novels on the State of the Nation that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Mulk Raj Anand: Untouchable (1935)

Bakha, 18, is strong and able-bodied. He is a latrine cleaner, a Dalit, an untouchable, and the novel traces a day in his life. Deep in thought and enjoying a sweet jalebi, Bakha brushes against a Brahmin. The crowd
hurls abuse at this “pollution”, leaving him in tears. Later, Bakha encounters Christianity (from a missionary who cannot explain Jesus), Gandhi (inspiring but confusing), and the fl ush toilet (distant technology proposed by a poet). Untouchable was the first novel to present the Dalits’ suffering; it did so without pretending there was an easy answer.
Natalie Cate

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James Baldwin: Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)

Set over one Harlem weekend in 1935 — the birthday of 14-year-old preacher’s son John Grimes — Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical debut is an intensely physical account of the clashes occurring at every level of human existence: fathers pitched against sons, husbands against wives, the spiritual against the secular, black against white. Shifting perspectives reveal the treacherous secrets of John’s family, sexual infidelity, betrayal and the legacy of slavery bringing a biblical storm to the Harlem streets.
Victoria Segal


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Honoré de Balzac:La Comédie Humaine (1830-1848)

Balzac was famously a man of voracious appetites so it makes sense that he should have stuff ed his life’s main work into the compendious 95-volume cycle known, in tribute to Dante, as La Comédie Humaine. The ingredients of his rich literary stew include such famous works as La Cousine Bette, Eugénie Grandet and Le Père Goriot, which are all part of a densely packed attempt to document every aspect of mid-19th-century French life, from money to marriage, social status to sex.
Victoria Segal

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Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (1934)

A Tolstoyan portrait of the end days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this compulsively readable novel follows the divergent fortunes of two cousins, the politician Abady and gambler/drunkard Gyeroffy, detailing the intrigues at the decadent Budapest court, the doomed love aff airs, opulent balls, duels and general head-in-the sand idiocies of a privileged elite whose world is on the verge of disappearing for ever. Banffy — a Hungarian count — also writes with extraordinary vividness of the natural beauty of his Transylvanian homeland. Two more novels — They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided — followed, usually published as The Transylvanian Trilogy.
Adam Newey

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

A best selling anti-slavery novel, subtitled Life Among the Lowly,
that helped to intensify the confl ict between slave-owning and abolitionist states which led ultimately to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861. Although committed to showing the cruelty of the slave-owning system, Stowe perpetuated several stereotypes, most obviously in the figure of the black slave Uncle Tom, who is portrayed as a deeply loyal and long-suffering family servant. The term “Uncle Tom” has long been used to describe a black person who is over-deferential towards white culture.
Kathryn Hughes

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Aphra Behn: Oroonoko or The Royal Slave (1688)

A novel written, some would say, before the genre was properly invented. Set in Surinam, which the author may or may not have visited, its hero is a highly cultivated African prince who is brought to the West Indies as a slave. Fortuitously, the princess he loves, Imoinda, also finds herself in Surinam. They marry but, unwilling to have his children raised in servitude, Oroonoko raises a slave rebellion. When this fails he kills Imoinda (skinning her face, lest her beauty be admired by others than himself) and then faces mutilation, torture, dismemberment and death while stoically puffing on his pipe. On the basis of Oroonoko, Behn can be seen as the mother of the English novel and fiction’s earliest critic of imperialism.
John Sutherland

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Arnold Bennett: Clayhanger (1910)

Crammed with details of Victorian life, the first book in Bennett’s trilogy about a Potteries family examines how one man, Edwin Clayhanger, is shaped by class, geography and ties of blood. Relinquishing his dreams of becoming an architect, Edwin settles down to the daily grind in his father’s office, slowly growing into the role that has been marked out for him. As he knuckles down, he learns to accept the weight of what the book’s fi nal words call “the exquisite burden of life”.
Victoria Segal


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Elizabeth Bowen: The Last September (1929)

It is 1920 and while the Irish war of independence rages outside the gates of their County Cork home, Sir Richard Naylor and his Anglo-Irish family continue their privileged life of tea and tennis. Bowen’s 1929 novel is a strongly autobiographical portrait of a lost class marking out its final moments — every garden party, every house guest and every flirtation is touched by a sense of impending extinction.
Victoria Segal

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André Brink: A Dry White Season (1979)

Afrikaner teacher Ben du Toit lives a comfortable life in 1970s Johannesburg. When a black cleaner, Gordon Ngubene, is arrested after investigating his son’s death in police custody, Ben is certain there has been some mistake. It takes the sight of Gordon’s mutilated body to break Ben’s faith in the apartheid government. Yet his family do not want to look and his search for the truth makes him dangerously vulnerable. Brink focuses on apartheid’s relentless creation of otherness but places hope in speaking out. In 1989 a film of the book spread the message, but it loses the subtleties of Brink’s exploration of an ordinary man’s moral rebellion.
Natalie Cate

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Charlotte Brontë: Shirley (1849)

Brontë intended her follow-up to Jane Eyre to be as “unromantic as Monday morning”, but she didn’t really succeed, given that it ends with a double wedding and features the moral renewal of a mill-owner previously oblivious to the plight of his workers. Nonetheless, Shirley is an important social novel, set in Yorkshire during the Luddite riots at the end of the Napoleonic wars, which revolves around two questions: the social consequences of industrialisation and the position of women. Shirley Keeldar, the heiress to whom the financially straitened mill-owner Robert Moore becomes engaged, is a woman with rare freedom and power; the other female characters are not so lucky. It was only after the publication of this novel that Shirley became a girl’s name.
Paul Laity

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Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers (1980)

The nature and origins of evil are wrestled to the ground in Burgess’s masterpiece, which confronts an octogenarian writer with the seductions and horrors of the 20th century. Unable to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality, Kenneth Toomey wanders the world from the Paris of Joyce and Pound, via Nazi Germany and heyday Hollywood, to Malta where — mottled, sallow, emaciated — he awaits his death, sure of only one thing: that evil is innate to humanity.
Claire Armistead

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AS Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

The first volume in Byatt’s celebrated Frederica quartet — see also Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) — opens in 1953 with the dawn of a new Elizabethan age and centres on a country house masque got up to commemorate the royal coronation. Frederica, a spiky teenager, and her more reflective elder sister, Stephanie, dominate proceedings. Symbolism is rife and not many novelists have produced a better take on what one character calls “the queer, in-between time” of the early 1950s.
DJ Taylor

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Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road (1932)

A saga of sharecropper life in the Georgia back country in the wake of the great Depression by the poor man’s William Faulkner. Middle-aged Jeeter Lester is an impoverished cotton farmer. He married his wife, Ada, at the age of 11 and the couple have had 17 children. Incest rages in the Lester household. Two offspring still live at home: harelipped Ellie Mae and car-crazy Dude. Dude attracts the attention of a woman preacher, Bessie Rice, who is twice his age and is disfigured with a boneless nose, but has a Ford car. Tobacco Road created an image of poor white trash that is still with us.
John Sutherland

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Albert Camus: The Plague (1947)

Often described as an allegory of German occupation and French resistance during the second world war, Camus’s novel about the reaction of an Algerian town to an outbreak of plague is broader in scope and ambition. Not so much of an allegory, then, as a Kafkaesque parable (Camus acknowledged the debt): it is about the human condition, in short, but never — unlike, say, his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre’s work — heavy-handedly so.
Nicholas Lezard

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Alejo Carpentier: The Kingdom of This World (1949)

Carpentier’s suggestion in his preface that Latin American history is a chronicle of “loreal maravilloso” (“marvellous reality”) helped trigger a regional boom in writing. His novel is set on Haiti, an island steeped in myth and voodoo. Ti Noel is a slave when a rebellion begins in 1757. Matter-of-fact whether being beaten, raping his master’s wife or transfiguring into a goose, he witnesses the fall of cook- turned-king Henri Christophe, the birth of the republic and the death of the Haitian dream.
Natalie Cate

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M Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Told in an ominous present tense, this story of one man’s progress from powerful complacency to powerless dispossession is set in post- apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a clever, chilly academic, whose seduction — it is almost rape, but “not quite” — of one of his students leads to his disgrace. Having lost his job he moves in with his daughter on her remote farmstead, but then is a helpless bystander when three black men arrive and rape her. His life is becoming a tuition in humiliation. Yet the bleakness of any paraphrase is belied by the beautiful exactness of the prose, which mimics the intelligence and coldness of the protagonist.
John Mullan

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M Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

Coetzee’s first heavyweight novel is a haunting political fable set in a remote outpost of a carefully imagined empire. The central figure, the Magistrate, is appalled when a torturer comes to town to investigate rumours of a possible uprising by the nomadic barbarians. But the Magistrate is also a servant of the empire and his intervention in the case of a barbarian girl teaches him lessons about himself as well as the workings of power. Austere yet expressive, Coetzee’s novel has lost none of its resonance since the end of apartheid in his native South Africa.
Chris Taylor

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Douglas Coupland: Microserfs (1995)

“Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill is benevolent.” It’s 1993 and Daniel, one of a group of computer programmers working at the Microsoft “campus” in Washington state, is using his Powerbook to record the minutiae of their denumbed lives. These “children who fell down life’s cartoon holes” might hide behind their shell of geekdom — sterile shared housing, just-add-water noodles, corporate lawns, arcane references to pop culture — but Coupland reveals their underlying emotional codes and connections. Technology with a
human face.
Victoria Segal

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Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders (1722)

The original title page of Defoe’s novel provocatively summarised the exploits of his endlessly resourceful anti-heroine. She is “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief”. Born in Newgate Prison, she lives by her wits, her capacity to seduce men, and eventually her light fingers. After a trip to America she ends up back at Newgate, with the scaff old looming. Only luck rescues her, and makes her penitent. The tale is the more compelling because she is looking back ruefully on her misadventures in older age, examining her own motives with withering candour.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: Underwold (1997)

This novel really does attempt an anatomy of post-war America. It also combines the trickery of post-modern narration — a reverse chronology, sudden shifts of narrative perspective, interpolated passages of documentary reconstruction — with a simple and alluring fable. For the spine of this huge book is the story of what happens to a famous object, the baseball hit into the stands to win the World Series for the New York Giants in 1951, just as the Soviet Union is successfully testing an atomic bomb. The influence of nuclear paranoia and the secret industry of waste management (in which the protagonist, Nick Shay, is involved) shape the fates of its characters, whose stories are brought together by the circulating baseball.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: White Noise (1985)

Jack Gladney is nesting comfortably, teaching Hitler studies in a bland Midwestern college town, when a nebulously menacing “airborne toxic
event” nearby takes the stopper off his chronic fear of dying. It turns out that his life has been taking an experimental drug — Dylar — which is meant to muffle the same terrors. Attuned like no other novel to the perplexities that hum away at the margins of everyday experience, White Noise remains the most precise, and killingly funny, portrayal of the way we live now.
Lindesay Irvine

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Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The titular cities are Paris and London. It is the best and worst of times: the age of revolution. Dr Manette has been falsely imprisoned in the Bastille by the Marquis St Evrémonde. The doctor, whose wits are gone, is rescued by a lawyer, Lorry, and brought to England with his daughter, Lucie. The wicked Marquis’s virtuous nephew, Charles Darnay, who loves Lucie, bears a striking
resemblance to the shiftless lawyer Sidney Carton, who later sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save the lovers and makes the immortal eclaration: “It is a far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” The Victorians loved this novel.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

A classic novel that helped to give lawyers their bad name. Bleak House is a vigorous satire on the old court of Chancery and the self-serving, pocket-lining nonsenses of the profession practiced there. Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are wards of the court in the eternal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; thrown together, they secretly marry. Also central are their friend, Esther Summerson, who nearly marries out of respectful devotion but loves another, and Lady Dedlock, who has a deep secret uncovered by the ruthless barrister Tulkinghorn. Guppy, a lawyer’s clerk, is unforgettable, as is the philanthropic and reprehensible Mrs Jellyby; Bucket is a very early detective. The 2005 BBC adaptation, starring Gillian Anderson, was addictive.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son (1848)

Written when the author was becoming more interested in narrative design and when the type of design he tended towards was palpably darker. The
novel opens with the frigid Mr Dombey being presented with the son he hopes will one day take over the family business. Mrs Dombey promptly dies and
young Paul (in a death scene of tear-jerking pathos) follows a few years later. Dombey — desperate for an heir — marries a cynical beauty, Edith Granger. She elopes with her husband’s chief clerk (and embezzler),
James Carker. A ruined Dombey finally realises the worth of Florence, the daughter he has always neglected. The narrative — Dickens’s most mature meditation on the ethics of capitalism — is haunted by ambivalent images of railroads, progress and death.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Hard Times (1854)

Dickens’s major “social problem” novel, written after first-hand investigation of the Preston cotton-workers’ strike that crippled Britain’s textile industry. The novel opens in the most progressive school in Coketown (ie Preston), which is run by a strict utilitarian, Mr Gradgrind, with a savage stress on “facts”, not “fancy”. Gradgrind’s particular friend, Bounderby, is a factory owner and — he would have the world believe — a self-made man (he is not, it transpires). In one of its subplots Hard Times argues for easier divorce — a cause dear to Dickens’s heart — which came about three years later.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855-57)

Bubbles always burst; if only our financiers had learned from the story of Mr Merdle, in whose bank a deposit seems magically to accrue. Dickens targets greed in this novel, and pride, but he had two more specific targets — government bureaucracy (the obstructive Circumlocution Office) and the law of imprisonment for debt (his own father had been in the Marshalsea). The “little Dorrit” of the title is Amy, daughter of William Dorrit, who languishes in the debtors’ prison before discovering he is heir to a fortune. The hero is Arthur Clennam, with whom Amy is in love and whose hateful mother has long-ago wronged the Dorrit family. Riches arrive and disappear, the pretensions and hypocrisies of society are uncovered, and the inevitable union of Amy and Arthur is long prolonged. Dickens, as always, bashes us over the head, but he does it brilliantly — a battering for our times.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838)

The work with which “Boz” demonstrated that fiction could be a powerful instrument for social reform. A woman arrives, exhausted, at the Mudfog
workhouse. She gives birth and dies. The orphan is named Oliver Twist. Under the new (1834) Poor Law the waif is underfed (famously, he asks for “more”) and abused and runs away to London, where he finds refuge in the thieves’ kitchen of the villainous Fagin and is put to work for the brutal housebreaker Bill Sikes. Oliver discovers that he is gently born and the victim of a criminal conspiracy. Fagin is hanged, Sikes — pursued by an angry mob — hangs himself. The novel was brilliantly illustrated by George Cruikshank, who later claimed that he, not Dickens, had had the principal idea for the story.
John Sutherland

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Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays (1970)

A short, desolate, wonderful tale of Californian hedonism that centres on the decline of a failed actor, Maria Wyeth, who recounts her life while in recovery from a breakdown. Her parents are dead, her marriage is over, her young daughter is in hospital. Drugs and sex make her life no less empty. In a scene that’s not for the squeamish, she undergoes a messy abortion. The only place in which she is happy is behind the wheel of her car, driving endlessly on the freeway. It’s all as bleak as it sounds but the sentences are
superb and the novel stands as a strong but undidactic reflection on hollowed-out decadence. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t far away.
Paul Laity

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Benjamin Disraeli: Sybil or The Two Nations (1845)

The “two nations” are the rich and the poor, and Sybil (part of a trilogy, with Coningsby and Tancred) is almost the archetypal state of the nation novel, a statement about the “condition of the people”. Long before he became prime minister, Disraeli was a member of Young England, a group that looked to paternalism to solve the problems of the industrial age. A sense of the oppression that inspired Chartism is channelled into a high romantic storyline. Charles Egremont is driven by his love for the beautiful Sybil Gerard, a radical’s daughter, to understand the motivations of the Chartists by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

After his release from prison in 1920s Berlin, transport-worker-turned-hardman Franz Biberkopf tries and fails to stay on the straight and narrow: freedom, he soon realises, is its own kind of punishment. With unmatched streetwise liveliness, expressionistic density and a radical montage aesthetic, Döblin captures the sounds of the metropolis like few before him. Berlin itself, with its endless stream of crime and vice, emerges as Biberkopf’s ultimate nemesis.
Philip Oltermann


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EL Doctorow: The Book of Daniel (1971)

A novel spun from the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the pair of small-time communists who, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed by the US authorities in 1953. The novel’s hero is the son of scapegoats, scarred by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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John Dos Passos: U.S.A. (1930-36)

Originally three individual volumes — more than 1,200 pages in the Penguin complete edition — U.S.A. represents the high-water mark of inter-war American modernism. Large parts of it abandon straightforward narrative in favour of newspaper headlines and stream-of-consciousness collage. In between wander a dozen or so vagrant and only intermittently connected characters — tycoons, power-brokers, hoboes, aspiring movie actors, drunks — deviously at large in the pullulating anthill of early-20th-century transatlantic life.
DJ Taylor

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Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900)

Dreiser’s first novel tells the story of 18-year-old small-town girl Carrie Meeber, bound for Chicago in pursuit of the American dream. Carrie’s relationship with her two lovers gives the book a moral daring but its lasting impact comes from Dreiser’s depiction of the hard-nosed exchanges of city life, financial and emotional. The atmosphere of “hard contract” at the shoe factory where Carrie first works; her sister’s grim domesticity; the beggars and shopgirls on Chicago’s streets: Dreiser deftly records the steely realities of modern urban living.
Victoria Segal

Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent (1800)

Castle Rackrent can claim many English literary firsts, but was most influential as the first regional novel. Set in Ireland before the arrival of
(short-lived) independence in 1782, this is a satirical saga of incompetent Anglo-Irish landlords, narrated in the vernacular by their disingenuous steward, Thady Quirk. The Rackrents are ably assisted in their decline by Quirk’s son Jason, whose designs on their land put class and property relations at the centre of the book. Edgeworth’s allegiance, however, remains ambiguous. The “Editor” insists that Ireland is now worthy of the 1800 Act of Union, while the Glossary” chortles about the Irish in a very present tense.
Natalie Cate

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George Eliot: Middlemarch (1872)

The one Victorian novel whose greatness no one contradicts. Eliot’s massive “study of provincial life” was conceived as two works: one centred on the ardent young idealist Dorothea Brooke; the other on the young scientist Dr Lydgate. Dorothea marries the parson-scholar Edward Casaubon, only to discover his mind is unworthy of her. Lydgate, surrendering to what Eliot calls his “spots of commonness”, marries a woman unworthy of his talent or aspiration. Amidst swirlingly connected plots, Dorothea (now widowed) eventually finds fulilment. Lydgate does not. Set in the time of the first Reform Act (1832) and published just after the second, Middlemarch is Eliot’s most impressive meditation on progress and the individual’s contribution to it.
John Sutherland

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George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861)

Eliot’s finest pastoral tale. Marner is a linen weaver in the village of Raveloe, who once belonged to a religious sect from which he was unjustly expelled: in reaction he has become a miser. His store of gold is stolen by the son of the local squire; at the same time, a golden-haired foundling, later named Eppie, is left in his house. She humanises the miser and when her rich father reveals himself, Eppie refuses to leave her adoptive parent. The novel is notable for the sharpness of its rural detail, its tactful symbolism and its variation between high melodrama and the broad comedy of Raveloe’s Rainbow Inn.
John Sutherland

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Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1953)

A pioneering novel about being black in America, by a pioneer black American author. The novel was painfully wrestled out of the author who — possessor of one of the most famous writing blocks in literary history — never, over an 80-year life, completed another major work of fiction for publication. As the title indicates the novel revolves around the refusal of white America to “see” its black citizens. It is framed as a journal by an un-named African-American, following his post-college career. Allegorical in technique, the novel’s most famous episode is the so-called “Battle Royal” episode in which young gladiatorial blacks fight, blindfolded, for the amusement of haughty white spectators.
John Sutherland

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Gustave Flaubert: Sentimental Education (1869)

Can youthful idealism withstand the disillusions of age? In tracing young Frederic’s desire for Madame Arnoux, a married woman, Flaubert
shows dreams struggling with reality, and questions whether ambition ever matches outcome. Set against the Paris revolutions of 1848, Flaubert’s final and hugely influential novel casts a similarly dispassionate eye on political ideals — self-interest vies with apathy, institutions contend with individual expression, and champions of the oppressed become policemen. Flaubert asks what is ultimately of most value to us: hope or disappointment?
Emily Mann

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Theodor Fontane:Effi Briest (1896)

Effi von Briest, 17, gets married to a general twice her age, but her emotional life is stifled by the tight net of social conventions in Bismarck’s
Germany. An affair with another offi cer ends in a pointless but lethal duel. A Prussian Madame Bovary by one of the masters of 19th-century realism, Effi Briest still makes for rich and rewarding reading. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film adaptation is worth watching, even if its full title is less succinct: Those who have a notion of their capabilities and needs and yet accept the ruling system in their heads and through their actions and affirm and even justify it thus.”
Philip Oltermann

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Richard Ford: Independence Day (1996)

In his sequel to The Sportswriter (1986), Ford picks up the story of Frank Bascombe, now a New Jersey estate agent, as he navigates the fraught emotional territory of a holiday weekend. An ex-wife, a disturbed son and a dangerous universe: all challenge the bland acceptance of what he calls his “existence period”. Ford’s attempt to diagram a certain kind of American everyman won the Pulitzer prize and a PEN/Faulkner award for fi ction — it was the first novel to be awarded both in the same year.
Victoria Segal

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EM Forster:A Passage to India (1924)

“The sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me,” Forster wrote of his travels in India. Englishwoman Adela Quested is eager to “see the real India”, but when she experiences a mysterious side of it in the Marabar caves she is overcome by the echoes and accuses the outing’s organiser, Dr Aziz, of sexually assaulting her. His trial fuels the prejudices of the British Raj — the Indians “ought to be spat at … ground into the dust” — and underlines the impossibility of true friendship between an Englishman and Indian until British rule ends. Forster’s final novel, which provoked considerable debate over the “colonial problem”, won the James Tait Black prize. Sixty years later it was turned into an award-winning film by David Lean.
Emily Mann

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Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (2001)

An ambitious, almost encyclopedic novel about modern America, structured around the seemingly hackneyed idea of a dysfunctional family getting together for Christmas. But Franzen’s is a dark as well as a comic book; the Lamberts are unhappy and have made mistakes, and there’s plenty wrong with the shallow, commercial, pharmaceutically obsessed country they live in. The parents, Enid and Alfred, confront old age, illness and frustrated ambitions. Chip has been caught messing about with one of his students, Gary is a depressive, Denise has begun an affair with her boss’s wife. The meanings of the novel’s title are multiple — financial, familial, moral. It owes much to Don DeLillo’s fi ction but is friendlier, and became a huge bestseller, perhaps the most recommended literary novel of the decade.
Paul Laity

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William Gaddis: The Recognitions (1955)

Gaddis’s huge novel is full of stories, but these often seem to be connected by theme rather than conventional narrative logic. The elusive central character is Wyatt Gwyon, intended by his family for the ministry but instead a forger of those objects of religious devotion: paintings. The novel renders the passion with which he creates truly original fakes, credited to Flemish masters. The other leading characters are also counterfeiters, like Otto, the playwright, who plagiarises authors he has never read, or the conman Frank Sinisterra. Much of the novel consists of dialogues in which ideas about religion, art and truthfulness are fearlessly elaborated.
John Mullan

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Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford (1853)

One of the 19th century’s finest novels of community. Cranford — an idyllic reconstruction of Knutsford, where Gaskell was brought up — is a village not too far from the mill town of Drumble (Manchester), largely populated by genteel spinsters whom Gaskell playfully calls “amazons”. The stories that make up the narrative (which was first published in irregular instalments) revolve around two maiden sisters: the timid Miss Matty and the domineering Miss Deborah Jenkyns, daughters of a deceased rector. Matty is ruined by the failure of a bank and makes ineffectual but heartwarming attempts to recoup her losses through shopkeeping. All turns out well. Gaskell’s warm nature radiates through the novel.
John Sutherland

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Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)

The novel in which Gaskell set out to be scrupulously fair to the Lancashire mill-owners whom she had earlier criticised in Mary Barton (1848). Margaret Hale is transplanted from comfortable life in Hampshire to Milton-Northern (Manchester) when her clergyman father’s doubts force him to leave the Anglican church. Initially appalled, Margaret is gradually won over by the rough northern community and its tough (but moral) textile workers. Her southern softness tempers the hardness of the factory owner Thornton and helps bring about an acceptable end to a savage strike — the same industrial conflict that Dickens describes in Hard Times. Gaskell brings a distinctive feminine sympathy to the Victorian “social problem” novel.
John Sutherland

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André Gide: The Counterfeiters (1925)

When Bernard, a student, is told he is illegitimate, he runs away from home and ends up in the bed of his schoolfriend Olivier. Olivier’s uncle, the novelist Edouard, is in love with his nephew, who promptly heads off to the Mediterranean with the dastardly Comte de Passavant. Bernard becomes secretary to Edouard — who is working on a novel called The Counterfeiters. The tangled plot — which includes Olivier’s brother’s involvement with a gang of forgers — and large cast of characters are used to elucidate the novel’s themes of social authenticity and sincerity and to explore the possibility of an idealised homosexual relationship. While writing the novel, Gide kept a journal detailing its composition, which he published separately in 1926.
Adam Newey

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George Gissing: The Odd Women (1893)

A powerful and still underrated novel about the “woman question” in late-Victorian Britain. Gissing tells the story of five “odd women” — women without husbands — exploring their attempts to retain middle- class respectability without the financial means to do so. Alice and Virginia Madden, left adrift by the death of their spendthrift father, are forced to take mechanical “genteel” work. Unwilling to share their fate, their younger sister Monica marries a wealthy man who makes her miserable. The “new women”, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, take a more positive approach, training women for proper jobs. But then along comes the callous and rich Everard Barfoot …
Paul Laity

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George Gissing: New Grub Street (1891)

George Orwell said of this bitter, brilliant novel that it retains its capacity to disquiet. Though set in late 19th-century London, its study of the corrosion of the literary world by self-promotion and commercialism is more relevant today than ever. Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain are two young writers who both realise that the values of the new literary industry are base. Milvain plays the game and prospers; Reardon chooses not to compromise and fails.
Competition and commerce are everything — in the marriage market, as in the literary one — and not many classics get written when there’s no food on the table.
Paul Laity

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Nadine Gordimer: July’s People (1981)

Having been banned under apartheid because it showed South Africa in a negative light Gordimer’s novel — which describes the plight of the Smales, a white, middle-class family forced from their home in Johannesburg during a fictional civil war against black South Africans — was then deemed racist by a panel of teachers in 2001. This lent value to Gordimer’s claim that segregation is indiscriminate in its systematic humiliation of all who live under it. Led to safety and protected by July, their faithful black servant, the Smales in turn become subservient to him.
Rosalind Porter

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Maxim Gorky: Mother (1906)

Mother was endorsed by Lenin as a “very timely” propaganda tool after the 1905 revolution and served as a model for Bolshevik ideology and socialist-realist writing. In a greasy factory suburb, Pelageya Nilovna is a
downtrodden woman whose only solace is religion. When her son, Pavel
Vlassov, declares himself a socialist, she is afraid and ashamed. In her eyes, socialists murder tsars. Yet through her love for her son, she overcomes her habits of subservience. She learns to read and when Pavel is arrested, Pelageya finds her own role, smuggling pamphlets to peasants.
Natalie Cate

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Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)

A strange, huge picture of Glasgow written by an author as renowned for his artwork as for his writing. The novel, embellished with Gray’s elaborately emblematic title pages, has a deliberately forbidding structure. Its four books are presented out of sequence, a naturalistic narrative of a young man’s growth to self-consciousness in 1930s and 1940s Glasgow being enwrapped within a Kafka-esque fantasy about a parallel city called Unthank. In the fantasy, the hero, Lanark, finds himself in a kind of hell of all-powerful institutions and mysteriously knowledgeable persecutors. In the realistic story, Gray’s alter ego, Duncan Thaw, struggles to maintain his artistic integrity. The challenge to the reader is to follow the connections between
the two.
John Mullan

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Walter Greenwood: Love on the Dole (1933)

An apprentice at Marlowe’s, an engineering firm, notices familiar faces disappearing and fears that before being old enough to claim an adult wage, he will join them on the dole as another “living corpse; a unit of the spectral army of three million lost men”. Not even love’s young dream provides a refuge from the deprivation and degradation of unemployment, while protest ends in death. Greenwood’s first novel, a fictionalisation of “the tragic and sordid side of poverty” near his hometown of Salford, moved middle-class readers during the depression years. The early-morning march of hobnail boots on cobbles and the clack-clack-clack of the cotton mills may document a distant time, but rising unemployment, pressure on wages and means testing still shatters lives today.
Emily Mann

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Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)

Hardy’s reworking of Oedipus Rex, set in the author’s native Wessex in the 1840s. Michael Henchard, a drunken journeyman labourer, sells his wife to a sailor at a local fair. On sobering up, he vows not to drink for 21 years. He rises in the world as a corn-factor and is elected mayor of Casterbridge (Dorchester, bleakly depicted), but his fall once again is precipitous, and he dies, as he began, a labourer. The novel is Hardy’s most powerful study of will and character and the irresistibility of fate.
John Sutherland

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Barry Hines: A Kestrel for a Knave (1968)

Neglected by his parents, bullied by his brother, beaten and belittled at school, Billy Casper has little hope of a future beyond the pit in his deprived northern town, a destiny signalled by the coal- heaps which loom over the playground. The fi rst line describes Billy’s cold council-house bedroom at night — “There were no curtains up” — and his only comforts are stolen food, the late-night shipping forecast and Desperate Dan. That is, until he finds, rears and trains a kestrel: as he lets the bird take flight, Billy’s own horizons seem to expand. The source of Ken Loach’s faithful 1969 fi lm Kes, Hines’s book is a compelling and haunting portrait of the trials and limitations of British working-class youth.
Emily Mann

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Winifred Holtby: South Riding (1936)

Set in a fictional Yorkshire, Holtby’s last novel, published posthumously, takes up her abiding themes of class and social justice. The central relationship, between the idealistic young headmistress Sarah Burton and the unhappily married squire Robert Carne, has striking echoes of the love affair between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. In 1974 Yorkshire Television serialised the book, with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the leading roles.
Kathryn Hughes

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Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (1862)

The most popular novel among both armies in the American civil war. The innumerable pirated copies that circulated in the English-speaking world never quite decided how to translate the title (“The Wretched”, “The Poor Ones”) and, like the phenomenally successful musical, eventually trusted that the French words could translate themselves. Hugo’s massive narrative follows the career of Jean Valjean, a convict, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. On his release, he steals some silver candlesticks from a bishop, who forgives him. This act of kindness sets Valjean on the path of righteousness. He becomes a successful industrialist, mayor and family man — although always haunted by his criminal past. Hugo introduces spectacular wartime and street-revolution set pieces. An influential (and much adapted) novel, Les Misérables was recycled by Thomas Hardy as The Mayor of Casterbridge.
John Sutherland

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Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Even less thinly disguised in its autobiographical origins than Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), Isherwood’s second Berlin novel is also more wide-eyed and panoramic in the way it records the mingling of Germans and émigrés under the Weimar Republic. There is Fräulein Schröder, an outspoken landlady, Anglophile barkeeper Bobby and decadent Sally Bowles, memorably embodied by Liza Minelli in Cabaret (1972), which was born out of a stage play adapted from the novel. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” are the famous lines on the first page; reading this novel is much like overhearing anecdotes in a crowded bar while history knocks impatiently at the windows.
justify it thus.”
Philip Oltermann

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Ismail Kadare: Chronicle in Stone (1971)

Based on Kadare’s own childhood in the town of Gjirokastër, Chronicle in Stone looks at Albania during the second world war through the eyes of a young boy. Greeks, Germans and Italians march through the town. Making use of the rawness of folklore and tapping into the strange logic of dreams, Kadare takes the lunacy of war and spins it into his own Balkan myth.
Victoria Segal

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James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late (1994)

Unemployed middle-aged Glaswegian Sammy finds himself in a police cell after a weekend of booze and fighting. He seems to have lost his sight, though he remembers little of what has happened. Eventually released, he finds his girlfriend has left him and struggles vainly with the social security bureaucracy. Much of the story is devoted to Sammy’s attempts to satisfy his most basic needs. The third-person narrative does not merely inhabit his thoughts, it also uses a version of his demotic Scots, replete with obsenities, but charged with feeling.
JM

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Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard (1958)

The feudal authority of Fabrizio, prince of Salina, is threatened by the arrival in Sicily in 1860 of Garibaldi’s redshirts. Unable to decide if he should resist the Risorgimento or come to an accommodation with it, the charismatic astronomer prince agrees to his nephew’s marriage to a daughter of the local nouveau-riche. Their unhappy alliance signals the end of inherited power, leaving the prince without a role in life, even as the family’s wealth increases. Lampedusa’s only novel was attacked from right and left when it was posthumously published, but it was saluted by William Golding and EM Forster. In 1963 it was made into a Palme d’Or-winning film by Luciano Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the prince.
Claire Armistead

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Philip Larkin: A Girl in Winter (1947)

The most famous poet of his era, Larkin as a young man published two novels, of which this is the second. Like its predecessor, Jill (1944), A Girl in Winter is a sensitive study of female sensibility — conceived at a period when Larkin (for whom sex was always a fraught topic) had embarked on his first serious relationships with women. The “girl” of the title is Katherine Lind — a provincial librarian, as was the author at the time — involved, unsatisfactorily, with a young man. Published in austerity Britain, in a year which saw the worst winter of the century, the narrative is very much of its time. But no one reading it will fail to wonder whether there was not a great novelist struggling to get out of a great poet.
John Sutherland

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Nella Larsen: Passing (1929)

At separate tables in a rooftop cafe, two black women take tea and pass as white. It is a chance encounter between childhood friends. Irene is a respectable black woman committed to her home and family. Clare travels the world with her white husband who, unwittingly, calls her Nig. After meeting Irene and her Harlem Renaissance friends, Clare finds she cannot resist her “own people”. Passing broke literary ground as the story of two racially and sexually ambiguous women written by another. Social boundaries can be permeated, but not without cost.
Natalie Cate

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Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing (1950)

Nearly 60 years before winning the Nobel prize, Lessing was acclaimed for a stunning debut which tells the story of Dick and Mary Turner, farmers in a remote part of Rhodesia. “White supremacy” implies freedoms and luxury they have never known and the glory of the African landscape is off set by their squalor and frustration. Mary, desperate and isolated, seeks comfort from the couple’s black cook, Moses. The lure and contradictions of colonial life are brilliantly analysed as a tragedy unfolds.
Joanna Hines

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Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry (1927)

One of a grim trilogy attacking materialism and hypocrisy in American life, Elmer Gantry followed Lewis’s attacks on business, in Babbit (1922), and medicine, in Arrowsmith (1925). Here his target is dollar- driven evangelism. Elmer, a jock who lives for football, booze and girls, gets religion at college. By wholesale unscrupulousness he becomes “the Rev Dr Gantry” before falling into a honey trap, set by his secretary. He escapes. The end of the novel sees him triumphantly preaching his message: “Dear Lord, Thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation.”
John Sutherland

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Sinclair Lewis: Main Street (1920)

Taken to live in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, by her new husband, free-spirited young Carol Milford is horrified by the town’s conservatism. She dreams of making the place beautiful but struggles against America’s “comfortable tradition and sure faith”. “Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?” asks Lewis.
Victoria Segal

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Colin MacInnes: Absolute Beginners (1959)

Never mind the disastrous 1980s fi lm adaptation: Colin MacInnes’s novel is a peach. Not only is it a snapshot of London at a particularly febrile time — as postwar austerity gives way to the first stirrings of the “swinging” era — it also examines a new ethnic melting-pot, as immigrants from the West Indies arrive in signifi cant numbers. It’s all seen through the eyes of a never-named teenage mod, a perfect vehicle for MacInnes’ Runyonesque prose and mordant humour.
Andrew Pulver

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Mary McCarthy: The Group (1963)

An aff ectionate portrayal of eight Vassar-educated girls making their way in Depression-era New York — and a hilarious lampooning of the men who hang around them. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and still strikes a chord. Imagine Sex and the City with a social conscience, with characters saying things like: “But before we were married,
we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists … so that semantically we can have the same referents.”
Sam Jordison

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John McGahern: Amongst Women (1990)

Michael Moran is a former IRA guerrilla whose fails to adjust to civilian life after the Irish war of independence and is bitterly resentful of the new free state government. He takes it out on his family, for whom he is the ultimate patriarch. Beautifully written with suggestions of autobiography, McGahern’s Booker-shortlisted novel explores the complexities of rural, post-colonial Ireland through the experiences of one ruined man.
Rosalind Porter

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Joaquim Maria: Machado de Assis

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1871) Narrated from beyond the grave, Brazil’s answer to Tristram Shandy takes the reader on a playful wander through the disenchantments of the life of the late Brás Cubas. Machado’s self-conscious novel cheerfully tosses realism aside, creating a book that combines comedy and melancholy to transform the stuff of a disappointing life into art.
Victoria Segal

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Julian Maclaren-Ross Of Love and Hunger (1947)

Julian Maclaren-Ross’s reputation as a boozehound screw-up obscures — unfairly, perhaps — the qualities of his first full-length novel, which was drawn from his experiences selling vacuum cleaners door to door in Bognor Regis. Employing an appropriately louche prose style, he spins an enjoyable, self-deprecating yarn as his hapless hero tries to interest householders in the Sucko brand and whiles away his spare time romancing the wife of a fellow salesman. It’s all set in 1939; you can sense how the war curtailed Maclaren- Ross’s rootlessless, if nothing else.
Andrew Pulver

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David Malouf: Remembering Babylon (1993)

It begins with the unreality of a fairy tale: three children in a remote Australian settlement in the mid-1850s see a stranger, not quite human, balancing precariously on a fence, somewhere between earth and heaven. Their family takes hi in but contact with Gemmy Fairly, a white man who has lived with the blacks and is a stranger even to himself, has repercussions for the whole community. Malouf’s wonderful tale of alienation, otherness and love is told with compassion and insight.
Joanna Hines

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Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain (1924)

Hans Castorp, a merchant’s son from Hamburg, visits a tubercular relative at a sanitorium in Davos. Fascinated with this place high up in the Swiss Alps, where illness is championed — not without vanity — as a triumph of the intellect over the body, he stays for seven years and falls ill along the way. Featuring lengthy debates between humanist freemasons and Jews-turned-Catholics, a long love-scene written entirely in French and a brilliant hallucinatory journey down the snowy slopes, it merits multiple readings. A novel for a lifetime not just a rainy afternoon.
Philip Oltermann

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Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed (1827)

Ostensibly the story of two lovers kept apart by a corrupt and lustful nobleman and his thuggish supporters, Manzoni’s digressive masterpiece takes in the whole sweep of 17th-century Italian history. With wry commentary on the abuse of power, epic set pieces from the Thirty Years war and graphic depictions of the horrors of the plague, it is the classic of 19th-century Italian literature and is as important in that country as the works of Thackeray, Dickens, Fielding and Hardy rolled into one.
Sam Jordison

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Guy de Maupassant Bel-Ami (1885)

Maupassant turns his cynical imagination to the squalor and decadent gloryof late 19th-century Paris. There his splendidly moustachioed hero, Georges Duroy, immerses himself in the amoral world of political journalism and climbs to the top of society, over the bodies of colleagues and quickly discarded mistresses. At once detestable and delightful, Duroy works his charm on the reader as seductively as on the women he misuses. The result is a masterpiece — a page-turner as well as a vivid chronicle of a sordid world.
Sam Jordison

Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance (1995)

One of the greatest novels of the late 20th-century. Two tailors, uncle and nephew, a student from northern India and a middle- class but impoverished widow struggle to survive in the political ferment of Indira Gandhi’s harsh emergency rule in the mid – 1970s. India comes alive in an inspiring contemplation of power and the powerless, of compassion and terror, of
comedy and cruelty. Mistry has the heart of Dickens, the sweep of Victor Hugo and the command of words of a great poet.
Carmel Callil

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Alberto Moravia: The Time of Indifference (1929)

Moravia started his study of two days in the life of a middle-class widow and her troublesome children when he was 18, having been challenged by friends. The book was dismissed as a “mist of words” when he submitted it to the prestigious magazine 900, but he self-published to rapturous reviews and the fi rst edition sold out within weeks. The Time of Indifference might lack the sophistication of his later classics but his caustic attack on middle-class decadence is still a precocious achievement.
Sam Jordison

VS Naipaul A Bend in the River (1979)

Another great 20th-century writer visits the sub-Saharan Africa explored in Conrad’s Heartof Darkness, soon after the white colonialists have disappeared. “Black men” have assumed “the lies of white men” and the narrator, Selim, observes with the outsider perspective of a Muslim Asian as a dictator tears apart his country. It’s a bleak vision of a land ruled by terror, but the beauty of the prose and Naipaul’s barbed humour make A Bend In The River a real pleasure.
Sam Jordison

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Frank Norris: McTeague (1899)

A bracing blast of social-realism, played out in San Francisco and detailing the rise and fall of a knuckle-headed dentist. Taking his lead from Zola, Norris rustles up a bold, broad and colourful tale of human weakness as his characters are at first galvanised and then destroyed by a $5,000 lottery win. A forgotten landmark in American fiction, McTeague formed the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent-screen drama Greed (1924).
Xan Brooks

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Andrew O’Hagan: Personality (2003)

A skilful exploration of celebrity culture, O’Hagan’s second novel tells the story of Maria Tambini. Born into a Scottish-Italian chip-shop owning family, she becomes a child star thanks to Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and then develops anorexia nervosa. This was, of course, the life of Lena Zavaroni, but Personality is a long way from a biographical study. It’s chock full of diff erent voices and styles — O’Hagan is exceptional at dialogue — and wraps Zavaroni’s story in a charged lyricism. We create celebrities for our pleasure, then destroy them: fans of The X Factor should be made to read this book.
Paul Laity

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George Orwell Animal Farm (1945)

A Swiftian satire on totalitarianism — specifically Stalin’s Russia. Animals, led by the pigs, resolve to take their farm from its human owner, Mr Jones. Once the revolution is achieved, the ruthless porker Napoleon (Stalin) imposes an even harsher dictatorship than that run by his capitalist, two-legged predecessor. The less intelligent beasts are slaughtered or worked to death while the pigs morph into the capitalists of old. The fable, composed at a time when the Soviet Union was a wartime ally, could find no British publisher (TS Eliot, then a director at Faber, pointed out that the intelligent pigs deserved to be in charge). The British publishing industry was, Orwell concluded, inherently “gutless”.
John Sutherland

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Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Ragazzi (1955)

A robust challenge to the mainstream mores of post-war Italy, Pasolini’s scabrous novel follows Riccetto, a member of the Roman underclass, as he wanders the meanest of streets. Slum thuggery represents freedom from the conventions of politics and morality. Told in pungent slang and unabashed in its depiction of sex, crime and violence, the book was confiscated by police, and the future director was accused by the government of obscenity.
Victoria Segal

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Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country (1948)

Published in the year that saw apartheid come into force in South Africa, Paton’s novel follows the Reverend Stephen Kumalo on to the streets of
Johannesburg as he attempts to find his son, Absalom. His mission is transformed when he discovers that Absalom has been charged with the murder of a white liberal activist. Humane, compassionate and touched with a biblical grace, Paton’s book is unflinching yet never hopeless: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
Victoria Segal

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Cesare Pavese: The Moon and the Bonfire (1949)

Returning to his Italian village after years of making good in America, Pavese’s narrator discovers that the countryside of his youth has been irreversibly scarred by the second world war. As memories of his childhood rise from the landscape, so do the bodies of those who were killed during the conflict — grisly evidence of the past polluting the present. Sex, betrayal and the tensions of a divided community underscore the tough lyricism of this, the author’s final novel.
Victoria Segal

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Thomas Love Peacock: Headlong Hall (1816)

Peacock’s gift was for dialogues — not realistic chat, but carefully staged disputes reminiscent of Socratic debates. His novels are usually named
after country houses because these are the locations where he gathers representatives of particular beliefs or fashions (or beliefs that are merely fashions) and forces them into each other’s company. In Headlong Hall, the equally absurd Mr Escot, the pessimist, and Mr Foster, the optimist, rehearse the arguments of, respectively, Malthus and Rousseau. Other guests at Squire Headlong’s Welsh retreat debate literature or art with equal vehemence and ludicrous certainty. Mr Milestone, disdaining mere talk, puts his theories of landscaping into effect by blowing up part of the squire’s grounds.
John Mullan

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Anthony Powell: Afternoon Men (1931)

Critical attention has focused on A Dance to the Music of Time but Powell’s first novel is memorable. It’s slighter but sharper than Dance, more scathing in its depiction of disaffected, acidic young urbanites — the interwar generation — whose only emotion is a sort of dull gloom and whose only concession to higher thoughts is to make snobbish comments about art. Atwater, the narrator, is almost a perfect blank, propelled forward only by a vague desire for cocktails and women. The first chapter is icily funny, especially in the collision of the American Schneider, a “regular boy”, with London’s bright young things.
Carrie O’Grady

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Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)

What has happened to the territory in North America christened by the
Norse explorer Leif Ericson “Vinland”? Pynchon’s Vineland is a wooded slice of northern California, an enclave in 1984 for ageing 60s hippies in a culture devastated by capitalist obsession and Reaganism. Our window into this world is Zoyd Wheeler, single parent to Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, has turned from hippy to FBI informant. Funny and touching, packed with pop cultural references and an inspiration to film directors (Quentin Tarantino is clearly a fan), this is Pynchon’s only look at present-day America — America as he was experiencing it.
Nicola Barr

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Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March (1932)

Written just half a decade before the author’s death from alcoholism while in exile in Paris, this is a nostalgic study of the decline of the Habsburg Empire and the parallel decline of the Trottas, a loyal military family whose status is elevated by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Roth offers an elegy to relatively benign imperial rule and explores the meaninglessness that sets in when an ideal is destroyed. In his memorable phrase, his peasant-born, conscience stricken Trottas are “homeless for the Kaiser”.
Nicola Barr

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Philip Roth: American Pastoral (1997)

Seymour “Swede” Levov is a Jewish-American golden boy who is brought down by the actions of his cherished daughter, who bombs a post office in protest at the war in Vietnam. Levov might also be seen as the emblem of a complacent middle-class that assumed the world’s troubles would pass them by — Roth shows how the house of cards can come tumbling down. American Pastoral spotlights a nation in spiritual crisis, staggering towards a horrified self-awareness.
Xan Brooks

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Philip Roth: The Human Stain (2000)

“Do they exist or are they spooks?” This is the question, about absent students and addressed to his class, that seals the fate of Jewish classics professor — and reputed racist — Coleman Silk. Except Silk is not what he seems. He is a man of secrets; at once noble and cowardly, confident and compromised. In the guise of his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth rails against a climate of sexual and racial hypocrisy. Along the way he produces a tragedy substantial in its weight, scope and ambition — an Othello for the Clinton era.
Xan Brooks

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Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children (1981)

A great English novel that hardly mentions England and has no major English characters. Yet while it spans much of the history of India in the 20th century, and is heady with the smells and colours of the sub-continent, it also borrows from a great tradition of English fiction. Saleem Sinai, the novel’s narrator, is a latterday Tristram Shandy, reviewing the comic family history that has made him. Born on the day of Indian independence, his own “lifelong belief in the equation between the state and myself” is borne out by his own accidental involvement in all the great and terrible events of his country’s history, ending darkly with the infamous “emergency” of Mrs Gandhi (“the Madam”).
John Mullan

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Salman Rushdie: Shame (1983)

Set in Peccavistan, a country that “is and is not Pakistan”, Shame describes the conflict between two families, the Harrapas and the Hyders. They are at once united and divided — the book is a thinly-veiled study of the relationship between Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan, and his overthrown predecessor,
Zulkifar Ali Bhutto. Connected is the story of Suiya Zenobia, whose failure to be born a boy instils within her a limitless capacity for shame. Suiya’s sense of degradation illustrates, with candour, the impossibility of female dignity in the society in which she finds herself.
Charlotte Stretch

Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own (1966)

In this short and elegantly brutal detective novel set in Sicily, Sciascia, an Italian writer and moral and cultural commentator, takes on a society that had acceded to fascism and the mafia. When two locals are murdered, everyone knows who is responsible. Everyone, however, sticks to a behavioural code that ensures the guilty party remains unpunished — everyone, that is, except Sciascia’s unlikely hero, the timid schoolteacher Laurano, who thinks he can solve the crime and deliver justice. His failure — and grisly end in a sulphur mine — is Sciascia’s statement on the impossibility of justice in his native country.
Nicola Barr

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Paul Scott: Staying On (1977)

A comic, moving novel that looks at the handover of independence to India through the eyes of a retired British colonial couple, Colonel Tusker Smalley and his wife Lily, who decide to stay on in the home they have made. Scott is brilliant on the division between Indian nd colonialist, and moving on the plight of the Smalleys as they try to retain control over their lives. They are at once symbolic of a whole system and vividly distinct, in a way that makes their slow demise heartbreaking.
Nicola Barr

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Hubert Selby Jr: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)

Banned when first published in Britain, this novel’s eventual appearance here in 1968 signalled the effective end of literary censorship. Initially conceived as a bundle of connected short stories, it is set in the savage, degenerate post-war Brooklyn projects. Last Exit is both ultra-realistic and abrupt in a stream-of- consciousness, lagrantly ungrammatical style. Two of the longer stories, “Tralala” (which ends with a street woman being gang-raped) and Strike” (in which a union leader discovers his homosexuality, with hideous consequences) caused particular alarm among Britain’s moral guardians.
John Sutherland

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Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (1956)

In smog-bound London, where signs say “keep the water white”, West Indian immigrants beg shillings to feed the gas heater, wear pyjamas as underwear and labour in factories through the night. When they can’t get work, they catch pigeons and seagulls to eat. “Why the hell you can’t change colour?” a new arrival on the boat-train interrogates his black hand. The city around him is changing colour fast: from saltfish and rice appearing in shops to babies being born “with curly hair”. This bleak yet wry novel reflects the exile experienced by the author, who left Trinidad in 1950 and has since been hailed as “the father of black writing” in Britain. The book’s fragmented, open-ended structure is fitting for a story that continues today.
Emily Mann

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Ousmane Sembène: God’s Bit of Wood (1960)

In this landmark novel, which progresses through the dreadful Senegalese Union Railroad strike of 1947-48, the women gradually usurp the men and take centre stage. When the ruling French try to bring down the workers by cutting off their food and water supply, it is the women who defend themselves with violence and clash with the armed forces of their colonial rulers. Lacking individual heroes, this tale of collective action celebrates and honours a strike, a protest march and a resistance that lasted “as long as a life”.
Nicola Barr


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Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1950)

“The case ramified in every direction, linked itself to hundreds of others, mingled with them, disappeared in them, re-emerged like a dangerous little blue flame from under fire-blackened ruins.” Written from Mexican exile, the legendary anarchist’s novel about Stalin’s purges, show trials and executions is astonishing for many things: for the beauty of prose that describes horrifying acts; for sustained suspense, as the murder of a Stalinist party head on a cold Moscow night reverberates through the country and the world; and for its tribute to the heroism of the masses.
Nicola Barr


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Lao She: Rickshaw Boy (1936)

Lao She’s unsentimental tale follows peasant boy Hsiang- tzu, who is drawn to Peking by dreams of independence and comfort but whose strength and cunning are not enough to save him from despair as he pulls a rickshaw from dawn till dark. Lao She’s own story is almost as tragic — he was persecuted, beaten and humiliated by the Chinese government. His rickshaw boy, in a scene which sums up the futility of the individual’s struggle against the system, dies in the snow, alone and defeated. The author committed suicide in 1966, his spirit broken.
Nicola Barr

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Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906)

Sinclair had aimed, he said, at America’s conscience, but hit its stomach instead. A muckraking novel about the Chicago stockyards and meat-packing industry, the narrative follows the fortunes of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus. Newly arrived in the country with his family, and newly married, Jurgis is idealistic about the new world. But the heartless industrial machine which produces canned food — adulterated and frequently poisonous — for the American table uses him until his strength, health and family are utterly broken. Jurgis takes to drink but finally sees a glimmer of hope in socialism. Theodore Roosevelt was so shocked by the sanitary standards Sinclair described that he sent a presidential commission to investigate the stockyards.
John Sutherland

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Stevie Smith: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936)

As in the poetry for which she is also famous, Smith herself, witty, brilliant, wandering of mind yet eternally perspicacious, erupts through every word of this remarkable novel. Her heroine is Pompey Casmilus, a young woman who, bored as a secretary, takes up her office’s yellow writing paper to tell us of her life and times. She misses not a trick, and through her love affairs, her friendships, her love of love and her revealing experiences in Nazi Germany, a comic masterpiece emerges.
Carmen Callil

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Zadie Smith: White Teeth (2000)

Zadie Smith burst on to the literary scene with this rich and fizzy vision of multicultural Britain. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal fought together in the second world war; 30 years later, their families’ lives intertwine as Archie’s daughter and Samad’s twin sons attempt to navigate late 20th-century London’s lures and expectations. Immigration and pregnancy, friendship and genetics, fundamentalism and class, beauty and luck: Smith’s novel contains multitudes, and deals with all its subjects astutely, wittily and with an admirable lightness of touch.
Sarah Crown


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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

Cleared for publication by Nikita Khrushchev himself, who had to bully his colleagues on the politburo into reading it, this daring account of life in the Soviet gulag was an instant sensation in Russia, and made Solzhenitsyn world- famous within weeks. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences at a camp in northern Kazakhstan, this slim volume follows a prisoner from the hammer banging out reveille on the rail at 5am, through the brutality of camp life until lights out at 10pm. Pared-down and finishing on a note of transcendent calm, the book enjoyed global success and laid the seeds both of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel prize, awarded in 1970, and Khrushchev’s downfall.
Richard Lea

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John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Still one of the most-read texts in American high-schools. The Joad family, tenant farmers, are driven from Oklahoma by the mid-1930s “dustbowl” climatic disaster. Tom, recently out of prison, rejoins them as they prepare for their pilgrimage to California where, as advertisements assure them, life is easy. In a rickety, overloaded Hudson van the Joads laboriously traverse Route 66, the “mother road”. In the west, they discover that “Okies” are despised, abused and employed only as long as the season requires them for the stoop labour of fruit picking. The family disintegrates.
John Sutherland

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Stendhal:The Red and the Black (1830)

“I shall be understood in 1880,” said Stendhal — ie around half a century after he published this, his most renowned novel. Telling the story of the young, impassioned hero, Julien Sorel, as he exerts himself to rise above his
humble station using a mixture of native gifts and hypocrisy, Stendhal wrote in a style inimical to both Classicists and Romantics alike; and so the book reads astonishingly freshly today. The words applied to Sorel at one point could apply to Stendhal himself: “You haven’t a Frenchman’s frivolous mind, and you understand the principle of utility.”
Nichola Lezard


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August Strindberg: The Red Room (1879)

Arvid Falk, a disillusioned civil servant, becomes a journalist in Stockholm only to discover that man, in all his social guises, is a deceitful animal. Inevitably, government and the church are satirised, but the depressive dramatist’s irst novel goes much further, launching a scathing attack on every aspect of modern life. Cultural institutions, business and philanthropy are merely the parasites of capitalism, driven by the pursuit of self-interest. Publishing is caricatured as the lifeless arm of faceless media empires, concerned with nothing but peddling celebrity biographies and manufacturing
literary personalities.
Rosalind Porter

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Rabindranath Tagore: The Home and the World (1916)

On a prosperous Bengali estate in 1908, housewife Bimala enjoys a life of contentment with her wealthy husband, Nikhil. But her happiness is endangered when she meets Sandip, the charismatic leader of the Swadeshi movement, which aims to end colonial rule in India. His persuasive rhetoric encourages Bimala to get involved in a cause that proved to be rooted in violence and corruption. Sandip’s exploitation of Bimala sums up the immorality Tagore saw in Swadeshi activists; his intense distrust of the movement is woven into the fabric of this novel.
Charlotte Stretch

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William Makepeace:Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848)

Published as a serial over 18 months, Vanity Fair offers a panorama of English society which pivots on the Battle of Waterloo. Subtitled “A Novel
without a Hero” it has two heroines. Rebecca (“Becky”) Sharp is ruthless and self- seeking; Amelia Sedley is a “good woman”. Both marry soldiers: Becky’s Rawdon lives, Amelia’s George dies. Over the next 10 years the women’s careers seesaw. Becky ends ennobled but disgraced; Amelia accepts Dobbin, who has always loved her. Thackeray’s clubman tone and easy irony (“cynicism” his contemporaries thought), establish him as the natural heir to Fielding.
John Sutherland

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Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)

Life seems to get ever harder for Frank Owen and his fellow painters and decorators at Rushton & Co while their bosses get richer and fatter. Using chopped up bits of bread, Owen shows his colleagues the “Great Money Trick” to prove that money is actually the cause of poverty — but they are not easily convinced. Published posthumously, with much of the explicit politics edited out, Tressell’s only novel didn’t appear unabridged until 1955. Since then it has become something of a sacred text among activists, and even the odd cabinet minister has claimed it as a favourite book. It is worth bearing in mind though, that Tressell’s intended lesson was to “indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely — Socialism”, and that may have had little effect.
Emily Mann

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Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Trollope’s magniicent conclusion to his Barsetshire saga is his finest study of agonised conscience. The storyline is summed up by a discarded title: The story of a Cheque for Twenty Pounds And Of The Mischief Which It Did. Josiah Crawley, the cross-grained curate of Hogglestock, is suspected of having stolen a cheque. Confused, he cannot remember how he came by the money. The formidable Bishop’s lady, Mrs Proudie leads the campaign against the luckless Crawley. Virtue triumphs — but love does not, Trollope declined to allow his most beloved maiden heroine, Lily Dale, to marry her faithful lover, Johnny Eames.
John Sutherland

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Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875)

In which the aged Trollope lashed an English society that he felt had become pervasively dishonest. The narrative opens with an assault on the corrupted London literary world, moves on to the depraved world of the West End gentleman’s club (patronised by no one that Trollope regarded as a gentleman), and then to the great canker at the centre of English life, the City. Dominating the narrative is the majestically dishonest Augustus Melmotte — a speculative railroad financier who buys an English society only too willing to sell itself. At the height of his rise, an MP courted by all the great in the land, Melmotte is disgraced and commits suicide. The darkest of Trollope’s 47 novels.
John Sutherland

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Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

The novel which introduced Twain’s juvenile hero to the world. Tom epitomises what Americans call “spunk”, and — like his Irish pal Huck Finn — has always been something of an offence to the more strictly disposed guardians of public morality. An orphan, Tom is brought up “respectable” by his Aunt Polly. His adventures are a series of boyish pranks and escapades — unlike Huck, he is a great reader of romance: particularly Dumas. He is also, although only some 12 years old, interested in the other kind of romance: notably his sweetheart Becky Thatcher. Twain went on to use Tom in other fictions and he inspired the most famous of British outlaw boy heroes, Richmal Crompton’s William Brown.
John Sutherland

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John Updike: Couples (1968)

Updike’s infamous portrayal of sexual promiscuity among the surburban middle classes remains one of his most controversial novels. Set in the fictional Boston town of Tarbox, it focuses on a small circle of friends, sexually permissive in the “post-pill paradise” of 1960s America. A huge commercial success, Couples also caused outrage among commentators who attacked its unashamed fascination with adultery and sexual hedonism. The furore led to Updike’s instant notoriety and his face on the cover of Time magazine. Forty years on, the novel is often credited with revolutionising the depiction of sex in literary fiction.
Charlotte Stretch

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Vassilis Vassilikos: Z (1967)

A study of the military dictatorship which ruled Greece in the 1960s, Z revolves around the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a democratic
politician killed by right-wing extremists in 1963. Vassilikos’s close examination of political corruption had a strong impact, and as a direct result of it the letter “Z” — from the Greek word zei, meaning “he is alive” — became a slogan for political activists. The letter, as well as the book, was banned by the junta. Z’s influence was amplified by Costa Gavras’s Oscar-winning film adaptation, which was released two years after the book was published.
Charlotte Stretch

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Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)

Try to put the 1996 film out of your mind. This is a darker work; when it came out, its portrayal of Scottish junkies and psychopaths was seen by many as more an indictment of Tory-run Britain than a hip black comedy. But its use of the Scots vernacular, inspired by James Kelman, is superb and Renton, Spud, Begbie and the rest of the gang have been welcomed into the national consciousness.
Nichola Lezard


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Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust (1939)

The whole world is a soundstage for the clowns, tragedians and showgirls of this black-as-pitch Hollywood farce. Rattling around the fringes of the film industry, they play-act their lives then get violent when the reality doesn’t live up to he fantasy. We wouldn’t want to live in the kind of culture that West leads us through. But somehow, we suspect, we do.
Xan Brooks

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Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (1918)

West’s small masterpiece centres on three women who in their different ways love Chris Baldry, a first world war captain sent home because of shellshock. Amnesia makes him forget his beautiful wife Kitty, fixing instead on the dowdy and socially inferior Margaret from whom he had parted 15 years before. The repercussions of his illness, and his brutal cure, are described with insight in prose as elegant and precise as the world of the Edwardian country house in which their tragedy takes place.
Joanna Hines

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Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

Wharton is at her magnificent, merciless best here as she punishes her heroine Lily Bart for putting riches and status before love. Bart, a ravishing socialite in turn-of-the-century New York, sets out to find a husband who can keep her in luxurious living — and ends up a disgraced, debt-ridden suicide. The novel witheringly shows the savage side of high society, an impeccably mannered world of bridge and betrayal that simply spits Bart out. Terence Davies’ film, which appeared in 2000 with Gillian Anderson as the lead, was shot in Glasgow.
Andrew Gilchrist

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Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Sherman McCoy is a Wasp Wall Street banker inding it hard to get by on $1m a year. Furtively picking up his mistress from JFK, McCoy loses his way in the South Bronx, where he runs down a young black man. His victim is neglected to death in the nearby public hospital. The remainder of the novel deals with the destruction of McCoy by the various special-interest groups who run New York (Jewish politicians, Irish policemen, lack populists, the Gay Fist Strike Force) and by the gutter ress. He ends up “a career defendant” and — in an ambiguous climax — radically politicised.
John Sutherland

novels of the family & self (?) that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Kobo Abe: The Face of Another (1964)

Unrecognisably disfigured by “leech-like” scars after a laboratory accident, the scientist who narrates Abe’s disturbing novel embarks on a mission to replace his face with a convincingly life-like mask. He finds, however, that his sense of self cannot be so mechanically restored with pigment and silicone. An uncanny intellectual horror, this post-Hiroshima Metamorphosis looks beyond the surface of identity and social interaction, making the skin – and the mind – crawl.
Victoria Segal

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Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (1868)

A novel about the March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy) growing up in Massachusetts at the time of the civil war which has, over the years, come to be seen an archetypal depiction of girls growing up everywhere. The novel tracks a series of domestic crises: Jo (closest in character to the author) is obliged to cut off and sell her crowning glory, her hair. Meg, the oldest, goes off to be a governess – very unhappily. Beth dies from scarlet fever. Amy is the youngest, and the family pet. The narrative follows the March girls into later life and marriage. Sentimental, but irresistible; the novel shows Alcott to be one of the great storytellers of fiction, and not just for girls growing up.
John Sutherland

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Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

“As a family we are genetically predisposed towards having accidents – being run over and blown up are the two most common.” So says Ruby Lennox, born to the reluctant Bunty as her father, George, drinks to a good day at the races. The jaunty tone of Ruby’s recollections belies a catastrophic family history stretching back to 1888, when great-grandmother Alice was photographed, shortly before her death – giving birth to her sixth child. As one reviewer wrote of this Whitbread book of the year, which breathed a rude new life into English regional fiction: “If you tot up the deaths and other tragedies in this feisty first novel, it seems almost rude to find it so amusing and delightful.”
Claire Armitstead

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Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye (1988)

A retrospective exhibition prompts artist Elaine Risley to recollect a 1950s childhood spent at one with her scientist parents in the Canadian wilderness and at odds with her conformist contemporaries. A beautifully observed novel about an awkward child finding a mature means of expression in a country coping with similar challenges. Few writers have explored the vicissitudes of female friendship with as much acuity as Atwood does here: the intimacies, the rewards, the rivalries and the shockingly casual cruelty of little girls.
Chris Ross

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Nicholson Baker: Room Temperature (1990)

Baker’s first novel, Mezzanine, turned a lunch hour into a miniature contemplative epic, and Room Temperature pulls a similar trick, following a father and daughter through 20 minutes of bottle-feeding on an autumn afternoon. Nothing much happens, which is very much the point; instead, digressions on Debussy, peanut butter, nose-picking, punctuation and aeroplanes pepper the narrative as Baker explores the parent-baby relationship in a touching spell of prolonged navel-gazing.
James Smart

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Honoré de Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (1833)

In this classic of 19th-century realism, Eugénie, the daughter of a wealthy but miserly wine merchant, spends her life in joyless, spartan seclusion – until her 23rd birthday, when her dandyish cousin Charles suddenly arrives from Paris. They fall in love, but his father – Grandet’s brother – has killed himself after being ruined financially, and Grandet will not countenance his daughter’s marriage to her penniless cousin. Eugénie’s determination to follow her heart leads her into direct conflict with her father, who orders Charles to go to the West Indies to seek his fortune and not to return. He, however, has different ideas. Eugénie Grandet gave Balzac his first great success – and the idea for the grand series of interlinked novels that became the Comédie Humaine.
Adam Newey

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Honoré de Balzac: Le Père Goriot (1835)

Set in 1819 in a Parisian boarding house, where Old Goriot is the butt of his fellow boarders’ mockery for having bankrupted himself through supporting his well-off married daughters. One of the boarders, the student Rastignac, forms an attachment to Goriot’s daughter Delphine, which the older man encourages. When the other daughter, Anastasie, reveals to Goriot the vast debts racked up by her lover, he collapses with a stroke. Neither daughter visits their father on his deathbed, and, Lear-like, he rages against their lack of filial love. It is left to Rastignac and a servant to attend the old man’s funeral. It was this novel in which Balzac pioneered the use of characters from previous volumes in the Comédie Humaine.
AN

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Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded” … Iain Banks’s novel boasts one of the most striking opening lines in English literature. More impressively, what follows avoids any whiff of anticlimax, as student Prentice McHoan returns to the bosom of his family to investigate the disappearance of a beloved uncle. The crow road is a reference to death, and Banks has his usual morbid fun imagining the possibilities, from a banal car crash to a frankly flamboyant lightning bolt.
Phil Daoust

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Lynne Reid Banks: The L-Shaped Room (1960)

Banks’s compassionate first novel examines the stigma of unmarried motherhood in pre-pill, pre-Abortion Act Britain. When 27-year-old Jane Graham discovers she is pregnant, she is patronised by her doctor, rejected by her father and forced to hole up in a bed-bug-riddled Fulham boarding house. This new world’s gentle bohemia offers the stirrings of an alternative to musty postwar mores. While the social climate has changed drastically since publication, a transgressive frisson still crackles from the pages.
VS

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Sybille Bedford: A Legacy (1956)

Novelist, crime reporter, biographer, journalist, travel writer, wine connoisseur and linguist, Sibylle Bedford – the daughter of an Italian princess and a German aristocrat – had an exotic childhood that gave her the basis for this, her first and greatest novel. It tells the story of two rich German families and of a Catholic-Jewish marriage and military scandal in pre-1914 Germany. All is observed with a sharp and comic eye and narrated in a style at once satiric, touching and dramatic. You can read it again and again, and still wonder at its perfection.
Carmen Callil

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Saul Bellow: Herzog (1964)

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” Herzog starts as it means to go on. Bellow’s novel is a deconstruction, an act of unburdening, an anguished, back-and-forth voyage round the fracturing psyche of an American intellectual. Reeling from his second divorce and marooned in a ramshackle New England hideaway, Moses E Herzog pens a series of score-settling, self-justifying missives to enemies alive and dead, real and imagined. Bellow unpicks his hero, turns the pieces to the light, and then – in a final act of clemency – provides the tools by which he might put himself together again.
Xan Brooks

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Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

This masterly novel was arguably the trigger for Bellow’s Nobel prize the following year: a fluid, funny and immensely entertaining account of the fractious relationship between eccentric poet Von Humboldt Fleisher and his (unmistakably Bellow-like) protege, Charlie Citrine. Fleisher, in all his glorious failure, is a character study based on the writer Delmore Schwartz; Citrine, a much cannier figure, successfully grapples with what Bellow calls “the moronic inferno” (yes, that’s where Martin Amis got the title).
Andrew Pulver

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Arnold Bennett: The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)

Bennett’s masterpiece, which recalls the best of French realism from Flaubert to Zola, has, according to JB Priestley, “two suffering heroines, Constance and Sophia Baines, and three conquering heroes, Time, Mutability and Death”. Sisters Constance and Sophia are middle-class young women of the Potteries. Sophia heads to Paris in search of adventure; Constance remains behind in Bursley. In the end, after many vicissitudes, the sisters are reunited: there are few more moving accounts of the effects of time, the passage of history and the slow encroachment of age than this remarkable, epic novel.
Charlotte Higgins

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John Berger: G. (1972)

Explicit, fractured and desperately highbrow, G. was a bold choice as winner of the 1972 Booker prize. Berger repaid the honour by raging at its sponsors and donating half his fee to the Black Panthers. The author’s passionate Marxism echoes through this dense, intriguing novel, which follows the bastard son of an Italian merchant from the end of the 19th century to the first world war, and from ignorance to political awakening, as forays into critical theory and art history sit alongside visceral descriptions of riots, sex and aeroplane flights.
JSM

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Thomas Bernhard: Extinction (1986)

The end of the line, in more ways than one: Extinction was not only Bernhard’s last novel, it also deals with one man’s ferocious desire to extinguish the poisonous legacy left by his family and his country. The narrator, Franz-Josef Murau, has made a new life for himself in Rome. When his parents and brother are killed in a car crash he is forced to return to Austria to take charge of the family estate. A masterpiece of vitriol that is, despite its death-drive, oddly exhilarating.
VS

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Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies (1943)

“I have my own star to follow,” says Miss Goering to Andy, as she abandons him for another. Mrs Copperfield, her fellow heroine, bangs her fist on the table and bellows: “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.” Two women of splendid eccentricity traverse the world in pursuit of independence, their adventures recounted to us in singular and hilarious dialogue, behind them winking the unnerving and paradoxical eye of Jane Bowles. A stroke at the age of 40 silenced this mistress of absurdist comedy. This is her only novel.
CC

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William Boyd: Any Human Heart (2002)

Spanning some seven decades of the 20th century, these are the “intimate journals” of Logan Mountstuart, author, spy, art dealer and dedicated social animal. In the course of his life he meets famous writers – Woolf, Joyce, and Hemingway, among others – and cultivates celebrated artists (some real, some invented). He also manages to observe first-hand many of the tumultuous events of the century, from the Spanish civil war to the conflict in Biafra. The journal form allows the narrator to grow older. The novel is split into nine imaginary volumes, each with its different voice, from the affected drawl of the schoolboy to the wry misanthropy of old age.
JM

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Hermann Broch: The Death of Virgil (1945)

In the port city of Brundisium, the Roman poet Virgil lies on his deathbed. Broch’s stream-of-consciousness novel, divided into four symphonic movements, takes place mostly within the mind of the dying poet in his final 18 hours, from his arrival in Brundisium, to his decision to destroy his greatest creation, the Aeneid, and the emperor Augustus’s struggle to persuade him otherwise, to his final acceptance of death. In feverish, hallucinatory prose and poetry, Broch presents the poet’s reflections on art, statecraft, history and aesthetics. Broch — whom George Steiner has called the greatest European novelist since Joyce — began the novel in 1938 while under arrest following the Nazi anschluss of his native Austria.
AN

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Fanny Burney: Evelina (1778)

“To read Fanny Burney,” wrote the critic Walter Allen, “is rather like having a mouse’s view of the world of cats: the cats are very terrifying, but the mouse’s sense of the ridiculous could not be keener.” Burney’s first novel, published anonymously, tells in epistolary form the story of a young woman’s entrance into the world. After her mother’s death, Evelina is brought up in rural seclusion by the kindly Rev Arthur Villars. At the suggestion that she should “see something of the world”, we follow her social initiation in London and Bristol, and her consequent moral education through the tests of experience (such as how not to read a love letter). Burney, whose observant wit anticipates the satire of Austen and Thackeray, captures the manners and affectations of the fashionable, the aspirational and the vulgar with comic relish, and leaves the reader judging the worth of those who ruthlessly pursue the status quo.
JM

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Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh (1903)

The most savagely intelligent critique of Victorian ideology to be found in Victorian fiction. The story covers four generations of the Pontifexes (so called for the parents’ habit of laying down the law). The central character is young Ernest – as Wilde sarcastically noted, the archetypal Victorian name. Bullied by his priggish father, Ernest becomes an Anglican clergyman, serving a religion he hates. He mistakes a decent young lady for a prostitute and vents 23 years of evangelical repression on her. He is sent to prison for sexual assault. It is ruin, but it is also liberation. On his release he is no longer respectable but can live his life in freedom, outside society. As, of course, did the lifelong iconoclast Samuel Butler.
JS

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Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice (1987)

Is there a better novel about alcoholism than this? A perfectly ordinary man, executive at a biscuit firm, takes us through his days in the second-person singular: “You are 34 years old and already two-thirds destroyed.” He gets by on nips of brandy and gin – a sharpener at breakfast, a reward at lunchtime, a necessity at dinner. His wife and children look on, bewildered and pitying, but he can hardly see them through the haze of pain. Irvine Welsh called this “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s”; it deserves rediscovery.
Carrie O’Grady

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Angela Carter: Wise Children (1991)

The musicals of Busby Berkeley, Shakespeare’s every play and the tapping feet of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire echo through this exuberant and comic novel in which 75-year-old dancing twins, Dora and Nora Chance, tell us the story of themselves and two great theatrical dynasties, the Hazards and the Chances. A family saga like no other, magical, bawdy, affectionate, wild, questioning and wise. Angela Carter died of cancer aged 51. This is the last of her extraordinary works of fiction, as challenging, comic and dazzling as she was.
CC

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Willa Cather: The Professor’s House (1925)

What happens when a great idea is cashed in for dollars and cents and the life of the mind is turned into bricks and mortar? Cather’s novel precisely delineates the clash between materialism and idealism, following disillusioned professor Godfrey St Peter as he hides out in his decrepit study to avoid moving into the new house he has built for himself. Sitting among his papers, he recalls his beloved student Tom Outland, a man who, in death, has been reduced to no more than a destructive financial legacy and a dangerously “glittering idea”.
VS

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John Cheever: The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

The Wapshots are a dysfunctional brood, descended from pioneer stock and clinging to a faded respectability on the coast of New England. Cheever’s debut novel is skittish, mercurial and ringing with life. It corrals the protagonists into a bawdy, boisterous family album, details the humiliations of the hapless, seafaring Leander and then casts his wayward sons, Moses and Coverly, out into the wider world. Inevitably they run aground.
XB

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Kate Chopin: The Awakening (1899)

Described as a “Creole Bovary” by Willa Cather, Chopin’s story of Edna Pontellier, a young mother beating her wings against the cage of domesticity, was dismissed as “vulgar”, “unhealthy” and “morbid” by other contemporary reviewers. Suffused with a sensuous yet sickly fin-de-siècle light, the novel follows the New Orleans housewife as she rejects the bonbons, sewing and soft furnishings of the respectable female world and embarks upon a treacherous course of adultery and art in an attempt to free her soul.
VS

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Jean Cocteau: Les Enfants Terribles (1929)

Knocked down by a snowball flung by a cruel boy he doted on, Parisian adolescent Paul turns his back on reality and cocoons himself in a room with his sister Elisabeth. Together they explore the “vast realm of the improbable”, squabbling and role-playing their way to a charged intimacy. When Paul falls in love, tragedy beckons. Cocteau’s novel of imagination, isolation and dependence is as intense and self-conscious as its protagonists, and left WH Auden with a “lasting feeling of happiness”.
JSM

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Colette: The Vagabond (1910)

This was the first novel Colette published under her own name rather than her first husband’s. A mordantly observed tale about a divorcee who supports herself as a music-hall artiste and mime, and acquires an admirer, it appeared in serial form during her own separation from “Willy” (Henri Gauthier-Villars) and forays into music hall-funded independence. Erica Jong called it one of the first and best feminist novels ever written, and it is thrilling for its tough, poetic illumination of a woman’s struggle to decide between convention and independence.
Aida Edemariam

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Ivy Compton-Burnett: Manservant and Maidservant (1947)

Herself the product of a large and difficult Edwardian family, Ivy Compton-Burnett devoted her considerable intelligence and incisive wit to 20 novels in which she rarely used anything except dialogue to narrate black tales of family life. Manservant and Maidservant, typical of the titles she gave to these studies of domestic villainy, is the story of a Victorian pater familias, Horace, a model of piety who devotes his energies to making his household wretched. A brilliant novel of the family as tug-of-war, recounted in her hallmark style: repartee we associate today with the plays of Harold Pinter. CC

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Jim Crace: Being Dead (1999)

A couple visit the sand dunes where they first made love and are murdered by a stranger. From this flatly brutal opening, Crace’s novel moves backwards, through the details of their marriage, and forwards, as their daughter joins the police in a search for their decaying, gull-pecked corpses. These separate strands allow Crace both to portray two imperfect lives and explore death, in its physical realities and in the myths and mechanisms we build up around it.
JSM

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Jim Crace: Quarantine (1997)

The biblical Christ went into the desert alone to wrestle with Satan, but here Crace imagines “a community of people on the edge”, drawn to the wilderness for their own reasons. A barren wife wishes for a child, a cancer sufferer for respite, a gentile for enlightenment. When bullying merchant Musa is close to death, Jesus saves his life – and Musa’s wickedness comes to shadow the group. Crace is interested in Jesus, of course, but this is an ensemble piece, and the pilgrims’ relationships and struggles define this vivid work.
JSM

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Daniel Defoe: Roxana (1724)

The title by which Defoe’s last novel is now known is but one of its narrator’s pseudonyms. Abandoned by her husband, she has embarked on life as a mistress, using her charms to obtain one affluent protector after another. Children are shed along the way (though one of them returns at the novel’s dark end to claim her mother back). Her one trusted confidante is her maid Amy, her shrewd adviser in the ensnaring of eligible men. Even Charles II falls for her. She tells her story, however, in self-condemning retrospect, chastened by the “Calamities” that have followed her pursuit of mere fortune.
JM

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Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

Dickens’s finest exploration of the cost paid for rising in the world. Pip, who tells his own story, is an orphan, brought up by his callous elder sister and her amiable blacksmith husband, Jo. Visiting his parents’ graves, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, whom he aids, before the man is recaptured and transported. Pip is later taken up by Miss Havisham, a woman maddened by having been jilted on her wedding day. She has trained her young ward, Estella, to break men’s hearts. Pip comes into mysterious wealth. It is from Miss Havisham, he assumes. In fact, it is from the convict, Magwitch. Pip becomes ever more snobbish, until his great expectations crash. Dickens was uncertain whether to end the novel happily or unhappily. Happily won out.
JS

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Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Dostoevsky’s profound and pessimistic final novel polarises opinions. For Freud it was “the most magnificent book ever written”. Joseph Conrad called this epic of patricide, jealousy and spiritualism “terrifically bad”. Wayward father Fyodor argues over women and money with his feckless eldest son Dmitri, while middle brother Ivan rages against the world and grounded Alyosha looks on. The narrative voice shifts and skips, leaving the focus of the novel less on Fyodor’s eventual murder and more upon its implications for society.
JSM

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Margaret Drabble: The Millstone (1965)

Rosamund Stacey knows a great deal about 16th-century poets but surprisingly little, considering the 60s are just starting to swing, about sex or real life. All this changes when she finds herself pregnant after a single encounter with a man she had assumed to be gay. The narrator describes with ruthless honesty the perils and joys of single parenthood in an era when people still talked of “the slur of illegitimacy”, but when baby Octavia is diagnosed with a heart defect, Stacey discovers that Ben Jonson’s “pretty” words on the death of his son – “my sin was too much hope of thee” – is grounded in terrible reality.
Joanna Hines

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Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals (1956)

Durrell’s account of his childhood idyll on a Greek island brought Mediterranean warmth and colour to a war-weary Britain when first published and it has lost none of its charm since. The fledgling naturalist’s eccentric family – impossible Larry, gun-toting Leslie and Margot the perennially lovelorn, together with their gently bewildered mother – do battle with an ever-increasing procession of pets such as Quasimodo the musical pigeon, Geronimo the gecko and a family of scorpions. Vivid and funny, this shows the people, landscape and fauna of Corfu as they might have been, never will be again, but ought to be for ever.
JH

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Shusaku Endo: Silence (1966)

Endo’s stark, strange theological novel looks back to 17th-century Japan to raise an enduring question: why does God remain “with folded arms, silent”, in the face of human suffering? Telling the story of Fr Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who follows his missionary vocation to Japan at a time of violent religious persecution, Silence is a compelling historical fiction, a potent distillation of the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith and, from a Christian author, a daring challenge to religious orthodoxy.
VS

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Anne Enright: The Gathering (2007)

Enright won the Man Booker prize for this uneasy novel about a large Irish family coming together for the funeral of a brother who may or may not have as a child, but certainly drank. There isn’t a lot of consolation to be found in their wary, damaged gathering – except in the prose, and the vision it reveals, which is brave, fierce and clear-sighted about blood, lust and loss. AE

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Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex (2002)

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petovsky, Michigan, in August of 1974.” So opens the story of Calliope Stephanides, inheritor of a rare genetic condition that has followed her grandparents to the US from the ruins Ottoman empire. In his Pulitzer prizewinner, Eugenides tells a coming-of-age story that is also the genetically tangled story of America itself.
CA

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William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (1930)

Even its author was compelled to refer to this novel – written in a mere six weeks – as a “tour de force”. Split into 59 linguistically arresting monologues delivered by 15 characters, this touchstone of southern gothic follows the surviving members of Mississippi’s dysfunctional Bundren family as they carry the coffin of their wife and mother to her final resting place. The narrative fragments slowly gather into a dark whole, creating a rare and oppressive psychological intimacy.
VS

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Richard Ford: The Sportswriter (1986)

Divorced following the death of his 11-year old son, Frank Bascombe believes his life is adequate and that “terrible, searing regret” must be avoided at all costs. This novel’s question might be: but at what cost? Ford’s breakthrough book is a profoundly affecting study of deepening despair. Seldom has a writer communicated the emotions suppressed behind white picket fences on suburban streets with such tact and lyricism. Bascombe has become a kind of American everyman in Ford’s subsequent novels; this is his first and most memorable outing.
CR

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EM Forster: Howards End (1910)

The follies of the Edwardian middle classes are laid bare in Forster’s story of three families at the turn of the 20th century. The Wilcoxes are a snooty colonial dynasty with a house at Howards End. Their careless sense of superiority is both appalling and fascinating to the half-German Schlegel siblings, who belong to an intellectual bourgeoisie not a million miles from the Bloomsbury group. Well-meaning but blinkered, the Schlegels patronise bank clerk Leonard Bast, thus entangling him catastrophically with the snobbery and dishonesty of the Wilcoxes and casting an ironic light on the novel’s famous rallying cry: “Only connect!”
CA

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Michael Frayn: Spies (2002)

A visit to the suburbs where he grew up takes the ageing Stephen Wheatley back to a traumatic episode in his wartime childhood, when he and his best friend, Keith, played a disastrous spying game. Believing Keith’s mother to be a German spy, the two boys uncover dangerous secrets that are closer to home than they could ever have imagined. In this Whitbread award-winner, Frayn recreates a world in which war has demolished the boundaries between childish fantasy and adult reality.
CA

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Esther Freud: Hideous Kinky (1992)

Even without illicit tastes of hashish candy, travelling around 60s Morocco with a free-spirited mother is an intoxicating rush for the five-year-old narrator of Freud’s first novel. Based on the author’s bohemian childhood, it deploys its heroine’s guileless curiosity to expose the childishness of adults struggling to “find themselves” and the natural conservatism of the children in their wake. Amid the benign post-hippy squalor, the narrator asks her sister, Bea, what she would like to be when she grows up. “I don’t know,” she replies. “Normal, I think.”
VS

John Galsworthy: The Man of Property (1906)

“Those privileged enough to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper middle-class family in full plumage.” Galsworthy’s introduction to the Forsyte clan focuses on the miserable marriage of the enigmatic “heathen goddess” Irene to the ghastly, domineering Soames. Through her subsequent love for the young bohemian Bosinney and Soames’s violent reaction to the threat of losing his prized possession, Galsworthy nails his socialist and feminist principles to the mast.
Nicola Barr

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Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton (1848)

Gaskell’s first novel sets out many of the themes that would resonate throughout her later fiction, notably the divide between rich and poor in industrialising societies. In this Manchester-set tale of love, murder and family secrets, contentious topics such as Chartism and prostitution are tackled unflinchingly, which made some early readers reject the book as unnecessarily coarse. Gaskell, however, was sufficiently a woman (and writer) of her time to ensure that her heroine remained as pure as the driven snow.
Kathryn Hughes

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André Gide: The Immoralist (1902)

Michel leads the life of an exemplary academic until tuberculosis almost kills him.incestuous Greek been abused With recovery comes a taste for more sensual pleasures, so, accompanied by his wife, the devoutly religious Marceline, he heads for north Africa, driven in part by an awakening of homosexual desires. But his newfound freedom and rejection of the values and society that he once held dear present him with difficult choices, forcing him to question the nature of decency and personal responsibility.
David Newnham

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Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)

Funnier (and considerably shorter) than most 18th-century classics, Goldsmith’s only novel centres on Dr Primrose, a good-hearted country parson whose rustic bliss is rudely shattered by his family’s efforts to live beyond their station. Vice is punished and virtue – as Goldsmith’s age understood it – rewarded by the buoyantly improbable plot, with “one detail after another”, as George Orwell put it, “clicking into place like the teeth of a zip”. As with Jane Austen, it’s made all the more enjoyable by its heavily cash-based notion of morality, not to mention its somewhat pre-feminist take on marriage.
Chris Taylor

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Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory (1940)

In this novel of guilt, sin and the power of grace, an unnamed priest goes on the run in southern Mexico in the 1930s, a time when the government is brutally suppressing the Catholic church. Leading the anti-clerical crackdown is the ideologically driven lieutenant of police (also unnamed). On his travels, the priest encounters figures from his past – including the village woman with whom he fathered a girl – as well as assorted expats and indigenes, one of whom – known simply as the Mestizo – he knows will be his Judas. John Updike, among others, has acclaimed this novel as Greene’s masterpiece.
Adam Newey

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Knut Hamsun: Hunger (1890)

Embarking on an unholy fast on the streets of Christiania, Hamsun’s extraordinary hero is the very model of the starving artist. At one point reduced to begging a butcher for a bone to gnaw on, weeping and vomiting, he still refuses to rejoin the society that might feed him, pushing against his own mental and physical limitations until he sheds his identity along with his skin. Hunger can be seen as a runway into 20th-century modernism, proposing, as Paul Auster has written, “some new thought about the nature of art”.
Victoria Segal

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LP Hartley: The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944)

The vividly evocative account of a childhood summer spent on the Norfolk coast at the turn of the 20th century by the timid, impressionable invalid Eustace and his strong-willed elder sister Hilda, who is determined to imbue her brother with a sense of duty and moral responsibility. The powerful opening scene on the beach prefigures their destiny: Hilda tries to rescue a shrimp from a sea anemone, and in the process destroys both. Part one of Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy.
AN

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Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“I went out too far,” says the old Cuban fisherman, looking at the shark-ruined carcass of the giant fish it has taken him three agonising days to catch. As compelling as a hook in the throat, Hemingway’s novella is an elemental fable of humanity at the extremes of endurance, reduced to one frail figure surrounded by an ocean of hidden forces. Despite baiting his tale with irresistible symbolism, however, the author took a different view of it: “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man.”
VS

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Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)

Harry Haller, a middle-aged loner, is handed a pamphlet titled Treatise on the Steppenwolf, which addresses him by name and appears to describe his own struggle to resolve the two poles of his character: the spiritual and the animalistic. A chance meeting with a young woman, Hermine, leads him into an episode of gratifying debauchery, before a hallucinatory and disturbing denouement at the “magic theatre” of the saxophonist Pablo, where Harry kills Hermine and finds himself being judged by Mozart. Hesse drew heavily on Buddhist thought for this novel, which he considered “more often and more violently misunderstood” than any of his other books.
AN

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Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund (1930)

A novel that dramatises Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the medieval monastery of Mariabronn, the restless Goldmund realises he isn’t cut out for a cloistered life under the tutelage of his friend and mentor, the ascetic Narziss, and so begins a series of travels that see him work his way through most of the seven deadly sins before finding a psychic resolution of sorts in an apprenticeship to a master sculptor. Only by feeding his appetite for worldly experience does Goldmund finally find the courage to face death.
AN

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Thomas Hughes: Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)

The novel that announced to the world the revolution brought about by Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby. The great headmaster is seldom seen, but looms over the narrative “like the god in a Greek play”. Tom, a nine-year-old squire’s son is dispatched to Rugby, where he is befriended by Harry “Scud” East, morally improved by saintly George Arthur, and tormented by bully Harry Flashman, whom the plucky young heroes eventually best. The main events in the novel are football, cross-country running, fishing, feasting and various innocent scrapes. At the end of the last term, Tom captains his school cricket team against the MCC. The novel ends with Arnold’s death. Contemporary readers have found Flashman (as immortalised by George MacDonald Fraser) less odious than did Hughes.
John Sutherland

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John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

Abnormally short, afflicted with a curious speech impediment and responsible for the inadvertent baseball-inflicted death of his best friend’s mother, Owen Meany is an unlikely instrument of God. Against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, however, this “little doll” takes on the status of a heroic colossus, ultimately becoming a thoroughly modern martyr. Taking Irving’s New Hampshire whimsy and adding a spiritual twist, this novel explores faith, friendship and predestination with an alluring sweetness and charm.
VS

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Henry James: The Ambassadors (1903)

“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” It’s no wonder that Lewis Lambert Strether, the 50-something protagonist, speaks with such passion: when he is sent to Paris to rescue Chad, the son of the formidable Mrs Newsome, from big city Bohemia, the old-world glamour sets him wondering whether his whole life has been wasted. It’s this doubt that ruins both his mission and his future, leaving him balanced on the precarious cusp between comedy and tragedy.
VS

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Henry James: Washington Square (1880)

Catherine Sloper is James’s Fanny Price, a heroine notable for her anti-heroic qualities: passivity, plainness, average intelligence. And this is, indeed, something of an anti-love story. The hero may be dashing and handsome, but his penury arouses the suspicion of Catherine’s father, a successful New York doctor who, though disappointed in his only daughter, had intended to provide her with thirty thousand a year. No one in this tartly written early novel comes out well, except perhaps Catherine, who discovers modest reserves of dignity and stoicism.
Aida Edemariam

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Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

This is a novel about a love triangle. Imogen, 37, is married to Evelyn, 52, a barrister and a living testament to the qualities and habits of life that have made the reputation of the English southern counties. Their next-door neighbour is 50-year-old Blanche Silcox, festooned in tweeds, stout of body and firm of mind. As atmospheric as Graham Greene, beautifully written, enigmatic and exquisite, it eternally puts the question: who is the Tortoise, who the Hare?
Carmen Callil

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BS Johnson: The Unfortunates (1969)

A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds his attempts to report a football match interrupted by memories of a close and trusted friend who died young of cancer. Johnson’s famous “book in a box” has 27 chapters, which are printed individually and can be read in any order. At the time of writing it, Johnson was earning his living as a jobbing football reporter for the Observer. Published in 1969, the fourth of his seven novels, The Unfortunates offers a frank self-portrait which is also a meditation on mortality, a celebration of friendship and one of the key works of the experimental fiction of the 60s.
Claire Armitstead

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James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

“It’s damn well written,” Ezra Pound wrote to HL Mencken in 1915, describing the serialised version of Portrait of the Artist; later, he would predict the that the book would “remain a permanent part of English literature”. Both assertions now look like understatement: Joyce’s depiction of the early Dublin life of Stephen Dedalus towers over modern literature, providing a stylistic blueprint and creative touchstone for artists young and old.
VS

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Molly Keane: Good Behaviour (1981)

Aroon St Charles doesn’t seem best suited to telling her family’s story in a “big house” novel: she fears Mummie’s iciness, but can’t think how she ended up like that; she notices Papa’s absences but doesn’t realise he’s having affairs with everyone from Cook to the unmarried twins in the village; she joins her beloved brother Hubert and best friend Richard for pre-dinner cocktails but doesn’t see she’s gooseberry. But Aroon perfectly illustrates the Anglo-Irish aristocratic philosophy that gives this Booker-shortlisted novel its name. Gloriously readable, it is darker, funnier and more satisfying than it at first appears.
Joanna Biggs

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Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk (1955)

In the impoverished highlands of Anatolia, Slim Memed is driven by the cruelty of the local landowner to do battle with feudal injustice. He becomes a bandit-hero, championing the landless poor against their corrupt oppressors. Kemal’s first novel was praised by James Baldwin for “trying to find, to create, in his own country, a language for millions and millions of people whom no one’s ever heard of, whom no one has ever spoken for, and who cannot speak”.
CA

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Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Coming of age is enough of a challenge at the best of times, but Karim Amir has it harder than most. It’s the 1970s: he’s half-Indian, he’s gay, and his father is being egged on by Eva, his dynamic mistress, to set himself up as a prophet of eastern mystic values to plug the spiritual gap left by British materialism. The entire family is plunged into turmoil in a perceptive and highly entertaining novel that established Kureishi as one of the first British Asian writers to take his place in the literary mainstream.
Joanna Hines

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DH Lawrence: Sons and Lovers (1913)

With the working title of Paul Morel, this, Lawrence’s third novel, but his first major work, is the story of a young man growing up in a mining village in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire. First there is the lovely Miriam from a neighbouring farm with whom he enjoys long walks, conversation and much sexual tension, then the sensuous Clara with whom he finally gets some Lawrentian passion. But, in the end, neither of his lovers matches up to his mother. More Freudian than a psychoanalytic textbook, the novel was begun while Lawrence’s own beloved mother was dying of cancer. It remains an affecting portrait of a mining family torn apart by class divisions and individual desire at the turn of the century.
Lisa Allardice

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Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie (1959)

Cider with Rosie is a heavily autobiographical account of a working-class childhood lived in the shadow of the first world war. Told in lyrical prose, it captures the sights and sounds of an agricultural Cotswold village as seen through the eyes of a small boy. In a thematic and anecdotal rather than strictly linear form, Lee creates memorable portraits of eccentric villagers, various local authority figures and, above all, his beloved mother and elder sisters. Some critics find the prose too lush, but the book remains hugely popular and has become a fixture on the school syllabus.
KH

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Rosamond Lehmann: Invitation to the Waltz (1932)

Olivia Curtis is 17, still living in the bosom of her family, but about to leave it for the adult world. Her older, more knowing sister Kate has already abandoned the adolescent sensitivities that pulse through Olivia as she is about to attend her first dance in a great English country house. Lehmann’s perfect understanding of the workings of the human heart turn this into a timeless portrait of every young girl leaving childhood behind for the capricious mysteries and merciful release of maturity — and sexual experience. Olivia’s story is continued in The Weather in the Streets.
CC

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Richard Llewellyn: How Green Was My Valley (1939)

The narrative of this English Grapes of Wrath, a tribute to the endurance of the Welsh working class in the 1930s slump, is told autobiographically by Huw Morgan. Huw is born into a tight-knit mining family, fiercely moral and fiercely socialist. Huw, a brilliant and precocious child, is injured rescuing his pregnant mother from drowning. As a result, he is late in attending school, where he is bullied and subjected to anti-Welsh prejudice. He nonetheless succeeds as a scholar. The novel ends with the death of Huw’s father in a graphically described pit collapse. We are to assume that Huw goes on to become a successful man of letters. The novel echoes Edward VIII’s anguished declaration, on visiting South Wales in 1936, that “something must be done”.
JS

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Jack London: Martin Eden (1909)

This fictional counterpart to London’s “alcoholic memoir”, John Barleycorn, is the most autobiographical of the author’s novels. By rigorous self-help and self-education, Martin raises himself from destitute family circumstances in San Francisco. Like London, he first follows the “adventure path” of life at sea. He aspires to be a writer, but finds the way barred to the unprivileged. His idiosyncratic socialism does not help. His attempt to win the higher-class Ruth Morse, whom he meets during a brief spell at Berkeley, is similarly unlucky. Finally Martin achieves literary success, only to find it not worth the achieving. The novel has a raw power and offers more insight into the two-fisted author than any of the biographies written about him.
JS

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Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (1947)

Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels published during a lifetime characterised by obsessions with literature and alcohol, was inspired – unsurprisingly – by a period of particularly dark alcoholic excess in Mexico. The novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1936 and traces the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an ex-British consul drowning in mescal-soaked purgatory, and doing all he can to add to the misery of his ex-wife and brother. Lowry writes in a complex, allusive, symbolic, Joycean style, and leaves few lows untouched: “I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is the worst of all, to feel your soul dying.”
NB

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Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding (1946)

Precocious, motherless 12-year-old Frankie Addams sits in the kitchen of her house in the small-town South and discusses with the family’s maid, Berenice, her brother’s forthcoming wedding and her longing to join him and his new wife on their honeymoon in Alaska. In a narrative that skips back and forth over the three days before the wedding, Frankie’s attempts to demonstrate her growing maturity – including agreeing to a date with a soldier, who tries to rape her – prove futile. Filmed most recently in 1997, with Anna Paquin as Frankie.
AN

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Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk (1956)

Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy tells the story of 20th-century Egypt from the first world war to Nasser’s overthrow of the old regime in 1952, as reflected in the well-to-do al-Jawad family. In this first volume, published in English in 1990, Ahmad, a prosperous shopkeeper, tyrannises his family and forbids his wife to leave the house. As his five very different children begin to challenge his rules and forge their own identities, they discover that their father is not as pious as he would have them believe.
CA

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Bernard Malamud: The Assistant (1957)

In this struggle for the American Dream in 1950s Brooklyn, the Russian-Jewish immigrant Morris Bober has fallen on hard times. A rival grocery store has opened, and to make ends meet his family is now relying on the daughter’s wages from her job as a secretary. After a violent robbery in the store, the Italian-American Frank Alpine is hired as Morris’s assistant and slowly falls for his daughter. The first and second generation come into conflict, and Morris’s desire for a better life comes with a dismissal of Frank based on class rather than true love.
Kohinoor Sahota

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Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)

A mercantile family in the sober north of Germany gains commercial success but not inner peace as the weight of tradition and the drive to self-fulfilment forever pull in different directions. Set in the environment of his own upbringing, Nobel prizewinner Mann’s chronicle of 19th-century Germany has a cast of memorable characters, from the revolutionary romantic Morten Schwarzkopf to the bumbling Bavarian son-in-law Alois Permaneder. Completed shortly after the author’s 25th birthday and long before Mann’s characters started to talk like philosophy textbooks, this is as gripping and life-changing a family saga as they get.
PO

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William Maxwell: Chateau (1961)

In this Henry James-like adventure by a former fiction editor of the New Yorker, we follow the American couple Harold and Barbara Rhodes on a four-month trip to Europe. They are full of enthusiasm, eager to immerse themselves in French culture; but it’s 1945 and in this war-battered country they do not get the welcoming reception they had desired. The novel successfully depicts misunderstandings, isolation and disappointment: are they sensitive to local traditions? Are they laughing at the right jokes? Are they tipping too much?
KS

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FM Mayor: The Rector’s Daughter (1924)

Robert Herbert remembers Mary Jocelyn as a woman with an “intensity of feeling which rarely showed itself in her face, or even in her words”. Flora Mayor, her creator, had an uncanny sensitivity to the inner workings of that class of English women – so often the offspring of clergymen – who dwelt enclosed, and seemingly at peace, within the confines of upper-middle-class English life in the last century. Illuminated by a love story of great beauty, this novel exquisitely captures every nuance of a heart longing for love.
CC

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George Meredith: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)

Meredith’s novel was banned by the circulating libraries for the frankness of its sexual descriptions. The hero is raised according to a rigid system devised by his father, Sir Austin Feverel. It is tested to breaking point when the boy falls in love with Lucy Desborough, and secretly marries her. In London, Richard is seduced by a courtesan and Lucy attracts the dangerous attention of Lord Mountfalcon. The couple separate (a frequent event in Meredith’s fiction, reflecting his own broken marriage). In the climax, Richard is wounded in a duel. Lucy goes mad, while her husband lies paralysed – a triumph of his father’s system. The novel’s melodrama is filtered through a Meredithean style that, for those who have cultivated the taste, is sublime.
JS

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Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters (2002)

“To so many classes I taught Lear, learning nothing myself.” So laments Nariman Vakeel, a former professor in Bombay, now aged 79 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Infirmity makes him dependent first on his stepchildren, who feel, perhaps rightly, that he ruined their mother’s life, and then on his daughter Roxana and her family, who live in two rooms and have no money. The hideous intimacies of old age and decrepitude are described in unsparing detail by a writer with an eye for the small tragedies and epiphanies that constitute ordinary life.
JH

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Timothy Mo: Sour Sweet (1982)

In London’s Chinatown in the 1960s, there are clans and conflicts, ambition and the struggle for survival. The Chen family arrives from Hong Kong in the hope of establishing a successful restaurant, but that is threatened by the sinister triads. The novel cleverly contrasts the family’s mundane life with underworld violence. Mo, an Anglo-Chinese author, offers compassionate insight into the immigrant experience, and this, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
KS

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Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

Despite being written with an empathy that lends it some warmth, Moore’s exploration of loneliness comes with the authentic chill of nights spent alone in shabby bedsits. Newly resident in her latest Belfast boarding house, Judith Hearne loses herself in alcohol and fantasy, pinning her fading romantic hopes on the dashing, desperately unreliable figure of James Madden. Failings of religion, love, family, friends and, most damningly, the human mind are revealed with bleak clarity as Judith’s faith flows away like the dregs of a bottle of whiskey. The book was made into a Bafta-winning film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.
VS

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Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (1970)

Toni Morrison’s first novel is set in her childhood town of Lorain during the Depression. It began as a short story about a school friend of Morrison’s who said she wanted blue eyes, despite how ridiculous this little black girl, who couldn’t see her own beauty, would look if she got her wish. “It was the first time I knew beautiful,’ Morrison has written. Her story of racial self-loathing tells the tale of poor, ugly, unloved Pecola, whose own mother favours the pretty white Shirley Temple daughters of the family she works for, who is raped by her father, bears his child and who eventually descends into madness through her longing for blue eyes. There is enough heartbreak and poetry in this slim novel to earn it’s place as one of the great African-American novel of the last century, but when it was first published in 1970 it was, as the author wrote in an afterword nearly 25 years later, “like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialised, misread” and was out of print by 1974. Since then critical and popular appreciation of Morrison has soared. She has won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer and is one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors. In 2000 The Bluest Eye was voted as an Oprah book club choice.
LA

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Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon (1977)

This Nobel prizewinner’s third novel was the first Oprah book club pick, and the fortunes of both are inextricably linked. It means that a significant proportion of the American population has read this strange, beautiful novel about African-American Macon Dead III – or Milkman (still being breastfed when his feet trailed on the floor) – and his moneyed family living in the South, his ethereal and silent sister Pilate, born without a navel, and his separation from his family in search of the rumoured family treasure. Exploring familial bonds and conflict, separated from the breathless Oprah rhetoric, this novel still sings.
NB

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Alice Munro: Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)

Because the short stories in this volume are linked by the same characters, ambitious Rose and her small-town cynical stepmother Flo, Claire Tomalin won her determined argument for the book to be considered for the 1980 Booker prize (shortlisted, it lost to William Golding’s Rites of Passage.) If this is a list of the 1,000 books you should read, Munro ought to be in the top 20 at least: her deceptively direct and completely unfussy prose opens trapdoors into wide worlds of emotion, rebellion, the infinite complications of love.
AE

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Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince (1973)

Love, death, art and truth: when it comes to the big issues, this towering Murdoch novel has them all covered. Constructed with dazzling verve, it tells the story of Bradley Pearson, an ageing writer with a troublesome block, whose artistic peace of mind is overshadowed by the trials of his friends, Arnold and Rachel Baffin. Subtle and shifting, thanks to the playful inclusion of postscripts and forewords from the dramatis personae, The Black Prince shows the author at her formidable peak.
VS

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VS Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas (1961)

Six-fingered and born in the wrong way, Mohun Biswas is destined, according to village lore, for a life of misfortune. When his family is exiled from its village after an unfortunate incident with a neighbour’s calf, Mr Biswas sets out on a lifelong search for a home of his own. He becomes a sign-writer and then a news reporter, and does battle with the suffocation of Hindu family life, only to end his days deeply in debt in a jerry-built house sold to him by an entrepreneur of the new Trinidad. The novel that made Naipaul’s name is a comic epic of survival against the odds in the postcolonial world.
CA

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Flann O’Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

A man is writing a book about a man who is writing a book, which is about several strange characters. Naturally, these characters resent being made to do as their author decrees, and plan a mutiny. O’Brien’s fragmented narrative skips between this lot, their author, the top-level author (a stout-swilling undergraduate) and other tales that slip in: Irish epics, westerns. There’s a sophisticated exploration of authorship, fiction and the ego here somewhere, but most readers will be so bamboozled that they won’t notice – or mind – if they miss it.
CO

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Kenzaburo Oe: Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969)

The birth of a disabled boy to Oe and his wife opened a new chapter in the writing life of the Japanese Nobel laureate. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is one of three novellas in what Oe called his “idiot son” cycle. Here, he explores the scorching devotion between a hugely fat father and his mentally handicapped son, Eeyore (Oe’s own son is nicknamed Pooh). Criticised for exploiting his son in his work, Oe simply says that in all his fiction he is “writing about the dignity of human beings”.
CA

Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (1961)

Binx Bolling, born of good family and earning a decent living as a stockbroker in New Orleans, embarks on an undefined quest for meaning. His endless trips to the cinema and his stoic pursuit of his secretaries amount to much the same thing: a groping search for something (anything) to mark his existence and raise him above the sub-audible hum of everyday life. Novels about existential angst don’t have to be dark and harrowing. Here is one that is crisp, tart and dappled in sunlight — a casual meld of L’Etranger with Diary of a Nobody.
Xan Brooks

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Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev (1972)

This is a portrait of an artist as a young man. Asher Lev is born into a strict Hasidic family in 1940s Brooklyn. Asher’s father believes that his son’s artistic gift is not a blessing but a curse. In the course of the novel, Asher Lev recounts his struggles to negotiate between his family, his talent and Jewish tradition. The novel culminates with the shattering effect of Asher’s masterpiece, a painting titled Brooklyn Crucifixion.
Ian Sanson

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JB Priestley: The Good Companions (1929)

Priestley’s first novel was a bestseller, and established his career as the great chronicler of Yorkshire. The Good Companions are a travelling troupe of players specialising in a “non-stop programme of Clever Comedy and Exquisite Vocalism”. Their patroness is the spinster Miss Elizabeth Trant. Having inherited a little money, she teams up with Jess Oakroyd, a worker recently sacked from his job in “Bruddersford”, and a drunken ex-schoolmaster, Inigo Jollifant, who can play the piano in a “dashing but sketchy” manner. The novel, which is wholly episodic in structure, has a fine freshness to its comedy.
John Sutherland

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Annie Proulx: The Shipping News (1993)

Proulx once said she slept with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for the two years it took to research this novel, and it shows: her story of lumpen, cuckolded, then violently widowed Quoyle leaving Mockingburg, New York, to build a new life in Newfoundland has the hard-bitten, baroque beauty of “Newfinese”, and of the harsh land she describes. It’s warm, too, and funny.
Aida Edemariam

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Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27)

Often hailed as the greatest novel of all time, Proust’s seven-volume, semi-autobiographical masterwork combines the great themes of existence – time, love, consciousness – with the comedy of acute social observation. Dwelling on what the novel is about (impossible to summarise) is to miss the pleasures of Proust’s verbal invention, and his extraordinary ability to convey a sense of multiple overlapping worlds. Virginia Woolf’s admiration for Proust’s writing left her almost suicidal: “Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless.”
Jess Bowie

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Piers Paul Read: A Married Man (1979)

Arguably Read’s best novel, although The Upstart (1973) and A Season in the West (1988) aren’t far behind. Featuring a successful but disillusioned barrister who craves a purpose in life, and with Read’s trademarked Catholicism always ready to jump out from the wings, its political grounding – the hero sets up as a Labour MP in the fraught landscape of 1974 – is soon compromised by adultery and murder.
DJ Taylor

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Dorothy Richardson: Pointed Roofs (1915)

A cornerstone in modernist and feminist writing, and the first of Richardson’s 13-novel sequence Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs follows Miriam Henderson as she becomes a teacher in Germany and strives to find her own, uniquely female identity through working and living abroad. Richardson bends the rules of punctuation and sentence length in order to create a “feminine prose”. The result was the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English.
JB

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Henry Handel Richardson: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930)

A writer in the great naturalist European tradition, Henry Handel Richardson (real name Ethel Richardson, related to Iris Murdoch), wrote about Europe and Australia, and this magnificent trilogy – Australia Felix, The Way Home and Ultima Thule – is her masterpiece, Tappean ironic, epic contemplation of the fate and destiny of Dr Richard Mahony and his family, sweeping through great and small events in the New World and Old Europe. One of those novels of huge ambition that introduce us to characters and stories which stay with the reader for ever.
Carmen Callil

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Henry Roth: Call It Sleep (1934)

A real gem of a novel, even now in danger of being forgotten. No relation to Philip, Roth has considerable claim to being the Jewish James Joyce: this, his debut, is a tremendously ambitious, linguistically audacious account of a slum kid’s life in New York’s Lower East Side. Roth’s literary career was finished almost as soon as it began; harassed by his own psychological traumas (including incest), he produced no full-length work for 60 years, until 1994’s A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, the first part of his Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle.
Andrew Pulvar

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761)

An 18th-century take on medieval lovers Héloïse and Abélard, Rousseau’s epistolary novel tells of the doomed love affair between a noblewoman, Julie, and her tutor. A strong philosophical current runs through it, exploring the tensions between individual desires and social expectations as Julie renounces her lover, embracing virtue and marriage only to consign herself to a fatal dissatisfaction. It was a key text for the cult of sensibility and staggeringly popular in its time: publishers could not print copies fast enough, so rented the book out by the day and even by the hour.
Joanna Biggs

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Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997)

Beginning with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, cousin of the novel’s twin protagonists Rahel and Estha, Roy unfurls the family tensions that lead both to and from Sophie’s drowning. Her Booker-winning debut is both the politically charged story of Rahel and Estha and a fictionalised account of her own childhood in Kerala. Teeming with colour‚ lyricism and wry comedy, it is a novel in which the most intricate details and emotions come together to form a grand tragic narrative. Beneath the family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history.
JB

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Cora Sandel: Alberta and Jacob (1926)

In the far north of Norway in the early 20th century, Alberta Selmer and her younger brother Jacob grow up in the shadow of their parents’ stifled anger and silent resentments. Alberta, as emotionally frozen as the arctic landscape, is desperate to escape the provincial proprieties that choke her, while her mother makes no attempt to conceal her disappointment at her daughter’s social failings. When Jacob escapes to a life at sea, Alberta’s rebellion, though muted and ineffectual, begins to grow. The first part of a trilogy, the novel appeared in English in 1962.
Andrew Newey

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Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy (1993)

As India prepares for its first elections since independence, a mother attempts to find a suitable boy for her youngest daughter. Mrs Rupa Mehra’s attempts to square Hindu custom with English proprieties illustrate one set of challenges for the Indian middle classes. Another is represented by the Khans, who, as Muslims, confront new laws that threaten to destroy their language and culture along with their family estates. Through a 1,500-page warts-and-all portrayal of four families, Seth anatomises the birth pangs of a new nation.
Claire Armitstead

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Carol Shields: Unless (2002)

The opening paragraph of Unless is one of the most acute descriptions of unhappiness you will ever find: “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.” Reta Winters’s contented, comfortable world is destroyed when her eldest daughter drops out of college to sit on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl and the word “goodness” written on a placard around her neck. Reta, a 44-year-old writer of “sunny” women’s fiction and a translator of the works of a fierce French feminist, develops a theory of female exclusion to help account for her daughter’s behaviour and begins writing angry – unsent – letters to male writers. An elegant, understated meditation not only on the potential for disaster lurking in everyday lives, but also on the act of writing itself, Shields’ last novel is also her darkest, although still written with her characteristic wit and light touch. It was shortlisted for the Orange prize and the Booker in 2002.
Lisa Allardice

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Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)

Aged 15, Kevin brutally murders seven fellow high-school students in the gymnasium, picking them off with a cross-bow given to him as a Christmas present. This is the story of his mother, Eva, who confesses her secret ill will towards her son from birth in a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. Hailed as taboo-breaking for its redefinition of motherhood, the novel explores an unspoken fear that you may not automatically love your children. Shriver won the Orange prize in 2005 for this deeply disturbing novel.
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiori

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May Sinclair: The Three Sisters (1914)

Silenced by Parkinson’s disease in her 50s, May Sinclair lived on, forgotten, until she was 83. One of the leading writers of the 1920s, she coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” and impressed and influenced Virginia Woolf, Rosamond Lehmann, Henry James and Thomas Hardy. This absorbing novel, set in the Yorkshire moors in the early 20th century, recreates the story of the Brontë sisters. We follow Mary, Gwendolen and Alice Cartaret and their dreams of finding fulfilment and love, love in all its varieties: sexual, maternal and, most of all, love of the freedom to choose.
CC

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Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Family Moskat (1950)

The first of Singer’s novels to be published in English, and arguably his greatest work, this book tells the story of the decline and fall not just of one Polish-Jewish family, but of Polish Jewry itself. The Moskat family patriarch, Meshulem, has made his fortune buying and selling rags: he then watches as his own family disintegrates before his very eyes.
IS

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Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres (1991)

Using Shakespeare’s King Lear as a template, Smiley delivers a devastating critique of the legacy of patriarchy in America in the 1970s, as illustrated through a small farming community. The narrator, Ginny, is chief cook and bottle-washer to her unexciting husband, her mercurial father and a sister who is recovering from breast cancer probably caused by a polluted well. When father Larry impulsively signs his proudly accumulated thousand acres over to his two oldest daughters, thus alienating the youngest of the three sisters, he cracks the family apart.
CA

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Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2005)

At the heart of this Orange prizewinning novel are Kiki Belsey, a black woman of great emotional intelligence and warmth, her somewhat ineffectual white academic husband and the adulterous affair that comes between them. The liberal certainties of the Belseys’ New England university life are rocked by the conservatism of fellow academic Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian based in the UK. Smith’s third novel exposes the comedy of cultural difference and academic rivalry while also capturing the intimacies of family life. A big-hearted meditation on life, love and art, it is also a homage to EM Forster’s Howards End.
CSM

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Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children (1940)

The adjectives used to describe Christina Stead’s extraordinary body of work cover every superlative in the English language, and most are applied to this, probably the greatest study of the family as battleground ever written. Six children watch – and survive – a father who is a monster of pomposity and self-delusion battle it out with a mother who turns self-pity into an art form. The force and gusto of Stead’s prose do not prevent her from writing descriptive passages of exquisite beauty.
CC

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John Steinbeck: East of Eden (1952)

Steinbeck saw East of Eden as his ultimate epic, his crowning glory (“everything I have written has been practice for this”). He took the Book of Genesis and transplanted it to the Salinas Valley, recast the Cain and Abel story with the flawed progeny of the Trask and Hamilton families, and forged old elements into a mythic tale of California. And the role of Satan? That falls to shape-shifting Cathy/Kate – the murderous succubus who shoots her husband, poisons her mentor and eventually resurfaces as the millionaire madam of the local whorehouse.
XB

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Noel Streatfeild: Ballet Shoes (1936)

This children’s classic tells the story of the Fossil sisters – three girls adopted into an impoverished middle-class household who are subsequently put on the stage to earn their livings. Pauline becomes a successful film actress, Posy a prima ballerina, while clumsy Petrova dreams of taking to the skies as a pilot. The book has been a favourite of generations of stage-struck little girls who respond to Streatfeild’s feminist message that young women may become whatever they choose to be. Ballet Shoes has so far eluded all attempts to transfer its magic to the screen, despite at least two well-meaning television adaptations.
Kathryn Hughes

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Italo Svevo: Confessions of Zeno (1923)

Self-published by Svevo in 1923, this novel consists of the memoirs of a fiftysomething businessman, Zeno Cosini, who writes about his marriage, his career, his baldness and his struggle to give up smoking. The critic James Wood has described the book as “the great modern novel of the comic-pathetic”. “For all my efforts,” proclaims Zeno, “I achieved the result of that marksman who hit the bullseye, but of the target next to his.”
IS

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Booth Tarkington: The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

Tarkington’s novel, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1919, was only recently resurrected as one of the forgotten novels of American literature. In waspish, ironic prose, Tarkington documents with certain glee the decline of the Ambersons, an old money family who fail to adapt in any way to the cultural transformation sweeping through their country as industrial tycoons rise to wealth and prominence. The foil to the dreadful George (“There’s a few people whose position and birth puts them at the top”) is Eugene Morgan, car manufacturer, who turns out to be George’s one chance at salvation.
Nicola Barr

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Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Every novel or short story by Elizabeth Taylor is a joy to read. There are 15 more sources of intense pleasure to be savoured besides Angel, but this is a perfect entrée into her particular world. Angelica escapes the drudgery of provincial English life by reinventing herself as a romantic novelist of overpowering banality and folie de grandeur. Only Elizabeth Taylor, who possessed a ruthlessness denied Jane Austen, could create such a phenomenon, or produce a body of work so triumphantly human, ebulliently clever and always, wonderfully funny.
CC

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Flora Thompson: Lark Rise to Candleford (1945)

Lark Rise to Candleford is a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs recalling an agricultural childhood of the 1880s. With the eye of an anthropologist, Thompson describes the habits, customs and sayings of the inhabitants of the tiny hamlet Lark Rise, as well as those of the town folk living a few miles away. Recent research has revealed the extent to which Thompson changed details of her own experience in the service of a more artistically satisfying narrative. Yet to their wartime audience – the parts of the trilogy were first published between 1939 and 1943 – the books appeared to present a pin-sharp picture of a timeless Olde Englande, one worth fighting on the beaches for.
KH

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Colm Tóibín: The Blackwater Lightship (1999)

Tóibín, already established as one of Ireland’s top writers, took the subject of Aids to the west of Ireland with this 2000 Booker-shortlisted novel. But Declan, the young gay man dying of Aids in a bedroom in his grandmother’s cottage by the sea, near the lighthouse, is not the focus of the novel. Three generations of women – his grandmother, mother and sister – attend him, but relationships are bitter with recriminations and “pain and small longings and prejudices”. In spare, stripped-back prose, Tóibín gives space for suppressed emotion to resonate in a millennial novel that speaks of the frailty of human experience.
NB

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Sue Townsend: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982)

Townsend is rumoured to be working on another instalment of the Mole diaries. Her hero would be hitting his 40s by now, Corbisso these would be The Prostate Years. But in 1982, when the series began, Adrian had other things to worry about: spots, a drunken pet dog, a stuck-up girlfriend and the BBC’s refusal to broadcast his poetry. Worst of all was the fecklessness of the adults who were supposed to be guiding him through adolescence. You’ll laugh at Adrian’s never-ending anxiety, but every now and then it tugs at the heart-strings.
Phil Daoust

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William Trevor: Death in Summer (1998)

“It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.” The consequences of lack of love constitute Trevor’s major theme in this deeply menacing and unsettling novel. In this tale of Pettie, the shunned governess who becomes obsessed with the emotionally suppressed Thaddeus and his baby girl after the death of his wife, Trevor suggests that the origin of evil is in the absence of love, not excusing but explaining Pettie’s murderous actions through her love-starved and abused childhood. The novel’s genius lies in its subtle examination of such complex psychological ideas in a thrilling suspense-filled narrative.
NB

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Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (1862)

Two young graduates, Arkady and Bazarov, return to the estate of Arkady’s father, Nikolai. Tangled love affairs involving a servant, a local landowner and her sister ensue, along with political tensions between the young men and Arkady’s father and uncle, echoing the generational struggle in the Russia of the 1840s between nihilists and liberals. Bazarov’s death from typhus clears the way for a reconciliation between Arkady and Nikolai, who end up living together on the estate. The novel, now acknowledged as Turgenev’s masterpiece, was something of a critical failure on its first appearance.
AN

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Miguel de Unamuno: Peace in War (1897)

Unamuno’s first novel was based on his childhood experiences in his hometown of Bilbao, besieged during the four years of the third Carlist war. A powerful meditation on death and identity, it tackles Unamuno’s self-proclaimed aim: “My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”
Victoria Segal

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John Updike: The Rabbit Omnibus (1960-90)

Updike’s great legacy is his quartet of Rabbit novels, which were written with 10-year gaps between 1960 and 1990, and casually index the headlines of the day. In the character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, he created a feet-of-clay emblem for America as a whole. A former star of the high-school basketball team, Angstrom starts out fired by a rude, restless energy before slipping into a frustrated, fat-cat middle age. His bold adventure carries him in circles, scattering domestic disasters in his wake.
XB

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Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)

The Color Purple has such an uncompromising opening that many never read any further, including, to Alice Walker’s sorrow, her mother. By the end of the fourth paragraph Celie, aged 14, has been raped by her stepfather, become pregnant, and started writing letters to God, because no one else may know of her shame. The voice Walker established for Celie is insightful and limited, unsentimental and direct, and, controversially when it was published, is “folk speech”. But Celie’s story won Walker a Pulitzer prize for fiction, the first for an African-American woman. It has sold 5m copies and been translated into 25 languages. The book altered the face of African-American literature, and is still a compelling read.
AE

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Alan Warner: Morvern Callar (1995)

Published as Trainspotting was putting Scottish writing noisily back on the agenda, Warner’s debut fitted the zeitgeisty drug-inspired nihilistic mood. His tale of bored, oddly beautiful shelf-stacker Morvern’s urge to escape the Highland town (“The Port” – loosely based on Warner’s hometown of Oban), her immoral appropriation of her dead boyfriend’s unpublished AMJnovel, her trawl through the rave clubs of the Mediterranean, went beyond the lost generation cliches by virtue of Morvern’s distinctive first-person voice and the near-mystical Scottish Highland placing. Strange and unsettling, it established Warner as among the brightest of the new British writers.
NB

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HG Wells: The History of Mr Polly (1910)

Along with Kipps, this is Wells’s finest depiction of the tragi-comedy of the Edwardian “little man” and a wry depiction of what the author himself would have been, had literary success not saved him. Alfred Polly, a draper’s assistant, comes into a small inheritance that enables him to marry and set up his own village shop. It does not thrive and his wife, Miriam, is a scold. Polly resolves to burn the shop for the insurance money, and cut his throat. He succeeds in the first, but not the second. He goes on the tramp and settles down with the landlady of the riverside Potwell inn, where he lives an uncomplicatedly bucolic existence.
JS

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Rebecca West: The Fountain Overflows (1957)

Rose Aubrey, the narrator of this bestseller, is a fictionalised version of West herself. Growing up in a bohemian family at the start of the 20th century, she looks on with affectionately despairing eyes as her parents dice with disgrace and financial disaster. Papa is a hopelessly unsuccessful journalist and politician, mama a highly strung former concert pianist whose frustrated ambition makes a musician of even her most untalented child. This first part of an uncompleted trilogy gives an unstinting glimpse of life in a family struggling to square artistic aspiration with social and financial security.
CA

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Antonia White: Frost in May (1933)

This is an everyman – an everywoman – story, like Huckleberry Finn, or that of Pip in Great Expectations. Nanda is a clever young girl closeted in an English convent where the nuns demand absolute obedience to their Catholic rule; she is up against the world, the rebel with a cause. In this beautifully written, lyrical and often very funny book, White shows us, through a young girl’s eyes, the wonderful stupidity of an authoritarian world and, best of all, tells us that those who defy those-who-must-be-obeyed may seem to be defeated, but almost never are.
CC

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Patrick White: The Tree of Man (1955)

This is one of those magnificent novels given us when a great writer is in perfect harmony with the mythic soul of humanity and with particular human beings who inhabit a land. In telling the story of Stan and Amy Parker and three generations of their family, pioneer settlers in the Australian bush, White wrote a novel of spiritual and allegorical meaning, with every page rooted always in the lives and feelings of ordinary men and women. This rare achievement produced a timeless masterpiece about the experience of European settlers in Australia.
CC

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Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Wilde’s parable of 1890s decadence is a ne plus ultra of “Oscarism”. The artist Basil Hallward creates a magnificent portrait of a golden youth, Dorian Gray, the embodiment of “youth’s passionate purity”. Dorian is corrupted by Lord Henry Wotton and commits acts of unspeakable impurity (the love that dare not speak its name is hinted at). Mysteriously, Dorian never ages. But meanwhile, in the attic, Hallward’s portrait turns ever uglier with Dorian’s sins. Hallward sees the portrait, and Dorian murders him. Subsequently, he attempts to destroy the picture, and in so doing kills himself. The novel is ornamented with a brilliant display of Wilde’s finest epigrams.
JS

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Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Winterson’s debut was considered taboo-busting for the way that it put lesbianism at the heart of the British novel. The book confidently questions the institutional authority of both the church and the family, yet wraps this inquiry in prose that is funny and allusive by turns. A highly successful BBC television adaptation of 1990 carried the book’s fame even further into the mainstream. That the novel was so obviously autobiographical cemented Winterson’s status as a high-profile cultural player.
KH

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Gerard Woodward: I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004)

Tolstoy’s line about the diverse nature of unhappy families takes on a fresh resonance in Woodward’s tragi-comic tour de force. I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the centrepiece of a semi-autobiographical trilogy and charts the decline and fall of a brood of middle-class alcoholics in 1970s north London. The author assembles his cast of drunkards (damned, brilliant Janus; his quietly soused mother; her wreck of a brother), lights the fuse and sends them off like indoor fireworks.
XB

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Johann David Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson (1812)

This classic tale of shipwreck and adventure began as a series of stories made up by Swiss pastor Wyss for his four sons. Inspired by Defoe, it opens in a raging storm as the family’s ship, en route for Australia, is wrecked on a tropical shore. Husband, wife and four boys use their natural knowledge and the ship’s provisions to build a comfortable life, constructing canoes, a garden and a house in a hollow tree. The original story – a guide to self-reliance – has been much adapted over the years.
Anna-Maria Julyan