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21st Century Classics: Fiction

Posted on 23rd January 2020 by Mark Skinner

From Zadie Smith to Bernardine Evaristo, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have produced some stellar fictional offerings. In this blog, we pluck one title from each year of the century so far to make up an ideal reading list of the modern novel. Obviously there is so much that we have had to leave out, from Maggie O'Farrell to Ali Smith and Ian McEwan to Julian Barnes, but we hope that, taken together, they form a snapshot of the literary landscape over the past two decades.    

2000

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A groundbreaking novel of a vibrant multicultural London across three generations, Smith’s blistering debut is a glorious, rambling epic that tackles big, contentious themes with a lightness of touch and freewheeling self-assurance. Witty, moving and wise; all human life is in White Teeth.
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2001

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A true twenty-first century masterpiece, Sebald’s elegiac marvel recounts the odyssey of Jacques Austerlitz to rebuild the identity wrenched away from him by his Welsh foster parents after he arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport. Structured with breath-taking originality and understated power, Austerlitz is a melancholic gem that, once read, is never forgotten.
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2002

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Sprawling, big-hearted and rambunctious, Middlesex traces the vagaries of the American Dream through an intersex individual and their quixotic extended family. Bending the traditional bildungsroman to his mercurial will, Eugenides crafts a rich, effusive novel that retains its relevance over fifteen years after its original publication.
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2003

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The book that sparked the literary phenomenon of the generational crossover novel, Haddon’s unique mystery novel utilises the tropes of the whodunit to explore mental health and psychological disorders in an accessible and immediately relatable way. Beloved by both children and adults alike, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has entered the fabric of British cultural life.
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2004

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A perfectly poised Rubik’s Cube of a novel that explodes ideas of what the form can achieve, Cloud Atlas travels through a buccaneering past and a chill dystopian future to interweave six fragmentary but eminently credible narratives into a stunningly realised whole.
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2005

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Both an utterly unique exercise in dystopian fiction and a powerful portrayal of friendship at its most intimate, Never Let Me Go follows three students at the woozily pleasant Hailsham School as their preordained futures begin to unfold.
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2006

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Set against the brutal backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War, Adichie’s soaring epic entwines three deftly drawn characters in a web of faded colonialism, racial antagonism and vexed romance. Conjuring a richly evocative image of a complex, violent West Africa, Half of a Yellow Sun is a magnificently accomplished and emotionally engaging novel.
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2007

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Diaz’s energetic picaresque is a heady brew of magic realism, pop-culture references and frenetic Spanglish, as the titular Dominican child battles both the big, bad world and an ancient fuku curse. Freewheeling, dynamic and thoroughly immersive, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao stands as a classic of contemporary fiction.
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2008

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A fiercely compassionate and empathetic meditation on the contradictory impulses of the human soul, Olive Kitteridge set a new benchmark for emotional realism in twenty-first century fiction. In the eponymous Maine matriarch, Strout invented one of the most psychologically complete protagonists of recent times, whose spirit and vitality continue to hold readers spellbound.
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2009

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The first, intricately rendered installment of Hilary Mantel’s all-conquering Thomas Cromwell trilogy rejoices in matchless prose and vivid period recreation, lending the compelling plot of Tudor skullduggery and ambition a thrillingly immediate air.
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2010

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Nobody writes about the American family with such mercilessly penetrating insight as Franzen and this big, bold novel releases a set of sometimes believable, sometimes grotesque – but always memorable – characters into a work of high concepts and low morals. A hugely entertaining treatise on the disputed nature of freedom, this is a stylistic tour de force and Franzen at his grandstanding best.
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2011

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The opening novel of Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend charts two best friends’ journey into adulthood in post-war Italy with great emotional depth and luminous storytelling.
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2012

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Artfully employing misdirection, unreliable narrators and jaw-dropping twists, Flynn’s third novel is a bravura white-knuckle ride into the heart of millennial darkness.
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2013

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A profound meditation on loss and belonging that doubles as a compelling psychological thriller, Tartt’s monolithic bildungsroman shimmers with insight and incident on every page. From urban metropolis to parched desert and dusty antiques store to Manhattan high society, The Goldfinch is an endlessly enjoyable novel that speaks eloquently to our times.
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2014

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One of the towering achievements of twenty-first century literature, All the Light We Cannot See paints a transcendent picture of love and companionship during the Nazi occupation of France. Through luminous prose and dextrous characterisation, Doerr crafts a modern epic and a sublime story for the ages.
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2015

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Focusing on a quartet of graduates as they embrace the seemingly limitless possibilities of New York City futures, A Little Life descends into a dark and involving tale of toxic relationships and the vicious scars of childhood.
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2016

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An enthralling novel about the titular boxcar system that transported fugitive slaves across nineteenth-century America, The Underground Railroad is bursting with power, anger and excitement. A pulsating story of resilience and the desperate urge for freedom, this is an electrifying novel that stands comparison with the very finest of the century so far.
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2017

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A former Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Shamsie’s haunting reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone is a commanding novel of passionate love, fanatical loyalty and conflicted identity. Interweaving public affairs with those of the heart, Home Fire is a devastating critique of family and identity, and how the two often inform each other in dark and unknowable ways.
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2018

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Capturing the zeitgeist with all the skill and subtlety of her debut, Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s Normal People is both a study of how one person can irrevocably shape another, and a profound examination of love, power and influence.
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2019

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Tracking the lives and loves of a dozen British women through generations and social classes, Girl, Woman, Other weaves a distinctive, illuminating tapestry of modern British life.
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Comments

Anna Kempster

I love a list! Good to check if how many I've read & get some new ideas for my TBR. Going to start with White Teeth. View more

Anna Kempster
28th January 2020
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Francis Pigott

Interesting selection but perhaps one title per year is too limiting. I was disappointed not to see any Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Jesse Burton or Rachel Cusk make the grade. I suppose we all seek some kind of vindication for our own tastes by mapping our own preferences onto these Best of... lists! View more

Francis Pigott
27th January 2020
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Elizabeth

Really good to see some much-loved titles here, and to have new suggestions....but what criteria were used? I was amazed not to see Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson or Ian McEwan, amongst others! View more

Elizabeth
27th January 2020
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Tim Bartlett

I agree with the comments: lists of recommendations are *always* stimulating, but we need to know how they are arrived at, please. View more

Tim Bartlett
27th January 2020
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Dumfries

Although I have read some of the books on the list, I did wonder what the criteria were. How do you choose?
My particular favourite in that twenty years is Zufon's series "The Cemetery of forgotten books". All 4 volumes were published in this period but not one makes it onto the list. We all have different tastes. View more

Dumfries
26th January 2020
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Sue

Cemetery of forgotten books favourite of mine too

Sue
26th January 2020
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llolipop975

These have been some of my favourite books. I’m always sad at finishing one that I’ll never have the pleasure of reading it again for the first time. Should definitely be on this list!

llolipop975
2nd February 2020
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Jeni Ross

No Ali Smith? No Julian Barnes either - "The Noise of Time" is a gem. View more

Jeni Ross
26th January 2020
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Mary MacDonnell

Or are these the titles Waterstones still have loads to shift?
Hello any Scandi -noir, surely one of the most significant breakthroughs in the last 10 years? View more

Mary MacDonnell
26th January 2020
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Mary Barnes

What, no Colm Toibin! View more

Mary Barnes
26th January 2020
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