It’s the season of lists, and if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I’ve confined myself to novels written, or made available in English, after 1950.
1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The joyous masterpiece that broke open literature. Full of colour, riotous humour, vivid characters, and the sheer richness of Garcia Marquez’s invented land, Macondo. I read it while living in Colombia – or Locombia as some called it – and soon realised that the so-called magical realism was just reality for Colombians.
2. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
A violent epic whose true subject is language. The story – a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on a scalping mission in the American Southwest – is secondary to McCarthy’s extraordinary sentences and visceral imagery. A book steeped in blood.
3. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado
A superb novel by a Brazilian master about a beautiful, innocent girl thrust into a society on the cusp of modernity. Perhaps Gabriela is Brazil itself. Like Garcia Marquez with Colombia, Amado renders the northeast of his country so real, so tangible, so full of sound and smell and taste that you almost touch it as you read.
4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A brilliant depiction of the effects of colonisation on traditional tribal ways. The sheer inevitability of Okonkwo’s downfall – the irresistible shrinking of a man who was once a giant – gives this the force of Shakespearean tragedy.
5. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
“Trust me. I’m telling you stories.” A slip of a novel, but a pleasure from its first sentence to its last. Magical realism combined with humour and pathos and a beautifully imagined Napoleon gorging on chicken legs while the world goes to hell.
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
A harrowing work about the the cruelties and devastations of slavery. From its opening lines – “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” – the book grips you and burns into your mind through its unforgettable scenes: Sethe taking a saw to her own child; a poltergeist reveling in havoc; slaves escaping through a storm that washes away their bars. A work for the ages.
7. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
An exhilarating saga with a lovable lump called Quoyle at its raging, wind-battered heart. Proulx conjures up a Newfoundland community every bit as vivid and bizarre as Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, and in the process re-invents the English language. And if anyone ever tells you, young novelist, not to write about the weather, open up a page – any page – of The Shipping News.
8. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
I read this novel while living in Cairo. As I wandered around the city, the book seemed to come alive: the sleepy barbershops, the bakeries, the rickety tenements, even fat Uncle Kamil swatting flies in his half-sleep. Not as famous as the Cairo Trilogy that made Mahfouz’s name abroad, Midaq Alley was my first taste of the Egyptian master’s work, and an unforgettable one.
9. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
A brilliant dissection of loss. Like Things Fall Apart, Disgrace tracks the dissolution of a once-impervious man. A distant heir of Beckett’s antiheroes, the main character is gradually divested of all that was his identity: job, reputation, taste, habits. He becomes Lear-like – ‘unaccommodated man’ – as the tale both portrays and transcends post-apartheid South Africa.
10. The Magus by John Fowles
A novel full of riddles. The hero, a young Englishman languishing on a Greek island, stumbles into a world of masques, pageants, identical twins, and re-enactments of Greek myths, all choreographed by a mysterious overlord/tycoon. Fowles’s metaphysical potboiler is utterly gripping. And the scene set in Finland’s wilderness is probably the most haunting thing I’ve read.