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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.”