From 'Eleanor Oliphant' to 'The Underground Railroad': our pick of the 20 best novels of the decade
Trying to identify the 20 best novels published in the past 10 years is a fool's errand. One thing is certain: nobody is going to be entirely happy with the final list. Not even I am, really. There are so many wonderful, challenging novels that just missed out. It was particularly difficult to drop Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) and Zadie Smith's NW (2012). Capital (2012) by John Lanchester and The Argonauts (2015) by Maggie Nelson could very easily have slotted into the list, too.
But I hope this list offers a broad overview of this decade's literary landscape. It includes writers from around the world, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, as well as India, the UK and the US. There is also a range of styles – Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012) could never be described as literary fiction but it deserves its place on the list for the impact it had on popular culture. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies (2012) is historical fiction; Ben Lerner's 10:04 (2014) is determinedly contemporary.
Let's hope the next decade produces a similar glut of literary delights.
'Throwing Sparks' (2010) by Abdo Khal
This gruelling, gruesome novel from Saudi Arabian writer Abdo Khal is set in Jeddah in the 1980s, where a local man called Tariq goes to work for “the Master”, a shady, sadistic millionaire, who has built a vast palace on the waterfront. Tariq’s job is to sexually assault the Master’s enemies and to record these assaults on camera.
The violence of Throwing Sparks, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is not designed to excite, however. Instead, as Sholto Byrnes wrote in a review for this newspaper, it is here “to warn against the distortion of values and the hunger for new pleasures that can follow extreme wealth”. Approach with caution, yes, but expect to come out on the other side moved, confused and exhilarated.
'My Brilliant Friend' (2011) by Elena Ferrante
The first part of Elena Ferrante’s gorgeous Neapolitan quartet traces the early life of Elena and Lila, two precocious girls living with their families on the outskirts of Naples in the mid-20th century. This coming-of-age novel sees the girls oscillate in and out of each other’s orbit as they attempt to make their way in the world, hindered by poverty and the expectations of their claustrophobic families.
'Bring up the Bodies' (2012) by Hilary Mantel
In this sequel to Wolf Hall (2009), Hilary Mantel continues to piece together the story of Thomas Cromwell, powerful minister in the court of King Henry VIII. The ruthless schemer plans to bring down the queen, Anne Boleyn, by circulating rumours of her adultery, in order to allow the King to marry Jane Seymour. Blood, lust and scandal in the royal court – Bring Up the Bodies, which won the Booker Prize, is every bit as inventive and brilliant as Wolf Hall.
'Gone Girl' (2012) by Gillian Flynn
A jet-black thriller that surely sparked more water-cooler conversations than any other book this decade. Gillian Flynn’s novel hinges on the disappearance of Amy. Her husband Nick immediately falls under suspicion but, inevitably, there is a twist that leaves your jaw superglued to the floor. David Fincher’s 2014 film, starring Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, cemented Gone Girl’s place in the collective consciousness.
'The Bamboo Stalk' (2012) by Saud Alsanousi
A teenager called Jose (the child of a Filipino maid and a Kuwaiti aristocrat) leaves his life of poverty in the Philippines for the supposed riches of Kuwait in this fast-paced novel, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Bamboo Stalk, Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi’s third novel, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright, fearlessly delves into the world of migrant labourers in the Gulf, forcing the reader to look into the eyes of this oft-forgotten community. Jose, who was brought up a Christian but becomes intrigued by Islam, struggles to discover his true identity. This is, as one critic wrote, “a melancholy portrayal of a man who compares himself to a bamboo plant wrenched from its soil, ‘with no past, no memory’.”
'Americanah' (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze, teenagers together at a school in Lagos, go on to lead wildly different lives: Ifemelu as a writer in the US; Obinze as a property developer in Lagos, via a spell as an undocumented immigrant in London. Years later, the pair attempt to revive their relationship. Race is central to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s astounding third novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, but it delves into gender, history and politics, too. At its heart, though, are two unforgettable, flawed characters who represent our dreams and disappointments.
'Frankenstein in Baghdad' (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, reimagines Mary Shelley’s classic tale in the lawlessness of the Iraqi capital in 2005. When a junk-dealer called Hadi finds a nose on the street, he returns to his shed and adds the final part to “the body of a naked man” he has created from body parts of those killed in explosions. When the soul of another dead man enters the body in Hadi’s shed, fury is unleashed upon the city. Saadawi has stated that his monster “is a condensed symbol of Iraq’s current problems”. At one point, we are told: “There are no innocents who are completely innocent, and no criminals who are completely criminal […] every criminal he had killed was also a victim.” A tremendous, terrifying slice of horror in the Middle East.
'A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing' (2014) by Eimear McBride
Few debut novels published in the past decade have had as much of an impact as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. It is immensely challenging – a stream of consciousness splurge with unusual punctuation and wilfully obscure spelling – but this tale of an Irish girl’s relationship with her disabled brother and her coming-of-age struggles is worth every ounce of effort. Intense and troubling but utterly life-affirming, too.
'Outline' (2014) by Rachel Cusk
The first novel in a strange, airy trilogy, Outline is narrated by a female author who has travelled to Athens to teach a writing course. We learn very little about this woman, eventually referred to as Faye. Instead, we watch how people, particularly men, respond to her. It
constantly feels as if something awful is about to happen, which lends an uneasy frisson to this essentially plotless novel. Ultimately, however, it is simply a lyrical, devastating exploration of relationships and why they fail.
'How to Be Both' (2014) by Ali Smith
Two editions of this beautiful novel were published at the same time, one opening with George’s story, the other with Francesco’s. So depending on which edition you read, your experience will be different. That said, it doesn’t really matter, since both tales are full of all the joy and pain that can be squeezed into a single life. George is a 16-year-old girl coming to terms with the death of her mother and trying to protect the fragile men in her life. Francesco is an Italian Renaissance painter, famous for a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, but forced to conceal her gender. In the hands of Ali Smith, these seemingly disparate lives are ingeniously woven together. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (what an outrage that it didn’t win!), How to Be Both redefined what a novel could be.
'10:04' (2014) by Ben Lerner
This glorious piece of autofiction is narrated by a 33-yearold writer in New York, who is attempting to finish his second novel, for which he has received a huge advance, when he is diagnosed with a rare heart condition. Ostensibly a novel about writing a novel, 10:04 transforms into a touching, often very funny, exploration of art, technology, love and the impending threat of global warming. It is a great mess of ideas held together by Lerner’s playful prose and it will leave you breathless.
'The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol' (2015) by Elias Khoury
Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury matches the achievements of his 1998 triumph, Gate of the Sun, with this study of violence and its repercussions in Beirut. The novel opens with a doctor called Karim leaving the city on the morning after his 40th birthday, in order to return to his French wife and their two children. Slowly we start to discover why he came back to Beirut in the first place, a decision “to re-open […] old accounts and recover the shadows of that past”. Many of the tropes of Khoury’s previous novels – the disorientating power of memory, an unreliable narrator, the civil war – are here, but there is something about Karim’s inability to process his frustration with (and love for) Lebanon that makes The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol unforgettable.
'The Underground Railroad' (2016) by Colson Whitehead
Cora and Caesar, two slaves in 19th century America, escape their Georgia plantation via the underground railroad, a network of abolitionists that help slaves leave the Deep South. But Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, takes this idea of an underground railroad and makes it fantastical: there are real trains, which the pair hop on and off, as they are pursued by bounty hunters across Tennessee, Indiana and out West. “The steel ran south and north presumably,” writes Whitehead, “springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.” The author uses this conceit to redefine the way we look at race relations, both historically and today, in the US.
'The Power' (2016) by Naomi Alderman
In Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary science fiction novel, women hold the power – quite literally. They are able to hurt, and sometimes kill, people by emitting electrical jolts from their fingertips. News of this phenomenon quickly spreads and men start to fear for their safety – and attempt to reassert themselves – as formerly oppressed women take back control one electric shock at a time. Described by one critic as “our era’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, The Power has established itself as the literary antidote to Trump-era chauvinism.
'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' (2017) by Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s sprawling second novel, which arrived 20 years after The God of Small Things, pokes around in the darkest corners of modern Indian history, including the 2002 train burning in Godhra and subsequent Gujarat riots, land reform and the conflict in Kashmir. But what actually sticks is Roy’s unshakeable faith in the basic decency of people. Kindness and generosity, encapsulated by Anjum, a Muslim and a hijra, who runs a guesthouse in a Delhi graveyard for the outcast, radiates off the page. It is, an one reviewer put it, “the novel one hoped Arundhati Roy would write about India”.
'Ghachar Ghochar' (2017) by Vivek Shanbhag
The action, if that is the right word, takes place in an old coffee shop in Bangalore, where an unnamed narrator strikes up a conversation with a well-dressed waiter called Vincent. Over the course of just 124 pages, translated from Kannada into English by Srinath Perur, we learn about the man’s childhood, overbearing family, unexpected wealth and relationship with a young feminist called Chitra. Vivek Shanbhag, an acclaimed author in India, takes a microscope to the smallest details of the narrator’s life and reveals universal truths. This is a puzzle of a novel that begins in the most mundane fashion but morphs into something grand and unsettling.
'Lincoln in the Bardo' (2017) by George Saunders
George Saunders won the Booker Prize for this highly ambitious, stylistically experimental novel about grief and regret. When Abraham Lincoln visits the local cemetery to say goodbye to his dead son for the final time, we meet a rich and varied cast of ghosts, many of whom are unwilling to accept their fate. Saunders’s ability to write from so many different perspectives – the novel is presented like a script – is a lesson in how to convey empathy for characters we might not recognise, understand, or even like.
'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' (2017) by Gail Honeyman
This profoundly joyful novel follows Eleanor Oliphant, a slightly strange finance clerk in Glasgow, who has no friends, is prone to saying the wrong things, drinks too much and carries her lunch around in a plastic bag. As more details are revealed about Eleanor’s life, however, we begin to understand and root for her.
Gail Honeyman, who was in her 40s when this debut novel was published, has discovered a startlingly original voice with Eleanor Oliphant. She explores loneliness and all the complications of “fitting in” with deft humour and dollops of emotion.
'Asymmetry' (2018) by Lisa Halliday
A thrilling debut novel about a young editor in New York called Alice, who has an affair with a much older writer, Ezra, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the late novelist Philip Roth. All of modern life is here, as Lisa Halliday prods us into thinking about immigration, art, literature and, most fundamentally of all, human relationships. The New Yorker described Asymmetry as “a literary phenomenon”, which seems about right.
'The Water Dancer' (2019) by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Celebrated for his stinging essays on white supremacy, as well as his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has now written a novel of such power and grace, it will likely shape the conversation about race in the US for many years to come. Hiram Walker is a slave, who works on a plantation in 19th century Virginia. He has the ability to travel through time and space, however, a gift triggered by memories of his mother, who was sold by her master when Hiram was a child. When he escapes the plantation, Hiram becomes involved in a powerful abolitionist network. An extraordinary look at the legacy of slavery.
Updated: December 8, 2019 12:39 PM