(BBC) Greatest novels of the 21th Century

1212. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

What are the greatest novels of the opening years of this tumultuous century? In search of a collective critical assessment, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled several dozen book critics, including The New York Times Book Review’s Parul Sehgal, Time magazine’s book editor Lev Grossman, Newsday book editor Tom Beer, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin, C Max Magee, founder of The Millions, Booklist’s Donna Seaman, Kirkus Reviews’ Laurie Muchnick and many more. We asked each to name the best novels published in English since 1 January 2000. The critics named 156 novels in all, and based on the votes these are the top 12.

„I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974,” Eugenides writes in the opening lines of his novel. At 14, Calliope Stephanides discovers she has a rare recessive mutation that renders her a pseudo-hermaphrodite. Claiming her “male brain”, she shifts genders and becomes Cal. In often exuberant language, Eugenides layers questions of fate and free will onto Cal’s coming-of-age story and the tale of the entrepreneurial rise of his parents, Desdemona and Lefty. (They have their own genetic secret.) Ultimately Cal’s condition gives him a near mythic gift – “the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both”. Middlesex bridged the gap between critical and commercial acclaim, as well, winning a Pulitzer and selling millions of copies. (Picador)


1111. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)

Smith, then a 23-year-old prodigy, wowed the literary world with her first novel, which introduced a writer of inimitable wit and scope. White Teeth, which won Whitbread and Guardian first book awards, is set in London, where Archie Jones and Samal Iqbal, friends who met while serving in World War Two, have settled to raise their families. Smith opens as Archie, divorced by his second wife, sits in his “fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel”. He’s chosen suicide on New Year’s Day 1975, his car parked in front of a halal butcher’s shop, only to be saved by the owner. As White Teeth unfolds, it is chockablock with vivid scenes and characters, a portrait of postcolonial multicultural London: „Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks”, Smith writes. Her continuing work includes two other novels named by critics in the BBC Culture poll – NW, which ranked at number 18, and On Beauty. (Vintage)


1010. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)

In her audacious and vividly imagined second novel, Adichie drew upon her ancestral past to write about the Biafra conflict, which traumatised her country and her family for three years after the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 (her grandfather died in a refugee camp during the war). The novel is told from the perspectives of twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, a 13-year-old houseboy and Richard, a British expatriate who is in love with Kainene. Olanna’s academic boyfriend, who favours secession, is also a key character as Adichie shows the repercussions of postcolonial power struggles on individual lives. “Adichie’s novel is a tour de force, artistically and intellectually,” notes critic Walton Muyumba, author of The Shadow and the Act. “It is also a serious political novel about love in wartime.” Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah also ranked high in the poll, but missed out on a spot in the top 12 by one vote. (Anchor)


99. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)

McEwan’s haunting and beautifully crafted novel opens on a summer day in 1935, when 13-year-old Briony shows her mother a play she’s written to perform with her three young cousins the next evening. “Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the project’s highest point of fulfillment,” McEwan writes. “Nothing came near it for satisfaction, all else was dreams and frustration.” That evening, Briony witnesses her 15-year-old cousin Lola being assaulted in the darkened woods. Her testimony implicates Robbie, her sister Cecilia’s boyfriend from Cambridge and son of the family house maid, and he is jailed. In a second section, McEwan gives a panoramic account of the harrowing evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, with Robbie among those saved. Realising she has ruined Cecilia and Robbie’s lives, Briony works as a nurse during the Blitz in a third section. As McEwan follows these characters through six decades, Briony’s search for redemption evolves into a meditation on the power of art. (Anchor)


88. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)

This first novel, winner of a National Book Critics Circle award, is distinguished by its “sheer wise merriment”, notes critic Steven G Kellman. Eight rookies from the US army’s Bravo squad, fresh from a firefight with Iraqi insurgents, in which one of their fellow soldiers died and another was disabled, are dubbed war heroes by the Fox News cable channel. Their two-week stateside victory tour ends with a halftime salute at a Dallas Cowboys game. Fountain captures the excesses of Texas, American football, business and war, and gives us a memorable narrator in 19-year-old Billy Lynn, with his combination of lust, bedazzlement and post-traumatic stress disorder. “It is sort of weird,” he tells a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, “being honoured for the worst day of your life.” (Ecco)


77. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

Egan’s Proustian meditation on time, fame and music won the National Book Critics Circle and Pulitzer awards. Who’s the goon of the title? “Time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you,” she says. Egan concocts her narrative around punk rocker-turned-music producer Bennie Salazar, his sticky-fingered assistant Sasha and a circle of wannabes, has-beens and hangers-on. Colette Bancroft, book editor of The Tampa Bay Times, named Egan’s novel her top pick “not just because it is a splendidly written experiment in form that succeeds resoundingly, but because the 21st Century is its essential subject matter. Egan juxtaposes timeless literary themes, most notably the inexorable journey from youth to age, with an exploration of the ways in which a rapidly changing world reshapes the human experience. It’s a novel that is prescient, surprising, wise and simply a blast to read.” (Anchor)


66. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

Joe Kavalier, a Houdini-like escape artist, smuggles himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939 and ends up in New York City. With his Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay he invents a superhero character called the Escapist and launches the golden age of comic books. “Chabon’s capacious, propulsive and many-storied novel is exquisitely written, emotionally rich and historically and morally profound,” says Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman, who made the Pulitzer Prize winner her number-one choice. “It can also be seen as a bridge between the 20th and 21st centuries in its perspective on WWII and the birth of comic-book superheroes as a new, potent form of mass myth-making carried forward on the rising technological wave. Chabon’s novel has greatly influenced other outstanding works of 21st Century fiction. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also a timeless inquiry into our tragic proclivity for hate and war, our abiding need for stories and our persistent longing for magical powers and transcendence.” (Random House)


55. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)

Franzen’s edgy multigenerational family saga, winner of a US National Book Award, was among the first novels to capture the zeitgeist of the century’s first decade. As Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three far-flung adult children gather at the end of the 20th Century for “one last Christmas”, the father’s Parkinson’s disease progresses, and the US is on the verge of economic meltdown. “The Correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets,” writes Franzen. This “astonishing third novel – a masterpiece of voice, character, and storytelling – is both epic and intimate,” New York Times columnist Carmela Ciararu notes. “Franzen secured his place as a major American writer.” Laurie Hertzel, senior books editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune adds, “This big, sprawling, fat novel touches on some of the most important themes of the early years of this millennium – economic uncertainty, the conflicts between parents and their drifting middle-aged children and the enormous issues of an aging society past its prime. He does it with great storytelling and a lot of humour.” (Picador)


44. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)

The Rev John Ames, a small-town Iowa minister, describes his life and anti-slavery heritage to his young son in dazzling lyrical language in this first instalment of Robinson’s trilogy (along with Home and Lila).“I can’t think of a living novelist who writes more seriously and profoundly about religious faith, which has become an almost taboo topic in contemporary literature,” writes critic and author Dawn Raffel, who ranked Gilead first on her list. “Robinson is both an ‘ideas’ writer and an exquisite prose stylist, investigating the big questions within the intimate space of family and community. She is also a supremely good storyteller.” Karen R Long, former books editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer who now manages the Anisfield-Wolf book awards, adds: “This spare, multi-generational story inculcates a desire for transcendence, and makes a case for spiritual life in the 21st Century – its own kind of miracle. Gilead will be read in 100 years.” (Picador)


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3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

Mantel’s boldly reimagined saga of 16th Century Europe, told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell (with Henry VIII as a supporting character), won the Man Booker and National Book Critics Circle awards, was adapted to the stage and has been filmed as a new BBC miniseries. “The brilliance of retelling an oft-told tale is beautifully illustrated in Mantel’s flawless examination of power through the rise of Thomas Cromwell,” notes critic Karen R Long. Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times book editor and co-host of Well Read TV, writes: “I have never felt so completely catapulted into a character’s mind, not to mention a long ago and far away place.” Mantel’s sequel, Bring in the Bodies, also gathered votes. (Picador)


22. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003)

Set in 1855 on the plantation of Henry Townsend – born a slave, now a slave-owner – The Known World is a triumph of empathy, immersing readers in a complex moral time without making simple judgments. Facing an early death, Townsend ponders the future of his 50-acre Virginia plantation and the slaves he treats the way his former owner, now his mentor, taught him. “In my reading, The Known World is the best American novel published in the 21st Century – a stunning work about humans experiencing and surviving American slavery,” notes critic Walton Muyumba, author of The Shadow and the Act. C Max Magee, founder and editor of The Millions writes, “Jones’s novel has an epic, complex sweep and takes an unflinching and engrossing view of America’s messy history.” (Amistad)


11. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

The winner in this BBC Culture critics’ poll is Junot Diaz’s first novel, about New Jersey ghetto-nerd Oscar, who dreams of being the Dominican-American Tolkien and finding love. It also was named as the number-one book by the most critics. “It is a big deal for me to fall in love with a book when its DNA is science fiction, fantasy and testosterone,” says Elizabeth Taylor, The Chicago Tribune’s literary editor-at-large. “This was only the second book by a Latino author to receive the Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” notes critic and author Rigoberto Gonzalez. “Oscar Wao reaffirmed the strong connections Latinos maintain with their ancestral homeland’s culture, language and history. It also re-energised these questions: Who is American? What is the American experience?” Critic and playwright Gregg Barrios concurs, “Díaz’s deft mash-up of Dominican history, comics, sci-fi, magic realism and footnotes totally rocks. Nerdy Oscar and the book’s macho narrator Yunior resonate as authentically as Roth’s Portnoy, Updike’s Rabbit, Bellow’s Augie or Toole’s Ignatius.” (Riverhead)


The runners-up

*Editor’s Note 21 January 2015: In light of overwhelming interest from our readers, we have decided to unveil the rest of the top 20, as selected in our critics poll.*

13. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
14. WG Sebald, Austerlitz
15. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
16. Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
17. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
18. Zadie Smith, NW
19. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
20. Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire

Sursa. BBC

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