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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.