Here we go. The last novels not to make the top ten. Will Ian McEwan's Saturday take the top spot (no. it's shit)? Will there be an absence of novels that I haven't read? (Yes, I can see them from here). But will this at least give you an opportiunity to think: I haven't seen that on one of the five billion end of decade lists? (I hope so).
20. Wash This Blood Clean from my Hands – Fred Vargas (2007)
About five months before this book was published, I discovered Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series of crime novels. I was hooked on them, hooked by their sense of ennui as much as their plotting. It made me look for novels outside of my usual genre, made me think that though I enjoyed crime fiction, it wasn’t just a sort of guilty pleasure: something that when done right is palatable. I now read a lot of crime, some of it (Ian Rankin’s Exit Music and The Naming of the Dead, James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown to name just two authors who could easily have featured on this list) could easily have featured on this list, but not one crime novel has had the same effect on me as this one, the first Fred Vargas novel I read.
It’s hard to describe just why this is such a special book. Yes, there is an element of the great cop dramas, yes there is the oddness of Twin Peaks, yes there are great characters; but explaining how she gets the atmosphere and the erudition into her works seemingly by stealth is so much more difficult. You read this book breathless, both in readerly appreciation of the plot and pacing, but also in thrall to the sense of place and strangeness that Vargas places on her scenes.
Oh and while we’re at it, Sian Reynolds should also be congratulated for consistently creating translations that read like no such thing. They are awesome, as is Ms Vargas. If you've never read her, you are missing out on one of the great joys of literary life.
19. My Revolutions – Hari Kunzu (2007)
One of the problems about having a monster advance for your debut novel is that it’s easy to poison readers against you even before you've had a book out. With Hari Kunzru it was different. I wanted to like his stuff (I’d heard him on the radio and on the TV and he seemed intelligent and enthusiastic about books) but for some reason I couldn’t engage with his novels: My Revolutions changed all that.
Kunzru’s book has ambition, it has grace and it has fervent understanding of the differences between a nation twenty years ago and the nation it is now. Of all the novels on this list, this is the one that I would say encapsulates some of the pressing issues of the last thirty years (ultra leftist movements, Thatcher, New Labour) and makes superlative fiction of it. A novel that had its plaudits, but not at the level this excellent book deserves. Deserves to be studied and looked at as living piece of fiction and as a piece of art.
18. The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster (2002)
The New York Trilogy is one of my all time favourite books. The Music of Chance is also a winner. I really ummed and ahhed over this one, as The Brooklyn Follies is also a joy. In the end though, this was the book that reminded me that Auster was worth reading after the let down of Timbuktu. And that took some doing.
The Book of Illusions has all the tropes you’d expect from Auster: authorial tricks, that sly, laconic way of writing he has, fate intervening in the most unexpected place, but it also has a warmth that some of his other novels have lacked. My best friend said about Auster’s most recent novel (Invisible, and another worth reading book) he’s the most easy to read difficult author there is. Well said, Mr Oliver Shepherd.
17. The Ministry of Special Cases – Nathan Englander (2007)
For a while in 1999, I was obsessed by Nathan Englander’s debut story collection, For The Relief of Unbearable Urges. And then, like Junot Diaz, he just disappeared. This book came out some eight years after the stories and about twenty pages in I was disappointed. I expected fireworks, something explosive. What I got was smaller scale, at least initially, and I wasn’t hooked enough to plough on. I gave it ten more pages. Then ten more, and ten more again, and then I was so engrossed – in the plot, in the characters, in the prose – that I just kept on with it. I still remember the feeling of loss when it ended.
The Ministry of Special Cases is one of those rare books that tells you about a period of history that you are not perhaps familiar with, but makes you eager to know more. It is an astonishing achievement.
16. Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (2002)
Flanagan is somewhat hide-bound by the fact that it’s hard to know what you’re going to get from him. This isn’t a criticism of him, more it’s a criticism of how we like to pigeon-hole writers. All of his books, especially The Sound of One Hand Clapping, are worth reading; but nothing quite matches this stunning, intoxicating book.
Historically charged, ludic and visceral, Gould’s Book of Fish is a novel of savage beauty – much like the nascent Australia that inspires much of the book. Few novels burn with such passion and spit and ire, and still fewer convince in the interior and exterior worlds we create for each other and ourselves. Gould’s Book of Fish does things of which other novels simply couldn’t conceive.
15. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (2002)
Waters is technically the best British writer we have. I don’t know anyone who writes such sentences, such scenes, draws such memorable characters. In Fingersmith she often astonishes with a detail, with a plot shift, with a telling piece of dialogue – and still she manages to make her books compulsive page turners. The problem, if there is one, is for the reader trying to slow down to enjoy the richness of the sentences without jumping ahead to see what happens. I still smile thinking of the moments I reached the end of a section, only to realise within a few pages of the next section that I wasn’t privy to the whole facts. Simply brilliant.
14. That They May Face the Rising Sun – John McGahern (2002)
People seem to have forgotten about this book, but personally it was a novel that opened me up to a different kind of writing. I am a city person, always will be, and there’s nothing more likely to put me off a book than a blurb talking about the countryside, isolated communities or the pastoral life. This book changed my opinion. I was rapt, by the conversations, the easy simplicity of the prose, by the yearning of it all.
Depicting a year in the life of a small Irish community, That They May Face the Rising Sun is as full of life as any city novel and as perceptive as any novel published in the first years of this century. The Barracks and Amongst Women may be better known, but this is the novel that I think shows McGahern’s greatest gifts.
13. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2000)
Almost ten years after reading this book I can still see the panels it sketched in my mind. At the World’s Fair, the submarines, the creative processes. Chabon’s best book should have been The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but somehow that misfired despite its great potential. There are no such misfirings in Kavalier and Clay. It – along with several other books – showed the literary establishment that story would be dominant over the next decade; and that beautiful writing – and Kavalier and Clay certainly has that – didn’t need to be beautiful for its own sale.
12. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen (2001)
For all its grasping at the nettle of greatness, for all its earmuffs, gloves and blindfolds, The Corrections was only really a partial success. But – and this is the point – Franzen’s novel fizzed with a sort of fuck-you ambition, with a zeal which said “I can do this.” And Franzen certainly could. The section of the novel on the cruise ship is probably the single best piece of writing this decade. The badgering of Gary Lambert to admit that he is depressed is something I return to often. Franzen went for it and stretched the novel in the new millennium, but the odd bum notes (the eastern European segments and those at that vegetarian restaurant thing) just edged it out of my top ten. Perhaps on another day it would have snuck in. But not today.
11. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)
A book so celebrated it doesn’t take me to expound upon why it matters. All I’ll say about it is the moment when they find the underground bunker I wept like a baby; wept because of the simple beauty of McCarthy’s description of the cans of food and the beds, but also because you knew such happiness was fleeting. It is of course a modern classic. But, like The Corrections, it didn’t quite make it into the top ten. It makes the top ten interesting at least...