AudioFile’s 2020 Best Fiction list features a collection of outstanding audiobooks. This year’s best includes historical fiction following the life-saving care of nurses during the 1918 flu pandemic, highlighting the ways our current times echo with the past. Family legacy, race, class, loss, global catastrophe — all are touched upon with nuanced and moving narrations. 

The 2020 winners in other categories can be found here — and for even more, check out AudioFile’s exclusive interviews with narrators from this year’s Best Audiobooks on its podcast, “Behind the Mic with AudioFile Magazine.”

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Read by Emma Lowe | Hachette Audio

AudioFile Earphones Award Winner

In Dublin, maternity nurse Julia Power grapples with a web of concurrent social issues as she cares for patients during the flu pandemic of 1918 near the close of WWI. A fateful few days unites Julia with two other seemingly dissimilar women: Kathleen Lynn, a compassionate physician with ties to the contentious Irish independence movement, and Bridie Sweeney, a vibrant young volunteer from a Catholic boarding house. Narrator Emma Lowe’s layered characterizations include distinct Irish accents and diction that illuminate the backgrounds of the protagonists and hospital staff. The pregnant women in their care are depicted with particular sensitivity; their pain, joy and loss are all keenly felt. As circumstances around the women intensify, so will listeners’ investment in the outcomes of their stories. —J.R.T., July 2020


Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Read by Marin Ireland | Harper Audio

AudioFile Earphones Award Winner

Marin Ireland narrates a stunning audiobook that explores race, class, family and global catastrophe. A married couple and their teenage children are on summer vacation at a rented secluded home in the Hamptons. However, the house’s owners arrive unexpectedly after fleeing New York City during a mysterious blackout. While the situation is uncomfortable, the two families — one white and middle class, the other Black and wealthy — cohabitate and try to figure out what’s happened. Ireland portrays all the characters with pitch-perfect nuances. The tensions that arise feel organic and very much of our time. Whether Ireland is focused on the character dynamics or omnisciently describing the terrifying events of the world at large, she delivers an unforgettable powerhouse of a performance. —A.T.N., September 2020


Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Read by Dominic Hoffman | Penguin Audio

Dominic Hoffman vividly narrates the story of an old, drunken church deacon named Sportcoat who shoots a young drug dealer in the middle of a Brooklyn courtyard. Hoffman brings a multi-textured richness to each character in the novel. They are familiar and familial in their interactions. Hoffman is Irish, Italian, Hispanic, African-American, young, old, female and male — people who all live in one concentrated area during the late 1960s. His ever-changing accents express both saint and sinner, humorous and sentimental, hateful and loving. Hoffman knows when to quicken the tempo or become biting, the way friends or enemies are at the height of frustration. The listener is humorously entertained and drawn into the neighborhood as a community member witnessing the unfolding of this unpredictable story. —T.E.C., March 2020


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Read by Shayna Small | Penguin Audio

Narrator Shayna Small’s affecting performance brings listeners into the complex world of African-American identical twins. As teens in the postwar years in Louisiana, they run away from home, choosing two very different paths. Stella, taking advantage of a white businessman’s attention, opts to pass as white, erasing all connections to her birth family. Desiree, however, marries the Blackest man she can, eventually returning home to live with her mother. Small’s soft voice and measured delivery allow listeners the space to absorb the many consequences of the twins’ choices, including Stella’s constant fear of discovery, Desiree’s burdens of responsibility, and their trickle-down effects on their own daughters. This audiobook about the search for self-identity as underscored by race, socioeconomics and family will prompt timely conversation. —C.B.L., June 2020

Read Jennifer Blankfein’s review of the book here.


My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Rona Munro [Adapt.] | Read by Laura Linney | Random House Audio

AudioFile Earphones Award Winner

This extraordinary production of Pulitzer Prize winner (Olive Kitteridge) Elizabeth Strout’s novel will remain with listeners long after the final words fade. The credit goes to three people: Strout; Rona Munro, whose exquisite adaptation pares the story to its core; and actor Laura Linney, who alternately transforms herself into tough yet fragile Lucy and Lucy’s croak-voiced mother. The story, briefly, is that Lucy, waking from an operation during a long hospital stay, finds her estranged mother keeping watch. That surprise triggers a flood of memories, narrated by Lucy, of her strange, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Illinois. We hear all the desperation, fury, fear and yearning of those years. And during Lucy’s hospital conversations with her mother, we come to understand their scarred but unbreakable bond. Listen now. —A.C.S., February 2020


Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
Read by Alma Cuervo | Recorded Books

AudioFile Earphones Award Winner

 

Alma Cuervo’s warm, even-keeled performance guides listeners through the interwoven themes of love, loss and compassion in this beautifully wrought new novel by poet and author Julia Alvarez. Antonia is a Vermonter of Dominican heritage. Since the recent death of her beloved husband, she has been “walking a narrow path through the loss” of love and identity — for Sam died on the day that Antonia retired from her job as an English professor. In the midst of her fragile calm, an illegal worker on the neighboring farm asks for her help, and a crisis erupts among her three siblings — the Dominican “sisterhood.” Cuervo reads with nuance, highlighting different personalities without overdramatizing and enabling listeners to savor Alvarez’s memorable writing. —A.C.S., May 2020 


This story appears through BookTrib’s partnership with AudioFile and contains material originating from the AudioFile website.