is beautiful and poetic while also being reserved and understated – it is not until the final third of the book where the reader finds out about Wallace’s traumatic past. The depictions of loneliness are heart-wrenching and painful, and Taylor accurately depicts a man who is caught on the peripheries of social inclusion. Real Life is a brilliant and compelling novel, exploring Black queerness, isolation, trauma and friendship. I have just seen on Taylor’s Twitter that his next book, Filthy Animals, a collection of linked short stories, will be out next year, and I am very excited to read it!


Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power – Lola Olufemi (Pluto Press)


I know many people disagree with marking a book – underlining sentences, highlighting whole passages or writing in the margins to “look up!” a name or event. Those people would look in horror at my copy of Feminism, Interrupted, where barely a page goes by without my messy scribbling and underlines annotating the book. Personally, I think it is a testament to someone’s work – the more pen marks the better – and this is certainly reflected in my opinion of Lola Olufemi’s 2020 book Feminism, Interrupted. Olufemi, a researcher, organiser and current PhD scholar, is a phenomenal and passionate writer. Feminism, Interrupted is a relatively short book, but it packs in a wide range of themes: violence against women, sex work, transmisogyny, reproductive justice, prison abolition, gendered Islamophobia and anti-capitalism. Feminism, Interrupted is a challenge to mainstream liberal white feminism and seeks to bring feminism back to its radical Black activist roots. It is revolutionary and radical and ultimately proposes an utopic alternative to capitalism. Olufemi wants to save feminism from the “neo-liberalism that blunts our imaginative faculties” and argues for a type of critical feminism which results from a Black radical and socialist discourse. Feminism, Interrupted is well researched and powerfully written – it feels like a militant call-to-arms interspersed with academic theory and a hopeful look to an anti-capitalist future. Feminism should no longer centre on a white, liberal point of view and Feminism, Interrupted is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the real roots of feminist activism.


We That Are Young – Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)


Back in the heady days of Lockdown 1.0, when the possibility that the virus/pandemic would extend beyond September seemed absurd and everyone was in the naive and optimistic bread-baking stage of 2020, I decided it was time to finally start all the long books I had previously put off for lack of time. Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young is extensive (around 530 pages) but is brilliantly written and compelling. A rewriting of Shakespeare’s King Lear set in modern-day New Delhi, We That Are Young explores themes of power, wealth, greed and betrayal amongst Indian aristocracy. Devraj is the aging head of the India Company, a powerful entertainment, media and press empire. He has three daughters and two sons, and the novel’s narration switches between these five possible heirs to the throne. I had never read or studied King Lear, so was unaware how the story would pan out or what fates the characters would meet. An academic, writer and activist, it is Taneja’s first novel – a mystical and all-encompassing work which plays with language and form. Despite its length, it is an energetic page-turner and incredibly readable. It explores contemporary Indian inequalities, protest movements and ideological conflicts, with a Shakespearean examination into human nature, greed and selfishness.


The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper – Hallie Rubenhold (Penguin)


There exists a weird, almost perverse, fascination with serial killers and their victims. Documentaries, books, exhibitions and history “walking tours” are dedicated to such killers, with little regard or recognition to the people whom they killed. In the case of Jack the Ripper, an unidentified serial killer who was active in Whitechapel in the late 1880s, there is a mythical status around him. “Ripperology” is a genuine historical study of Jack the Ripper, upheld by ardent “Ripperologists” who devote their time to attempting to unearth the details to the Ripper mystery. Against this backdrop, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is a much-needed and important challenge to the Ripper myth. Rubenhold focuses her whole attention to the five women known to be killed by the Ripper – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. Rather than treating them as impoverished prostitutes (as the Ripper myth does), Rubenhold rightfully refocuses the story on the women by exploring their lives, families, experiences and professions before they were murdered. The Five points out the misogyny which prevails in Ripperology, and her well-researched and detailed historical excavation gives agency to the women. Rubenhold narrates their stories with barely any mention of the Ripper – for once, he is not the focus. It is an important historical retelling which should be the basis of any future studies, not just centring around Jack the Ripper, but any serial killer. Rubenhold reminds us that the victims in question should always be the focus – history owes it to them, not the killers.


Intimations: Six Essays – Zadie Smith (Penguin)


I’m sure there will be many books written about this year and the impact it has had on the world. By Super Thursday 2021, surely most of the books being released will relate, in some way or another, to the pandemic and lockdown – historical, political and fiction works will predominantly have 2020’s events as their main subject. Relatively early on in the lockdown (published in August, but with a foreword dated May), Zadie Smith brought out Intimations, a short collection of six essays, spanning major issues which have defined 2020: Covid-19, inequality, racism, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. She also writes about the act of writing itself – a creative, loving and artistic form of release – and she ends on “Debts and Lessons”, a playful and thoughtful list of gratitude, thanking, among others, her friends, family and Zora Neale Hurston for their contributions to her sense of identity. Smith writes in her usual witty, poetic and empathetic manner, applying the same level of gravitas to every topic, whether that be the pandemic of racism or a conversation with her masseur. Intimations is a thought-provoking and lyrical reflection of 2020. Commendably, and perhaps a reflection of the human spirit seen this year, all of Smith’s royalties go to two charities: the Equal Justice Initiative and the New York COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.


Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald (Collins)


As someone who lives in East London, I regularly run, walk and cycle down the canal paths, and I enjoy seeing the unique and characterful range of canal boats. I miss cycling to work mainly for that reason: being able to see the community of canal boats was a great start to the day, and I have a strange sense of nostalgia for those misty canal mornings. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, published in 1979, is the perfect antidote to that absence. Based on Fitzgerald’s own experiences, Offshore follows the lives of a community of houseboat dwellers in Battersea. The characters are all restless and adrift, but have formed an eccentric canal community living in liminal spaces between land and water. Offshore is eccentric and multilayered, winning the Booker Prize in 1979. Fitzgerald gives atmospheric descriptions of cold London mornings on the water – almost making me want to live on a canal boat myself.


The Windrush Betrayal – Amelia Gentleman (Faber)


There are some legacies that will haunt politicians for ever. In my mind, the “hostile environment” and anti-immigration policies, and subsequent mass deportations of British citizens who legally and rightfully travelled to the UK as children, will always make me think of Theresa May and Amber Rudd, the consecutive Home Secretaries in the Conservative government. These awful legacies, unfortunately, do not end with the politician’s tenure, but are carried on through racist and oppressive policies, the mantle passed to a Home Secretary even more terrifying and inhumane, Priti Patel. Amelia Gentleman’s award-winning investigation The Windrush Betrayal illuminates the stories of those British citizens who were suddenly deemed illegal immigrants by the Home Office and deported back to countries they only knew as children – or, in some cases, had never even known at all. The Windrush Betrayal is a shocking and revealing interrogation into British racist immigration policies, Windrush deportations and the hangover of colonial rule. Gentleman, a journalist at the Guardian, presents the brutal facts of the story (the book is a credit to her investigative journalism, and involves mainly personal accounts, interviews and thorough research) alongside treating the deported citizens with total empathy and compassion. Given the ongoing horrific deportations and the fight for justice, I would recommend The Windrush Betrayal to anyone. It is an important book in exposing British racism at the heart of the government and the shocking State violence inflicted upon citizens.


Revolting Prostitutes – Juno Mac and Molly Smith (Verso)


Like many marginalised groups – migrants, trans people, people of colour – sex workers’ experiences and views are often talked about but rarely are they given a voice themselves. In Revolting Prostitutes, published in 2019, British sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith refocus the discussion on sex work back to those who actually experience it: the sex workers. Mac and Smith position themselves as pro-sex work socialist feminists, arguing for a total decriminalisation of sex work. They write about different forms of legalisation, criminalisation and decriminalisation around the world (including the controversial Nordic Model), as well as exploring the wider issues within sex work: migration, capitalism, feminism and racism. Revolting Prostitutes is a brilliant book, which allowed me to fully understand the different legal models of sex work globally, the benefits of total decriminalisation and why liberal anti-sex work feminism is more harmful than helpful. Mac and Smith write pragmatically and convincingly, using laws, data, first-person examples and their own experiences to inform their analysis. Revolting Prostitutes argues that all forms of work, including sex work, should be entitled to the same levels of safety and security. Any discourse and discussion around sex work should come from sex workers themselves, and Revolting Prostitutes returns this agency.