The best twenty-first century novels are hard to define, but we’ve given it a good go below.
One of the most striking aspects of the century is the rapid development of technology and twenty-first century fiction writers can’t avoid it as a major characteristic of their time, which accounts for science fiction being lifted out of the genre category to the literary, thus the books of some of the best literary writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood presenting as science fiction writers although not in the sense that writers like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury do.
Cultural pluralism is a strong theme in twenty-first century novels, and one of the most acclaimed twenty-first century novels, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, is almost definitive of that. Although fiction writers have always questioned conventions and norms taken as absolute and set in granite, twenty-first century novelists are overturning those norms and conventions on a level of questioning that is positively Shakespearean. Sitting like a cloak over all that is a mantel made up of health, environmental and global issues.
Here are ten of the best twenty-first century novels, order by date of publication:
White Teeth, 2000, by Zadie Smith
White Teeth is an exploration of Britain’s relationship with immigrants from previous colonies. It is an extremely accessible narrative concerning three generations of three families of different cultures, going back to the wartime friendship of two men – a Bangladeshi and an Englishman. It throws light on the way the past affects the present and tells an optimistic, life-affirming story that includes a huge cast, Dickensian in its scope and comedy. It is one of the most acclaimed British books of the twenty-first century with an impressive collection of awards.
Atonement, 2001, by Ian McKewan
Atonement is generally regarded as British author McEwan’s best work. Its protagonist is a female fiction writer who, at an advanced age, recounts a childhood mistake that resulted in several lives being ruined. That mistake has affected her own life and she has lived in its shadow throughout a long life that includes literary success. Her narrative is more than a history, more than a fiction, it is a confessional and a quest for redemption, and a reflection on fiction writing in general. The novel was made into an award-winning film in 2007.
The Corrections, 2001, by Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections is an American novel that tells the domestic story of a Midwestern family of elderly parents and their three grown-up children, gathered for Christmas on the eve of the new millennium. The novel has been highly praised for being something of an “American novel” because of its insights into the main themes and atmosphere of American life following 9/11. It is spread across a vast canvas, detailing the lives of each of the three children, each living different lives in different parts of America, and their relations with the family. The Corrections has enjoyed the position as both a critical; and sales success.
Austerlitz, 2001, W. G. Sebald
Austerlitz is a much awarded German novel. The protagonist and narrator, Austerlitz, has a vision of himself at the age of four while in Liverpool Street railway station in London, which inspires him to trace the history of his evacuation on the eve of the Second World War on a trainload of refugee children from Prague, where he was born, to adoption by a Welsh couple who tell him nothing about his origins. The novel delves into the protagonist’s search for his identity and his quest to ensure the survival of his heritage.
Never Let Me Go, 2005, by Kazuo Ashiguro
Although often described as a science fiction novel Never Let Me Go is far more than that and, indeed, if one is thinking in genre terms it could also be described as a horror novel and, for that matter, a dystopian novel. It is set in England during an unspecified time period, where the cloning of human beings is not only allowed but practiced. This goes further in that its characters are a group of young people who are clones whose destiny is to be organ donors for the natural population. It is a highly praised and awarded novel and adapted for the screen.
The Road, 2006, by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is ostensibly a post apocalyptic novel that narrates the punishing journey of a man and his young son across a devastated American landscape, a country destroyed by an unnamed disaster. Almost all the human beings have perished and civilization has gone. There is no actual mention of climate change but it is clearly addressing that major twenty-first century theme. Various media that grade novels, such as the BBC and some award-granting print journals have declared The Road to be among the most important environmental novels of the century. It won a Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2007 and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006. John Hillcoat directed a film adaptaion in 2009.
Half of a Yellow Sun, 2006, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adich
Half of a Yellow Sun is the quintessential African novel – a civil war in an African country with a colonial hangover, with extreme violence and suffering by its population. It’s set in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war in the late 60s. It’s an ambition novel, an epic concerned with huge topics – race and class, the death throes of colonialism, the condition of women, tribal loyalties, moral responsibility, all complicated by love and sexual relationships. The story is told from the viewpoint of an educated, sophisticated young woman from a wealthy Nigerian family and her white, expat. husband. The novel has received critical acclaim and catapulted its author to the status of ‘major novelist.’
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 2007, by Junot Díaz
The Dominican author sets this novel in New Jersey, the city in which he was raised, where his protagonist, Dominican Oscar Wao, is also raised, although it is to a large extent about the reign of Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo. It is also about the protagonist’s obsession with fantasy and science fiction novels, his romantic exploration and a curse dating back to the discovery of America that hounds his family and unites the different themes of the novel. The story is narrated by several voices and written in several styles, seeming to sum up the history of the novel form itself.
Wolf Hall, 2009, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall is one of the most award winning novels of the twenty-first century. It is set in the early part of the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII. The protagonist is the historical Thomas Cromwell, although he is fictionalised in the novel. The novel immediately began winning awards, starting with the Man Booker Prize and the Book Critics Circle Award. It was also named as one of the ten best historical novels of all time by the Observer newspaper. Wolf Hall is the first of a trilogy, followed by Bring up the Bodies, and thirdly, The Mirror and the Light, bringing the story up to Cromwell’s execution.
The Promise, 2021, by Damon Galgut
The Promise won the Booker Prize in 2021 and Galgut joined a distinguished list of South African writers whose novels have done so. It is a family saga that spans half a century, with the death of a significant member of the family every decade. The plot centres around a deathbed promise the matriarch makes to their black domestic servant that she will inherit the cottage she lives in on the farm. The story works itself through to the conclusion to that promise, through explorations of various key family members. The whole setup and feel of the novel is reminiscent of the novels of William Faulkner – in particular The Sound and the Fury.