Almost every year, someone declares the death of the novel. Not in 2020. Lockdown may have closed bookshops for weeks, but digital sales went through the roof. We fell back in love with fiction, and – as luck would have it – plenty of excellent new novels appeared to stoke our ardour.
While none could directly reflect the fearful, tamped-down reality of living through a pandemic, Covid-19 did get a couple of mentions, notably in Summer (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), the conclusion of Ali Smith’s “real time” seasonal quartet. Her triumph of symphonic storytelling juxtaposes the bitter rifts in post-referendum England with the connective possibilities of art. Covid nearly appeared in Don DeLillo’s The Silence (Picador, £14.99), too, until the American objected to an editor inserting coronavirus into an early proof of his opaque yet resonant novella, set in the aftermath of a mass power meltdown in New York. And Emma Donoghue’s utterly gripping The Pull of The Stars (Picador, £16.99), completed before the pandemic, achieved an eerie relevance with its tale of a Dublin maternity ward at the height of the 1918 Spanish Flu crisis.
Elsewhere, a more general dread loomed large. It’s there in Jenny Offill’s compulsively alarming Weather (Granta, £12.99), a Brooklyn librarian’s jittery interior monologue about climate change and life under Trump. Rumaan Alam dismantles white, middle-class privilege in his elegant disaster novel Leave the World Behind (Bloomsbury, £14.99). And, in A Children’s Bible (W W Norton, £13.99), Lydia Millet maps the consequences of an environmental apocalypse with unnerving, fable-like simplicity.
The future for literature, though, looks cheerful – in young and diverse hands. Indeed, with the exception of Roddy Doyle – who, in Love (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) structures a marvellous novel around two men talking over a few pints – 2020 was remarkable for the number of veteran white male authors who made themselves, if not entirely irrelevant, then certainly peripheral. Martin Amis produced the autobiographical Inside Story (Jonathan Cape, £20), which had brilliant moments, but whereas Karl Ove Knausgaard can transform the raw material of his life into mesmerising autofiction, Amis’s attempt is a self-congratulatory mess. David Mitchell took us on an enjoyable but cliché-riddled trip into the 1960s glory days of the music industry in Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, £20). Jonathan Coe, usually so good at iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove satires, offered only a limp handsake with his portrait of the ageing film director Billy Wilder, in Mr Wilder and Me (Viking, £16.99). And Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies (Faber, £14.99), about a man confronting the terminal diagnosis of a childhood friend, is stifled by nostalgia for a music-saturated youth.
All feel like a retreat into a somewhat glorified past, away from such highly charged subjects as race, entitlement and sexuality, even though that is what now defines our cultural landscape. This is tricky territory to navigate in fiction without crossing the line between literature and activism, a misstep to which the Booker judges again proved susceptible: was the shortlisting of The Shadow King (Canongate, £9.99), an overwrought novel about the Ethiopian women who took up arms against Mussolini, motivated more by the book’s feminist purpose than by literary quality?
On the other hand, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Daunt, £9.99), also shortlisted, about a gay black graduate compelled to see every social interaction through the prism of race, pulls off its almost suffocatingly interior storyline thanks to luminously self-aware prose. Kiley Reid’s debut Such A Fun Age (Bloomsbury, £12.99), about the toxic relationship between a black babysitter accused of kidnap and her mortified white employer, may have been overhyped, but it lands enough blows to make the white liberal targets of her satire wince. Brit Bennett, meanwhile, marries modern-day identity politics with epic narrative in The Vanishing Half (Dialogue, £14.99), a generation-spanning account of the mixed fortunes of light-skinned black twins born in 1950s Louisiana.