LitHub: The Award-Winning Novels of 2020

Source: The Award-Winning Novels of 2020


The Award-Winning Novels of 2020

The Books That Took Home This Year’s Biggest Literary Prizes

By Book MarksDecember 17, 2020____________________


Spare a thought for the class of 2020. With most of the year’s awards ceremonies being cancelled or moving online, there were very few red carpets, banquet rooms, or podiums for 2020’s prize-winning authors. Trophies, statuettes, plaques and medals were boxed up and mailed across the country. Speeches were made over zoom. Everyone was, I assume, dressed in sweats from the waist down.

Despite the lack of razzmatazz, it’s important to remember that awards were still awarded, and many wonderful books were deservedly honored.

Here, then, are the winners of the biggest book prizes of 2020.


Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Awarded for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.
Prize money: $15,000

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys—a tense, nervy performance—is even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. Even if your prose taste runs to curlicue and adornment (mine does), the restraint feels significant. Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves … while Whitehead is frank about the barbarity his characters endure, there are few scenes of explicit violence—most of it happens offstage. And none of the violence is exaggerated. A reverence for the victims can be detected in this refusal to sensationalize their suffering … Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here, of a cinder-block building that still stands, a school that was closed only eight years ago. Its starkness and irresolution recalls the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s point that the opposite of forgetting is not merely remembrance. It is justice.”

–Parul Sehgal (The New York Times)

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House (Harper)
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School(FSG)


National Book Award

Recognizes an outstanding work of literary fiction by a United States citizen.
Prize money: $10,000

Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

“Charles Yu was a story editor for Westworld, and his bracingly metafictive second novel, Interior Chinatown, takes the theme of social roles beautifully sideways. The novel skewers pop-culture stereotypes of Asian Americans and contends, memorably, with assimilation … Arranged in acts and told in the second person in the form of a screenplay, Interior Chinatown is bold, even groundbreaking, in its form. It’s full of clever wordplay and in-jokes about the Chinese American experience … Interior Chinatown solders together mordant wit and melancholic whimsy to produce a moving exploration of race and assimilation that shouldn’t be missed by intellectually adventurous readers.”

–Anita Felliceli (San Francisco Chronicle)

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind (Ecco)
Lydia Millet,A Children’s Bible (W. W. Norton)
Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press)
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (Grove Press)


Man Booker Prize

Awarded for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.
Prize money: £50,000

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
(Grove Press)

“The body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain. . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.”

–Leah Hager Cohen (The New York Times Book Review)

Diane Cook, The New Wilderness (Harper)
Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body (Graywolf Press)
Avni Doshi,Burnt Sugar (Overlook Press)
Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (W. W. Norton)
Brandon Taylor, Real Life (Riverhead)


Man Booker International Prize

Awarded for a single book in English translation published in the UK.
Prize money: £50,000, divided equally between the author and the translator

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, tr. Michele Hutchinson, The Discomfort of Evening
(Graywolf Press)

“Rijneveld writes poetry as well as fiction, which shows: Their prose, in Michele Hutchison’s superb translation, shows a poet’s interest in small, slow details. The novel, which is set on a dairy farm in a small village, is at once spare and luminous, haunting without calling attention to the fact. Rijneveld’s sentences linger, as does their 10-year-old protagonist Jas’s grief for her brother Matthies, who dies in the novel’s first pages … Bad dreams are a risk for readers here, but Rijneveld manages their novel’s painful content delicately and well. Even the most wrenching scenes never seem gratuitous; they are thoroughly worth the emotional effort that Rijneveld asks their readers to make.”

–Lily Meyer (NPR)

Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (Europa)
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, tr. Iona MacIntyre and Fiona Macintosh, The Adventures of China Iron (Charco Press)
Daniel Kehlmann, tr. Ross Benjamin, Tyll (Pantheon)
Fernanda Melchor, tr. Sophie Hughes, Hurricane Season (New Directions)
Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder, The Memory Police (Pantheon)


National Book Critics Circle Award 

Given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. Judged by the volunteer directors of the NBCC who are 24 members serving rotating three-year terms, with eight elected annually by the voting members, namely “professional book review editors and book reviewers.”

Edwidge Danticat, Everything Inside

Everything Inside is a haunting, profound collection by Edwidge Danticat—an answered prayer for those who have long treasured her essential contributions to the Caribbean literary canon … With little introduction, we drop into people’s lives midcrisis, just as they’re confronting choices from which there’s no turning back; these characters feel not like strangers, but close friends … How does an artist write so deftly from the outside about people’s interior lives? Everything Inside is an answer to that question: This remarkable writer shows us how.”

–Alexia Arthurs (Oprah Magazine)

Myla Goldberg, Feast Your Eyes (Scribner)
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (FSG)
Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive (Knopf)
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday)


Kirkus Prize

Chosen from books reviewed by Kirkus Reviews that earned the Kirkus Star.
Prize money: $50,000

Raven Leilani, Luster

“Raven Leilani’s first novel reads like summer: sentences like ice that crackle or melt into a languorous drip; plot suddenly, wildly flying forward like a bike down a hill … Leilani has a ruthless knack for the somatic, rendering flesh on paper as alluring and unidealized as it is right next to you … Strangely, Leilani’s heightened rendering of the tangle that can be one’s early 20s…is what actually lends the novel its acidic verisimilitude … The relationship between Edie and Rebecca is a living thing with its own heartbeat, and it is here that Leilani is at her most nimble, her writing sinewy and sharp … it is Edie’s hunger for recognition—more than her desire for self-improvement or the humiliation of heterosexuality or her attempts to wrestle her life into something worth the pain—that colors the novel.”

–Jazmine Hughes (The New York Times Book Review)

Tola Rotimi Abraham, Black Sunday (Catapult)
Juliana Delgado Lopera, Fiebre Tropical (Amethyst Editions)
Elena Ferrante, tr. Ann Goldstein, The Lying Life of Adults (Europa)
James McBride, Deacon King Kong (Riverhead)
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (Grove Press)


Women’s Prize for Fiction

Awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet

“Such an undertaking is an enormous challenge, but O’Farrell is passionately steeped in the period … The utter fluency with which O’Farrell glides across years and decades, never lingering in one timeframe for long yet never confusing the reader, has always been one of her most remarkable achievements as a writer … Once the illness leaps from Judith to Hamnet in August 1596, the novel becomes a breathtakingly moving study of grief … O’Farrell’s portrait of maternal and sibling bereavement is so accurately expressed it’s almost too painful to read. Hamnet is, above all, a profound study of loss … At her best, O’Farrell is simply outstanding. Within pages, she can inhabit the mind of an owl, of a great playwright, of a dying boy, of those watching him. It seems she can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to. Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes.”

–Joanna Briscoe (The Guardian)

Angie Cruz, Dominicana (Flatiron)
Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Grove Press)
Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Harper)
Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (Henry Holt)
Jenny Offill, Weather (Knopf)


PEN/Faulkner Award

Awarded to the author of the year’s best work of fiction by a living American citizen.
Prize money: $15,000

Chloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters

Sea Monsters is a surreal, captivating tale about the power of a youthful imagination, the lure of teenage transgression, and its inevitable disappointments … Plot has very little role to play in Sea Monsters; Aridjis allows her narrative to swell and recede like the sea, along with Luisa’s capacious imagination. The violent rains, the traffic, the perennial security threat—these scenes wonderfully evoke the city’s ability to make its inhabitants feel claustrophobic … Aridjis’s protagonist is so rich and interesting because she is full of contradiction. For all that she is image conscious and desirous of new experiences, her fragile sensibility is quietly revealed … Sea Monsters is a contemplative, meandering novel—there are no unexpected plot twists, no great climactic resolution. But, Aridjis excels at writing a life lived in the borderlands between reality and fantasy, conveying the imagination of a 17-year-old with whims and fancies that are intriguing rather than exasperating or laughable.”

–Ellen Jones (The Los Angeles Review of Books)

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End (Random House)
Peter Rock, The Night Swimmers (Soho Press)
Maurice Carlos Ruffin, We Cast a Shadow (One World)
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press)


PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction

Awarded to an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.
Prize money: $25,000

Mimi Lok, Last of Her Name
(Kaya Press)

“Mimi Lok’s Last of Her Nameis a smorgasbord of powerful writing and angsty emotion wrapped into eight meditations on what it means to feel slightly out of place, either in your head or in your physical surroundings … it’s quite clear Lok is on to something about the human condition … her empathy for her characters—and discerning grasp of their strained or isolated circumstances—comes through on every page. Her stories are insightful, painfully honest and deeply unsettling—a dynamite combination in a new writer on the scene.”

–Alexis Burling (San Francisco Chronicle)

Ayse Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum (W. W. Norton)
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Sabrina & Corina (One World)
Xuan Juliana Wang, Home Remedies (Hogarth)
Bryan Washington, Lot (Riverhead)


Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

Awards established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. in the previous year. Administered by the American Library Association.
Prize money: $5,000 (winner), $1,500 (finalists)

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

“I wrote down the microchemical raptures I was having, one after the next, from beginning to end of this revelatory novel … The Lost Children Archives [is] a semi-autobiographical gloss that Lueselli skillfully crafts without dipping into the pedantic accumulations that sometimes overwhelm such books … It is a breathtaking journey, one that builds slowly and confidently until you find yourself in a fever dream of convergences. The Lost Children Archive is simply stunning. It is a perfect intervention for our horrible time, but that fleeting concurrence is not why this book will be read and sampled and riffed on for years to come … The Lost Children Archive contains multitudes, contradictions, and raises difficult questions for which there are no easy answers. It is a great American novel. It is also a great human novel.”

–Rob Spillman (Guernica)

Myla Goldberg, Feast Your Eyes (Scribner)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (One World)


International DUBLIN Literary Award

An international literary award presented each year for a novel written in English or translated into English.
Prize money: €100,000

Anna Burns, Milkman
(Graywolf Press)

“Burns’s agenda is not to unpack the dreary tribal squabbles that so characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland; rather she is working in an altogether more interesting milieu, seeking answers to the big questions about identity, love, enlightenment and the meaning of life for a young woman on the verge of adulthood … in its intricate domestic study of a disparate family there are agreeable echoes of Chekov, Tolstoy and Turgenev … it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary star.”

–Adrian McKinty (The Irish Times)

Anuradha Roy,All the Lives We Never Lived (Washington Square Press)
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (Algonquin)
Négar Djavadi, tr. Tina Kover, Disoriental (Europa)
Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Riverhead)
Édouard Louis, tr. Lorin Stein, History of Violence (Picador)
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (Riverhead)
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Anchor)
Tommy Orange, There, There (Vintage)
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black (Vintage)


Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

An annual award presented by The Center for Fiction, a non-profit organization in New York City, for the best debut novel.
Prize money: $10,000

Raven Leilani, Luster

“The narrator’s substantial wit often comes paired with self-recriminations and worry, the novel’s humor and melancholy each making the other more potent … One of the book’s greatest strengths is its heady evocation of the senses—the pleasure and pain that comes with having a body … While some of Luster’s plot moves can come across as convenient or even obligatory, Leilani settles comfortably into any given scenario … the archetype Leilani has chosen suits her debut well—the protagonist who must go away in order to come back—if only because she takes full advantage of the form, using its bluntest markers as occasions to deepen an already candid, vulnerable character. That the language is often excellent doesn’t hurt either. Luster is lean and focused, yet dense with reference and detail, the lush prose heightening its tangible specificity. Leilani also makes smart use of the well-placed long sentence, the catharsis that can arrive when something comes to an end.”

–Laura Adamczyk (The A.V. Club)

Amina Cain, Indelicacy (FSG)
Maisy Card, These Ghosts Are Family (Simon & Schuster)
Hilary Leichter, Temporary (Coffee House Press)
Corey Sobel, The Redshirt (University Press of Kentucky)
Douglas Stuart,Shuggie Bain (Grove Press)
C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead)


Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Recognizes outstanding literary works as well as champions new writers.
Prize money: $1,000

(Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction)

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift
(Hogarth Press)

“Namwali Serpell’s extraordinary, ambitious, evocative first novel, The Old Drift, contributes powerfully to this new wave … The Old Drift is a strong and confident enough piece of writing to stand on its own two feet and is perhaps not well served by being placed on the shoulders of giants … The novel tells the intertwined stories of three families … At first glance this may strike the reader as overly schematic. That it doesn’t read that way is a tribute to the energy with which the stories are told, and the vivid detail in which the world of the book is created … The novel’s greatest strength lies in its creation of three unforgettable female characters … the emotional devastation wrought by illness is keenly felt in these pages … an impressive book, ranging skillfully between historical and science fiction, shifting gears between political argument, psychological realism and rich fabulism … a dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage.”

–Salman Rushdie (The New York Times Book Review)

María Gainza, tr. Thomas Bunstead, Optic Nerve (Catapult)
Lila Savage, Say, Say, Say (Knopf)
Sarah Elaine Smith, Marilou Is Everywhere (Riverhead)
De’shawn Charles Winslow,In West Mills (Bloomsbury)



Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

“… awe-inspiring … Lerner has hit on something deep, and true, in the portrait of ‘debate’ in this book, as what it has long seemed to be—the knightly combat or martial arts of children of the professional-managerial class, where they can practice the linguistic violence they’ll use as adults against real targets in politics, the law, and administration … The beautiful recollections of childhood in The Topeka School allow for a Portrait of the Artist–type origin story in which Adam’s eventual triumph as a poet, and as the writer of this novel, occurs by the neutralization of the voices of debate and white rap with his mother’s feminism … The Darren plot seems a way to lend a convention of suspense, familiar from other contemporary novels, to a book that is better than most contemporary novels. Perhaps its virtue is as a reminder of the persistence of exclusion in a progressive civilization—our own—which redeems some new subjects only to despise and scapegoat others.”

–Mark Greif (Bookforum)

Tash Aw, We, the Survivors (FSG)
Madeline Ffitch, Stay and Fight (FSG)
Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (W. W. Norton)
Colson Whitehead,The Nickel Boys (Doubleday)


Edgar Award

Presented by the Mystery Writers of America, honoring the best in crime and mystery fiction.

(Best Novel)

Elly Griffiths, The Stranger Diaries
(Houghton Mifflin)

Griffiths alternates points of view among Clare, her 15-year-old daughter, Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the queer policewoman in charge of the murder investigation. Thrown into the mix are excerpts from <em>The Stranger</em>, itself a delicious homage to writers like M.R. James … Griffiths (The Vanishing Box, 2018, etc.) hits a sweet spot for readers who love British mysteries and who are looking for something to satisfy an itch once Broadchurch has been binged and Wilkie Collins reread. Griffiths, who is known for the Magic Men mysteries and the Ruth Galloway series, has written her first stand-alone novel with immensely pleasurable results.”


Barbara Bourland, Fake Like Me (Grand Central)
Peter Heller, The River (Knopf)
Abir Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes (Pegasus Crime)
Michael Robotham, Good Girl, Bad Girl (Scribner)


(Best First Novel)

Angie Kim, Miracle Creek
(Sarah Crichton)

“From the opening pages of Miracle Creek, Angie Kim creates an intense atmosphere of foreboding and suspense, building swiftly to the event that triggers the rest of her debut novel, unraveling so many lives and lies … This novel is a stunner, emotionally packed, with separate characters delivering internal plot twists and turns. Part family drama, part trial drama, part culture war drama—digging into sensitive topics like parenthood, immigration, infertility, and alternative therapy—this novel is all secrets, secrets, secrets. In multiple narratives, we see events from different points of view as they unfold, or as they are recalled, or through statements and mental asides during testimony … One idea Kim explores, under-represented in popular culture, is the cost, psychic and spiritual, of leaving one’s homeland to pursue dreams or a ‘better’ future in the United States. Kim does a marvelous job in excavating the emotional toll of this move … Angie Kim gives the reader a supremely masterful unraveling in this tense, psychologically astute, emotionally riveting, suspense-filled literary thriller.”

–Désirée Zamorano (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Samantha Downing, My Lovely Wife (Berkley Books)
John McMahon, The Good Detective (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf)
John Vercher, Three-Fifths (Agora)
Lauren Wilkinson,American Spy (Random House)


Nebula Award

Given each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for the best science fiction or fantasy novel.

Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day
(Berkley Books)

“By setting this novel in a society where DIY can literally be against the law, Pinsker ups the suspense considerably. To call this novel completely dystopian wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though: there’s a passing reference to states having established a basic income, for instance. It’s a fascinating paradox: elements of this world are utterly terrifying, but Pinsker balances that neatly with elements to show its appeal … There’s something very zeitgeist-y about what Pinsker does here … Pinsker’s novel feels very relevant in 2019, she’s also grappling with some classically science fictional themes … There aren’t many books that can accurately convey the dynamics of a local DIY music scene and tap into a decades-long tradition of speculative fiction. Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day makes it seem effortless—but in focusing on the taxing nature of the creative process under duress, she also reminds the reader of how difficult ‘effortless’ can be. Relevant, haunting, and inspiring, this is one of the best books of 2019.”

Charles E. Gannon, Marque of Cain (Baen)
Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Redhook)
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (Tor)
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (Del Rey Books)
Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (Tor)


Hugo Award

Awarded for the best science fiction or fantasy story of 40,000 words or more published in English or translated in the prior calendar year.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire
(Tor Books)

“The setup is the start to a stunning story that impressively blends together Martine’s fantastic and immersive world, a combination political thriller, cyberpunk yarn, and epic space opera that together make up a gripping read … Martine threads a delicate needle…as the plot unfurls, showing off the complex facets where politics and identity mix … it’s an excellent, gripping novel with a brisk plot, outstanding characters, and plenty to think about long after it’s over.”

–Andrew Liptak (The Verge)

Seanan McGuire, Middlegame (Tor)
Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (Tor)
Kameron Hurley, The Light Brigade (Gallery/Saga Press)
Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night (Tor)
Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Redhook)


Bram Stoker Award

Presented by the Horror Writers Association for “superior achievement” in horror writing for novels.

Owl Goingback, Coyote Rage
(Independent Legions)

“Owl Goingback understands what makes horror fiction tick.”

The Arizona Republic

Josh Malerman, Inspection (Del Rey)
S. P. Miskowski, The Worst is Yet to Come (Trepidatio Publishing)
Lee Murray, Into the Ashes (Severed Press)
Chuck Wendig, Wanderers (Del Rey)


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