I’ve always loved reading, but I didn’t fall in love with literature until I discovered Toni Morrison. I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison alongside Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and was in awe. When I started university (and stopped studying English Literature) my reading habits changed, and I always felt that I didn’t have time to read. So, over lockdown I decided to read some books to keep myself occupied and ended up reading 41 books from May till the end of the year. I was quite lucky with the books I read last year as I enjoyed most of them, but there were some that stood out more than others. I compiled a list of my top 10 books that I read in 2020, and I hope this inspires you to pick up a book.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
This is the best book I have ever read in my life, but also the most difficult. Morrison tells the story of a runaway slave, Sethe, who attempts to kill her children so that they are not taken into slavery. However, she only succeeds in killing one child, whose spirit haunts her house. The novel highlights the loneliness that Sethe experiences in her life as she deals with the loss of her child, two of her children deciding to move out and her community turning from her. Morrison constructs this story beautifully with a poetic prose. There were several lines that left me speechless. In classic Morrison style it is not written in chronological order and the story appears to fit together like a jigsaw the more you read. There were also elements of magical realism in the novel which was really interesting. This is a book I will constantly revisit.
Jazz – Toni Morrison
I was gripped from the beginning of the story and struggled to put this down. The title is entirely appropriate; the book was very intense, very gripping and the writing was rhythmic – all elements of jazz music. The story also took place in New York during the jazz age. Morrison tells the story of Joe Trace, who kills his mistress. His wife, Violet, defaces her body at the funeral. The novel explores the aftermath of this death. The novel is not entirely based in New York as we are able to explore the American South through the upbringing of the Joe and Violet, I particularly loved those parts. When I finished this book, I instantly knew that it would stay with me for a very long time, perhaps forever. It is very interesting to compare this novel to Beloved. In the introduction Morrison tells us that she wrote Beloved about familial love and Jazz about romantic love. The differing feeling you get when reading both novels as well as the differing themes serve as an indication of the difference between these two types of relationships.
Native Son – Richard Wright
This novel was very difficult to put down, firstly because there are no chapters so no dedicated breaks in the story, but also because of how captivating it was. Wright tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man living in Chicago in the 1930s. After accidentally killing a white woman, Bigger finds himself at the hands of the police and the law. I loved the character of Bigger and watching as he developed throughout the novel, becoming more open. The story explores the psychological effects of racism in America through the exploration of a black stereotype. Wright did an exceptional job of creating tension and a fast pace in this novel.
The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill
This book was quite hard to read due to the subject matter. We follow Aminata who is stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery. Aminata goes on a vast journey from Africa, to America, to Canada and back to Africa and through this Hill was able to document the extent of slave trade and the circumstances of abolition. The book was very well written and intriguing. Overall the story was quite optimistic, especially the ending, but the realities of slavery still glare through.
Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin
Baldwin’s debut novel is a phenomenal read. He tells the story of John Grimes who is a young boy with an uber religious father. Baldwin explores John’s relationship with his family, his religion and with himself in a coming-of-age story. My favourite chapters of the novel were the three that focused on John’s father, mother and aunt as we went back and forth in time to better understand them. The final chapter was particularly intriguing as we followed John into a trance where he looks within himself in an attempt to understand his relationship with his father as well as the church. Through this novel, Baldwin explores the relation between the black community and the church as well as the true meaning of identity.
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
This book pairs really well with Go Tell it on the Mountain. It is a short book consisting of two essays. In the first, Baldwin addresses his nephew and outlines what he can expect to experience as he grows up as a black man in America. In the second essay, we come to realise that Go Tell it on the Mountain is semi-autographical. Baldwin discusses his own personal experiences with religion and why he decided not to follow down this path. He also notes other experiences such as meeting Elijah Muhammad that shaped his view of America, but more specifically race relations. Baldwin is a master at seamlessly weaving his personal experiences with the wider message he wishes to convey.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
This is one of those books that you quickly get lost in without even realising. Bennett tells the story of two black twins, Stella and Desiree, who are white passing. After running away from home at the age of 16 the twins end up parting ways. Desiree is in an abusive relationship in a Southern town whilst Stella lives as a white woman in LA. Through this story, Bennett explores racism, colourism, identity and familial bonds. The host of characters in this novel was fantastic, every character had a purpose and an individual story. The writing itself flowed well and was captivating. You can clearly see the influence Toni Morrison has had on Brit Bennett and her writing style.
Red at The Bone – Jacqueline Woodson
This was another captivating read and one I was hesitant to keep reading as I didn’t want it to end so quickly. What really stood out to me in this novel was the writing, it was extremely poetic. Woodson manages to pack the story of three generations in a way that you feel like you know each character in and out, only for you to realise the book is only about 200 pages long. Woodson explores familial relationships in such an emotional and heart-warming manner.
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
This really reminded me of The Fire Next Time as the writing was very reminiscent of James Baldwin. Addressed as a letter to his son, Coates discusses his experiences as black man in America. He is able to weave his personal experiences into the lessons he hopes to teach his son. I especially liked how he spoke extensively about the black body and how we as a race have lost ownership of our bodies as a result of slavery and racism. This either manifests as fetishisation, over sexualisation or murder.
The Sellout – Paul Beatty
I laughed at loud whilst reading this book, it was so bizarre but also immensely enjoyable. Beatty tells the story of Bon Bon (we are never told his real name, but this is what his girlfriend calls him) who aims to reinstate segregation in his small town. He is deeply troubled by the erasure of his town on the map and seeks a way to reinstate the relevance of Dickens. Beatty incorporates elements of satire to tell this seemingly bizarre story which ultimately explores the myth of a post racial America. It appears the message is that race is still a significant issue in America despite the belief that racism is no longer prevalent. I will say you need some knowledge of African American history and culture to understand the book and the jokes the author makes. I’m sure some of the jokes went over my head but I was able to catch most of them.
If you want to keep up with my reading then check out my good reads account here: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/119218122-jumoke