I don’t read many new release novels – maybe only a couple a year. I’d rather draw on the decades of great novels published in the past. But there’s something to be said for reading current fiction – it keeps one’s finger on the pulse and engaged with the current conversation. This list is an account of my favourite novels published between 2000 and 2009 – of the limited number I’ve read. There are quite a few obvious choices which made a big impact on the world, as well as some underrated, lesser known works. What do you think of my choices? And what are your favourites?
1. Atonement / Ian McEwan (2001)
One of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read. McEwan’s prose has an exquisite transparency and elegance. His page turning story of a young girl’s jealous accusation against her sister’s working class lover turns into a bigger exploration of forgiveness and writing itself. He has such insight into the characters’ minds, and an ability to represent everyone’s reality. For me, a perfect novel.
2. The Corrections / Jonathan Franzen (2001)
This is the best portrait of the decade I’ve read, even though it’s probably set in the late nineties. It is an engrossing picture of a family set against all the anxieties of a world of economic rationalization and a middle class which doesn’t know why it’s alive. A bit like John Updike, but darker, more blackly humorous and less warm. Like Updike writing as Easton Ellis. It has the funniest scenes I have ever read in any book, especially when Chip tries to steal a fish stuffed down his pants and when he decides at the last moment to send out some Christmas presents.
3. What I Loved / Siri Hustvedt (2003)
A story of art and a story of family, full of the poignancy of years. It is a strange novel, spanning a couple of genres with some twists that reflect life itself. The elegiac beauty of the title captures the tone of the whole work.
4. The Book of Illusions / Paul Auster (2002)
Auster near his best. A grieving academic is summoned to the house of a silent film star, Hector Mann, long thought to be dead. It’s a sophisticated page turner, a kind of treasure hunt where the treasure is some films previously unknown to the world. But it’s also an examination of death and the meaning of life.
5. The Turning / Tim Winton (2004)
This collection grabbed me completely. A beautiful Western Australian portrait of big moments in small lives. The connections between the stories make reading the book compulsive, hoping but not guaranteed to know more about the characters as we are shifted back and forward between narrators and decades. In the end the tapestry is almost a novel, particularly the story of Victor and Gail.
6. We Need To Talk About Kevin / Lionel Shriver (2003)
The story of a high school massacrer, told by his mother. Shriver has an ability, like McEwan, to articulate experiences I thought were inarticulatable, modes of thinking, feelings which I am only half aware of.
7. Youth / J.M. Coetzee (2002)
A sparse account of a troubled youth who dreams of literary greatness in London as an exile from South Africa. He cannot connect with people. The prose is lean without a spare word, getting so well to states of mind and insight into youthful ambition and disappointment.
8. On Chesil Beach / Ian McEwan (2007)
A heartbreaking short novel about a couple’s disastrous wedding night, brilliantly insightful into the differences in perception and emotion that can cause devastating conflict between lovers.
9. Saturday / Ian McEwan (2005)
Manages to show the state of the world through one man’s mind on one day. Perowne is a neurosurgeon; the Saturday in question is the day of the anti-war protests just before the invasion of Iraq. In his relationship to his family, a game of squash and a road-rage incident which turns into a home invasion by a thug, he feels and thinks about the state of the world and the state of his life. McEwan’s prose has these moments of intense insight that are beautiful to read. He manages to write about what it’s like to listen to a certain piece of music, or the subtle feelings you might have waking in the middle of night and watching your wife sleep. The final scene lifts the whole novel another notch, an inspired piece of writing with Henry Perowne looking out on the square at the end of the long Saturday and thinking about what will come in the future, the leaving of his children, the death of his mother and father-in-law; the terrorist attack that has to happen. He imagines another doctor standing looking out at the square in 1903, and how this doctor would not believe what was to happen in the next one hundred years.
10. Sweet / Tracy Ryan (2008)
The story of three women caught in the thrall of a manipulative pastor of a conservative Baptist church in the outer-suburbs of Perth circa 1986. The Reverend William King is a complex figure, genuinely caring but always controlling. The prose is smooth and unintrusive and filled with flashes of beauty. The structure effectively balances and interweaves the stories of the three women connected by William. It is at once an engrossing drama of broad interest and yet also an important portrait of the evangelical world, a world rarely depicted in literature.
11. The Diviners / Rick Moody (2005)
An ambitious, sprawling novel depicting America in the uncertainty of the disputed election of 2000 through the prism of the flurry around a mini-series project that is picked up and hyped throughout the media industry. It is the same sort of book as Ulysses – with constant literary innovation and such a wide range of voices and styles. Of course, it’s not nearly as good; the only passages that approach brilliance are those where Moody returns to his forte – the suburbs and the family. But even where it isn’t brilliant, it is always good, entertaining, engaging and insightful. It finishes with a futile flourish, as the network CEO is assured by a judge in the disputed returns that the climate is right to crush the mini-series and everything it stands for; the future is reality TV, Republican and patriotic.
12. The Blind Assassin / Margaret Atwood (2000)
A literary mystery with a span of decades. Her characters leap off the page.
13. Gilead / Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The best Christian novel I have ever read, a testimony of grace and faith in small town America in the 1950s as an old man looks back on the life he has lived and hopes for the future of his young son.
14. Trip to the Stars / Nicholas Christopher (2000)
A beautiful novel of coincidence, tracing a boy after he is kidnapped from a planetarium in the 1960s. One for fans of Paul Auster.
15. The Brief History of the Dead / Kevin Brockmeier (2006)
A rare book set in an afterlife in which the dead live while people on Earth still remember them. Wonderful territory, stretching our imagination and beautifully told.
16. Atomised / Michel Houellebecq (2000)
A bleak novel about death and the way it wipes out any hope in the world, tempered by the (disturbing) hope of a future individual-less Buddhist utopia.
17. Liv / Morgan Yasbincek (2000)
A lyrical Western Australian novel told in short fragments and telling the story of the daughter of an immigrant family finding her feet in the world.
18. Dirt Music / Tim Winton (2001)
Winton has done something special in writing a book so full of Western Australia, a compulsive story with broad appeal and moments of profound observation.
19. Notes on a Scandal / Zoe Heller (2003)
Page-turning diary of a passive-aggressive teacher observing her teacher friend embark on an affair with a student. Witty and insightful.
20. Bedlam Burning / Geoff Nicholson (2000)
A comic novel in the best British tradition telling the story of a writer-in-residence at an asylum.