There’s no denying that 2020 has been a tough year in many ways. For those of us who love to travel, we’ve had to look to international books rather than airplanes to take us away.
From a bustling Asian metropolis to a tiny European village, these books are some of my favorite international books that took me around the world this year. If you’re looking to fill the travel void or to expand your understanding of our world, these books are for you!
Best international books of 2020
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
In the vein of Homegoing and Pachinko, this gorgeous intergenerational novel follows some incredibly strong women, starting with Tran Dieu, who sets such a beautiful example for her granddaughter, Huong, as they live through Vietnam in the 20th century. This book above all is an incredibly powerful testament to the evil and folly of war, as many characters, in their darkest moments when the easy thing to do would be to hate the enemy, instead find the humanity on the other side and lament the costs of war on all sides. As an American, it’s hard to ignore the role of the U.S. in Vietnam, and I also learned a lot about other periods of Vietnamese history through the eyes of characters that I cared so much about. The love of family is an important theme of this book, and had me wanting to call mine and tell them how much I love them.
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
Teenage Camila dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, but is hiding her talent and pretending to be the perfect, studious daughter while her brother gets the spotlight. When her childhood sweetheart Diego comes home to visit from Italy, where he has become a world-famous soccer star, she must contend with her reignited love for him at the same time that it may conflict with her soccer dreams. You don’t have to be a die-hard soccer fan like me to love this book – you’ll fall in love with Camila, her passion and drive, how she balances her dreams with falling in love, plus you’ll learn a lot about Argentina. This book will be joining my favorite comfort reads list – although there are some serious topics addressed, such as femicide and the #NiUnaMenos movement.
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
Afi is a young seamstress in a small town when her family arranges her marriage (with her consent) to Eli, a wealthy businessman. Despite moving into his life of luxury in Accra, the capital, Afi learns that married life is not the fairy tale that she dreamed it would be, as he is in love with another woman that his family doesn’t approve of and she is expected to win him over. While she does fall in love with him, she falls in love even more with the city and the opportunities that her new life affords her. As a reader, it was wonderful to follow Afi’s journey as she transformed from a meek, obedient daughter to a powerful, independent woman who is not afraid to fight for what she wants and needs. You’ll root for Afi, but at the same time understand the complexities of women’s lives and you won’t be able to hate the “other woman” either. It’s clear that the author is a professor and scholar of gender, the way she expertly presents this narrative.
Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa
As a young Palestinian woman sits in an Israeli prison cell, she reflects back on her life and how she ended up there. Through this novel, you’ll learn a lot about Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine through the lens of the experience of Palestinian displacement. While the amount of trauma and abuse is heartbreaking, we also see the joy and love that Nahr and her family manage to find and celebrate despite their circumstances. I’ll definitely be checking out Abulhawa’s backlist for more powerful stories.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Told from three very different points of view, A Burning is a heartbreaking story about Jivan, a girl from the slums, who is accused of a terrorist attack on a train after she posts a careless anti-government comment online. Alternating from Jivan’s perspective to that of PT Sir, her old gym teacher who degrades her in order to rise politically, and of Lovely, a hijra* whose desire to help her friend clashes with her dreams of becoming a movie star. With short chapters and building tension, this beautifully written debut novel flew by and completely captured my heart. Even with the eventful plot and huge questions that this book is asking – about justice, politics, ethics, ambition – this novel is really about these characters, and their development is riveting to read.
*The term hijra incorporates intersex, transgender, and other individuals, and is officially recognized as a third sex in India.
More picks for the best international books of 2020
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
22-year-old Ava has just moved from her native Ireland to Hong Kong to teach English, where she meets Julian, a British banker, with whom she begins a very complex “friends with benefits” arrangement, and also falls for Edith, a lawyer from an upper-class Hong Kong family. We see this love triangle only from Ava’s acerbic perspective, and I absolutely fell in love with her wit and intellect, even while she was making *the absolute worst* decisions (and knowing so, too). Ava’s insights into relationships, capitalism, colonialism, class, and herself are tragic and comedic at the same time. This insightful, gorgeous novel also had me very grateful to no longer be in my 20s. Sound familiar? It’s unfortunate that this has been compared to Sally Rooney, because it is superb all on its own, but also understandable given its themes and writing style. I highly recommend Rooney fans picking this one up! It’s one of the best international books I read in 2020.
Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez
Magic. Politics. Romance. Revolution. A magic sloth. Are you convinced yet? Inspired by Bolivian history and politics, this anticipated Fall YA books will have you questioning which side you’re rooting for in a political power struggle between Haves and Have-Nots. I’m constantly amazed by the way YA fantasy as a genre explores huge themes like politics and ethics, and Woven in Moonlight is no exception. I was in a total reading slump and no book could hold my interest – then I picked this one up and put my whole life on hold until I finished it.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
This lovely international book follows four women who live in the same apartment building in Seoul as they navigate relationships and careers amidst impossibly high beauty standards and inequitable gender norms. As the chapters bounce among the four women’s perspectives, you’ll find yourself rooting for each one in her unique circumstances and celebrating female friendship, while also learning a lot about South Korean culture and society.
See more of the best Fall books by Asian authors.
Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan
This pick for the best international books of 2020 was originally published in Russian in 2015 and was just translated and published in English this year. It’s an utterly charming and slightly weird story of a small Armenian mountain village and the people who populate it. We see the trials that this village has endured – war, famine, environmental disaster – through different villagers’ lives and histories, converging in a modern love story between two older, cantankerous residents. This unique story will take you from tears to laughter in minutes.
Feature image credit: @internationalreads