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The Best Books of 2020: Fiction

Posted on 30th November 2020 by Mark Skinner

From the triumphant release of Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light in March to the appearance of Rumaan Alam's scintillating Leave the World Behind in November, book publishing has defied the chaos and privations of 2020 to deliver a stellar selection of titles. This year has seen immensely accomplished and important works such as The Vanishing Half, Betty and the Waterstones Book of the Year-scooping Hamnet, the return of storytelling geniuses Victoria Hislop, Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell, and spectacular flights of imagination from Bridget Collins and Susanna Clarke. Ideal fireside companions over the festive period, here is our pick of 2020's greatest fiction.   

Historical Fiction

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One of our greatest living novelists resurrects the short life of Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard’s only son, in a profoundly moving account of grief, family and genius in an era where life was ever precarious.

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The triumphant conclusion to a modern classic, The Mirror & the Light carries the reader spellbound through the final, tragic era of Thomas Cromwell’s eventful life.

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After captivating readers with his formidable Mythos and Heroes, Fry turns his attention to another great narrative from Ancient Greece, exploring the timeless human passions that beat at the heart of this iconic old story of heroism, love, despair and revenge.

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A stunning prequel to The Pillars of the Earth that delivers an enthralling slice of epic fiction in its own right, The Evening and the Morning tells the story of one man’s unquenchable ambitions for his abbey.
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Compelling, intricate and formidably crafted, The Betrayals opens the doors to an ancient, exclusive institution dedicated to the study of a strange, clandestine game.
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Weaving a rich gothic atmosphere, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell mines a darkly fantastical vision with a tale of a very singular house and its mysterious inhabitants.
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Seething with intrigue, divided loyalties and epic battles, War Lord brings Uhtred’s magnificent story - and the Last Kingdom series itself - to an epic conclusion.
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Exquisitely rendered in Sebastian Barry’s rhapsodic prose, A Thousand Moons continues the tale of Winona - featured in the author’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End – as she makes her way through the forbidding and treacherous world of post-Civil War America.
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Remarkably prescient and beautifully realised, this historical novel from the author of the seminal Room centres on a trio of female medics at the height of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
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Postwar Fiction

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An uncompromising yet tender and warmly witty exploration of love, pride and poverty, Shuggie Bain charts the endeavours of its eponymous protagonist – an ambitious and fastidious boy from a dire mining town with a thirst for a better life.
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Spanning the 1950s to the 1990s and from the Deep South to California, Bennett’s stunning novel follows the journeys of two estranged twin sisters leading very different lives – to the extent of adopting different racial identities.

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Following the fortunes of an adolescent girl through changing family dynamics and growing self-realisation, The Lying Life of Adults is a pitch-perfect dissection of Italian family life and the follies of youth.
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Written with Mitchell’s trademark lyrical flair and eye for the extraordinary, Utopia Avenue documents the rise and fall of the eponymous 1960s psych rock band, from destiny in Soho to nemesis in Rome.

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In this highly anticipated sequel to her bestselling The Island, Hislop returns to the isle of Spinalonga in a nuanced and absorbing tale of hope and tragedy.
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Exploring themes of love, racism and religion in post-war small-town America, Jack is another dazzling examination of faith and pastoralism set in the richly imagined community of Gilead.
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Set amidst the brutality of Idi Amin’s Uganda, Makumbi's wise and tender novel is a hymn to survival, rebellion and the enduring power of the female spirit.
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Evoking a fully-rounded friendship with wit and psychological truth, O’Hagan’s masterful novel charts an epic night of debauchery in 1980s Manchester and its tragic aftermath thirty years later.
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Six years after the ground-breaking dystopia Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel weaves together the stories of a bartender, a hotel owner and a shipping agent into a kaleidoscopic mystery.
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Moving between 1980s small town Ireland and New York, Home Stretch is a searing story of responsibility, blame and a young man’s quest for oblivion, from the author of A Keeper.

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Sweeping across five tumultuous decades in British politics, from the miners’ strike to Brexit, Scabby Queen is a tantalising portrait of a woman who defies the norm.
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Contemporary Fiction

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The culmination of a hugely ambitious and fast-paced literary project, Summer continues the interplay between the recent past and modern day society that marked out Smith's preceding works as so resonant and insightful.
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From the author of How to Stop Time comes this poignant, unique novel about regret, hope and forgiveness - and a library that houses second chances.

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Both deeply unsettling chiller and audacious take on the febrile politics of twenty-first century America, Alam’s immersive page-turner places a vacationing couple at the mercy of strangers in need.

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A profound novel from the author of the highly acclaimed Ghost Wall, Summerwater is a bittersweet portrait of modern Britain, presented through the microcosm of a drab Scottish cabin park.
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Told in short snippets of crystalline prose, Weather's wry, quiet power, understated insight and keen intelligence illuminates aspects of everyday life in Trump’s America.
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Exploring the relationship between two bereaved men amidst the physical and emotional carnage of the West Bank, Apeirogon is a masterpiece of characterisation and subtle political commentary.
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A wild and unsettling story about alienation and not fitting in from the bestselling author of Convenience Store Woman.
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Ranging from Afghanistan to the United States heartland, Akhtar’s freewheeling novel explores notions of identity and belonging through an American son and his immigrant father.

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From the author of Night Boat to Tangier, this enthralling new collection of short stories is a tantalising meditation on Ireland – a modern country in an eternal dance with its ancient, enchanted past.
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Elegant and subtle, Miller’s portrait of a marriage in the dog days of late middle age embraces betrayal and emotional sterility with great power.
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The latest novel from a beautifully distinctive voice in contemporary fiction captures an endearing, multi-faceted drifter at an emotional crossroads.

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