10. Unless – Carol Shields (2002)
By rights, Unless is a book I should intensely dislike. It features a middle aged writer, for a start, it is primly first person present tense, and includes a daughter who drops out from society. But Carol Shields, like Philip Roth, has a way of looking anew at such hackneyed, care-worn concerns.
Unless is a story of loss, of grief and of endings and beginnings. The prose is always subtle, cleverly nuanced and can knock you out with the merest flicker. Just on the first page, the husband of the central character is described as “losing his hair nicely”. It tells you everything you need to know about the two characters in four words; and everything about Shields as a writer.
If any writer has taken the mantle of Jane Austen and spun it into a modern context, it is Shields. She takes the mordant, ironic eye of Austen and twists it into something all of her own. In Unless she adds a dark, cancer-black seam of humour that Austen, I feel sure, would have admired. It is a novel of passion and ideas, of humanity and scotched hope. It’s also one of the best books you’re ever likely to read.
9. The Time of Our Singing – Richard Powers (2003)
Richard Powers has defeated me so many times with his novels that though I was excited about The Time of Our Singing, I did worry that this was going to be another book of his that I admired without loving and once again didn’t finish. I needn’t have bothered worrying. This is just awesome stuff, truly spellbinding in every way. There’s a famous quote about writing about music being like dancing about architecture, which is made to look like sagging bollocks when you read about the music you can’t hear in The Time of Our Singing.
The premise is awkward when spelled out on the page. A German-Jewish man meets a black American woman, they fall in love and have a pair of twins. The twins become famous musicians, bringing ancient music back to modern ears. But though this all sounds somewhat absurd, Powers brings it fulsomely to life, each character real, full-blooded and unique. And though you are never too far away from Powers’ admirable intellect, his learning is always lightly sprinkled and interestingly divulged.
The end of The Time of Our Singing is probably my most favourite ending in contemporary fiction. Unexpected, emotionally side-swiping and somehow plausible, it brings to a close a novel that has the perfect pitch of Ella Fitzgerald, matched to the literary finesse of Scott Fitzgerald.
8. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugendies (2002)
When I reached the end of Middlesex, I wanted to give it and its author a round of applause. It seemed that kind of novel; a book that was larger than life, in the way that life has a nasty habit of being. It remains a novel of realised ambition, fully the book that it wants to be and fully realising its potential. I can still recall the scenes during the New Jersey riots and feeling as though parachuted into that warzone.
Cal is a character it is hard to forget, not just because of their intersexed personality, but because Eugenedies imbues him/her with such life and energy it’s a genuine wrench to leave him/her at the end of the book. As a marriage of zestful prose, sparkling plot and stunning characterisation it’s very hard to beat.
7. Remainder – Tom McCarthy (2006)
The only thing that eventually came of my first and unpublished novel, The Safety of Sunday, was an introduction to Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. An agent was interested in the book and we met at his private members’ club in Soho. He was very excited about the novel (he would later revise this opinion and quite rightly; my book was a sack of shit. Better than Ian McEwan’s Saturday, but that’s another story) and Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr were on the next table. I thought fame and fortune beckoned. The agent told me the story of Remainder’s checkered publication history and I was sent a copy. It was like opening a door of a humid house and an arctic blast coming through. This, I realised, was the future of British fiction.
Remainder is special because it understands that being avant-garde doesn’t mean you have to be an ass. My reaction to it was visceral: I could smell the oil at the garage, the liver frying in the frying pan, the sweat in the shirt of the fixer who believes in the project as much as the narrator. It is a novel of astonishing sensory intuition and a book that grips you both with its intelligence and its plotting. Writers like Tom McCarthy are the future: they understand the modern world in a way the likes of Amis and McEwan never could. And this is the book that set the benchmark, the line in the sand. If I was setting a course on the modern novel, this would be one of the first set texts.
6. Night Watch – Sarah Waters (2006)
For me Sarah Waters is the novelist of the decade. I simply couldn’t not exclude either of her two novels on this list; it wouldn’t have been right. So here we are, Sarah Waters: the finest writer of the new millennium.
The Night Watch is, I think, Waters’ masterpiece. Taking the home front of the Second World War and making it her own is no mean feat, but to write with such empathy and understanding about such a diverse range of characters is just astonishing, frankly. The roll of the nylons, the smell of cabbage, the black-out screens, this is an engulfing experience and one that ruins other novels set at the same time. No one has conjured up that world so completely and with such exactitude. Structurally impressive and written with deft grace, The Night Watch is a book that only Sarah Waters could write.