By Leah Greenblatt and David Canfield
June 30, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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EW critics Leah Greenblatt and David Canfield break down the 10 best books of 2020's first half. The below titles are listed in alphabetical order by author name, and books were considered at a cutoff of a June 16, 2020 release.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett has only published two novels, but she writes with the finesse and confidence of someone at 10 times that output. Her anticipated follow-up to The Mothers spans decades, centered on two light-skinned sisters who run away from their insular community as teenagers, and proceed to lead adult lives in two very different worlds — one black, the other white. In her exploration of identity formation and the complicated power of family ties, Bennett weaves a timeless tale with subtle urgency. —David Canfield

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

The ex-pat novel finds fresh currency in this slow-burning, starkly intimate portrait of a nameless American teacher marking off the days in modern-day Bulgaria. Whether he’s come to find himself or simply get lost is never entirely clear, but few authors working today write as immersively as Greenwell (What Belongs to You) about sex and alienation and queer desire. —Leah Greenblatt

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

This epic family portrait could’ve gone down the, ahem, road of bad psychology and worse insensitivity, but instead, Kolker (Lost Girls) masterfully recounts the true story of a huge American family afflicted by widespread mental illness. Fascinating in the way it traces evolving research and treatments on its margins, Hidden Valley Road is a deeply kind book, too, one that doesn’t paint broad strokes of the Galvins, but lets us into the hearts and minds of each of its members, however haunted or in pain, always raw and real. —DC

Knopf

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Tough, heartbreaking, and hopeful in equal measure, Megha Majumdar’s best-selling debut immerses readers into a thrilling portrait of contemporary India. A catastrophic event entangles the lives of three distinctive characters, each aspirational in their own way, and draws striking parallels to prescient American themes of corruption, fanaticism, and activism. Majumdar’s expansive empathy bolsters her skilled, taut plotting; interludes focused on those beyond the main story reaffirm its author’s boundless storytelling potential. —DC

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

An aspiring artist adrift in Toronto; a young woman serving up sympathy and cocktails at a five-star hotel in the wilds of British Columbia; a hedge-fund king who bellies up to the bar. How they come together and fall apart form the crux of Mandel’s tricky, ingenious fifth novel (her first since 2014’s acclaimed Station Eleven), loosely inspired by the real-life events surrounding Bernie Madoff. But that hardly begins to describe the spell that Glass casts — a near-magical alchemy of fiction, fact, and fantasy that sweeps the reader from the first page to its final, mysterious last. —LG

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel

A journey of some 2,000 pages ends with one last look in The Mirror, Mantel’s epic conclusion to her trilogy-spanning study of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who went on to become one of England’s most legendary statesmen and counsel to King Henry VIII. In her indelible hands, the back-channel politicking, beheadings, and brides — so many brides! — once again becomes the stuff not just of mothballed history but real, remarkable life. —LG

Henry Holt

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

A boisterous novel that hums to the wild rhythms of its ‘60s Brooklyn community, the affectionate and mournful Deacon King Kong marks a feat of imagination for the ever-imaginative McBride. It’s restless and darkly comedic, examining the aftermath of a local drug dealer’s shooting through dozens of perspectives. There are more characters to follow here than in a David Mitchell book — okay, don’t fact check us on that — and too many genres mashed-up here to count (mystery! crime! satire!), but nobody’s got a way with words like this author, and he brings his own spellbinding logic to a story overflowing with goodies. —DC

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

McCann’s latest is propelled by a certain moral drive and structure that can feel awfully elusive in terms of narrative momentum but carries searing emotional power all the same. Rooted in true events, the novel follows two men — one Israeli, one Palestinian — grieving the deaths of their children, each a result of the bloody and seemingly endless conflict between their people. But the book’s crux hardly describes the experience of reading it: Divided into more than 1,000 fragments, Apeirogon develops into a lyrical, at times pleasingly random meditation on loss, beauty, and the human condition. —DC

The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

Countless works of fiction have flowed from the Bible — but few, it feels fair to say, as original and engaging as Solomon’s ingeniously interwoven triptych of a novel, which splits its narratives between a contemporary Brooklyn mother, a Nixon-era senator’s wife, and Queen Esther of Old Testament legend. To call it merely a reworking of that ancient story, though, would be to discount the almost casual excellence of Solomon’s prose, and the thoroughly modern messages embedded within.  —LG

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

A world that already seemed to satirize itself in real time — or at least approximately, on HBO — meets its match in Valley, Weiner’s from-the-belly-of-the-beast memoir of her time in the California tech industry. She spent the second half of her twenties at some of its best-known startups, but her whip-smart debut is the farthest thing from ones and zeroes: a thought-provoking, deeply felt (and deeply funny) snapshot of Silicon Valley in all its madness, excess, and misplaced idealism. —LG

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