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

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