A group of American critics have named Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a take on the life of an overweight Dominican-American nerd, as the best novel of the 21st century to date.
BBC Culture, the arts section of the international BBC site, polled several dozen US critics to find the greatest novels written so far this century, with 156 novels in all named by experts from papers including the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.
Since book lists are all the rage at the moment, we thought we’d share the full dozen with you. How many have you read?
by Jeffrey Eugenides
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974?My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license records my first name simply as Cal.’ So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family …
11. White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
One of the most talked about fictional debuts of recent years, White Teeth is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing – among many other things – with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book.
10. Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In 1960s Nigeria, Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, goes to work for Odenigbo, a radical university professor. Soon they are joined by Olanna, a young woman who has abandoned a life of privilege to live with her charismatic lover. Into their world comes Richard, an English writer, who has fallen for Olanna’s sharp-tongued sister Kainene.But when the shocking horror of civil war engulfs the nation, their loves and loyalties are severely tested, while their lives pull apart and collide once again in ways none of them could have imagined …
‘There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go’
On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.
By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone …
8. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
by Ben Fountain
Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from war. Back in Texas, he has become a national celebrity. A Fox News crew filmed Billy and the rest of Bravo squad defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Billy is a decorated soldier and Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery under fire are a YouTube sensation.
Seizing on this PR gift, The Bush administration has sent the surviving members of Bravo on a nationwide ‘Victory Tour’ to reassure the homeland …
7. A Visit from the Good Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s spelling binding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters …
6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay’s cramped New York bedroom, his nerve-racking escape from Prague finally achieved. Little does he realise that this is the beginning of an extraordinary friendship …
5. The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen
The Lamberts – Enid and Alfred and their three grown-up children – are a troubled family living in a troubled age. Alfred is ill and as his condition worsens the whole family must face the failures, secrets and long-buried hurts that haunt them if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs …
by Marilynne Robinson
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’ life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.
‘It is a book of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity that is seems miraculous that her silence was only for 23 years; such measure of wisdom is the fruit of a lifetime. Robinson’s prose, aligned with the sublime simplicity of the language of the bible, is nothing short of a benediction …
3. Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantell
Go backstage during the most dramatic period in English history: the reign of Henry VIII.
England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor …
2. The Known World
by Edward P Jones
Masterful, Pulitzer-prize winning literary epic about the painful and complex realities of slave life on a Southern plantation. Henry Townsend, a black farmer, boot maker, and former slave, becomes proprietor of his own plantation – as well as his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another ….
1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
Things have never been easy for Oscar. A ghetto nerd living with his Dominican family in New Jersey, he’s sweet but disastrously overweight. He dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien and he keeps falling hopelessly in love.
Poor Oscar may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fuku – the curse that has haunted his family for generations
With dazzling energy and insight Diaz immerses us in the tumultuous lives of Oscar; his runaway sister Lola; their beautiful mother Belicia; and in the family’s uproarious journey from the Dominican Republic to the US and back.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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