The ten best novels I have read

Brief reviews of what are, in my opinion, some incredibly good fiction.

A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth
Majestic, sweeping epic, yet written from the human perspective, following India's independence. It's so thick that it looks daunting, but it is so personally observed and well crafted that you are immediately drawn into the family and friendships of the protagonists, and find it difficult to put down. It views the first few years of the new state through the eyes of all levels of castes, and it's the only book I've ever read that, when I finished, I missed the characters like they were friends. There is also one passage in this book that is the most beautiful secular eulogy I've ever read.
Tip: don't avoid the historical chapters - they're not so easy to read, but they're very useful to comprehend the background to the story.
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The Regeneration Trilogy
Pat Barker
OK, I'm cheating a bit here. As you may have guessed from the title above, this is actually a trilogy, comprising Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Booker Prize (while Regeneration spawned a movie starring Jonathan Price). This trilogy is a harrowing psychological account of World War One, seen through the eyes of various protagonists, some fictional, but real figures, including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and briefly Wilfred Owen. Much of the book is set dealing with the effects of the war on its participants, in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, under the care of the pioneering and compassionate psychologist Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. These are works of staggering depth of characterisation, and convey with no timidity the sheer ghastliness of war and the moral ambiguities it leaves its actors battling, in its aftermath. It also
Tip: it is vital to read these books in order. Though painful, they're extraordinarily well written, and compelling.
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A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving
I've read most of John Irving's novels, and they're all exceptional books (except, perhaps, The Water-method Man which I didn't like at all - it struck me that it might be somewhat scantily-disguised autobiography, like Amis's misogynistic Jake's Thing). It follows the bizarrely-fated, diminutive Owen Meany, who speaks in irritating block capitals, on his peculiar journey through high school - due to his size, playing the baby Jesus in a nativity, and learning the date of his own death during A Christmas Carol. A comic and charming character study, with the most moving ending of any book I've ever read.
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Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
WTF? I mean, seriously. Just incredible. It's a series of stories, with recurring themes and linking objects, that cross time and genre. Farce, thriller, historical journal, science fiction; each is extraordinarily well crafted, and each will leave you reeling slightly. For me, comprehension was more at a subconscious level. I know much of what I took away, but I'm damned if I can articulate it. Just read it - you won't be sorry.
Tip: the short stories split and are mirror-imaged around the central novella, so don't be surprised when the narrative just stops and a new story begins - you will eventually get the conclusion you seek. The book seems to be structured like a standing parabolic wave.
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The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
A love story of stunning beauty, set around the idea of a man whose life is not lived in a linear fashion - similar to the idea behind Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, except unlike Vonnegut's, where the character's consciousness flits between different stages of his own, linear life, in this model the character's own perceived lifeline is linear: he lives linearly, and ages, in his own timeline, even though he doesn't do so in other people's. From the outset this is gripping, and the sense of fated love and tragedy is profound. I am not embarrassed to admit this book made me cry like a baby.
Tip: don't even try to work out how she plotted this thing - that must have been an art in itself.
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A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry
Another sweeping Indian story, this time dealing with Indira Gandhi's time in office, and in particular "The Emergency" declared between 1975 and 1977. This is a profoundly angry anti-Indira book, charting the experiences of many different castes during this time, and under the yoke of other anti-democratic and oppressive legislation, including "voluntary" sterilisation. A tragic, beautiful book that will remain with you for years afterwards.
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Midnight's Children
Salman Rushdie
Though I'm a huge fan of The Satanic Verses, I believe Midnight's Children to be the most accessible of Rushdie's oeuvre. Another book set in India's historical turbulence (I'm noting a pattern here - are you?), with heavy symbolism the protagonist is born on the stroke of midnight of Indian independence in 1948, and is "handcuffed to history", coming of age with his nation. What makes this book is Rushdie's astonishingly crafted, rich prose: each poetic sentence may be digested for its allusions; yet it is immensely readable, moreso than anything else of his that I've read, wherein the prose must be chewed over. It's a masterwork.
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The Corrections
Jonathan Frantzen
A family tale with a profound psychological understanding of its characters, this is a satire on contemporary American life. As with DeLillo's White Noise, this dismantles and plays with the issues of modern Americana, though in a more accessible and humourous manner, and (in my opinion) with considerably less dreary self-regard. Dealing with the misfortunes of a dysfunctional family, it uses as a fulcrum the protagonists' quest for the solutions to their problems through those things they feel that their society owes them.
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Sebastian Faulks
In the same way that Any Human Heart below effectively imagines the experience of aging, so Birdsong effectively conveys an empathic comprehension of true horror of the First World War, despite the author's lack of actual experience - and that generation's notorious lack of expression of emotion, or complaints about suffering. This book is the first of Faulkes's unofficial war trilogy, which also encompasses The Girl at the Lion D'Or and Charlotte Gray (or quartet, if you include his beautiful Cold War drama On Green Dolphin Street), and is the best, most raw, and most passionate. While The Regeneration Trilogy examines the war from within the heads of the characters, this book contrasts the heavy, humid, lazy atmosphere of the pre-war Somme with the same area revisited in the horror of war, appallingly well rendered, evoking the sounds, sights, and smells of the human race at its most venal. As the war ends, the same character seeks out those he knew before the war, and his emotional discoveries echo the devastation that surround him.
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Any Human Heart
William Boyd
An autobiography of a fictional character, this book charts the life of a man whose life took him from Uruguay to England and far beyond, in a Zelig-like journey through many of the significant events of the twentieth century. I choose this not just because it's a beautiful, funny and moving book, but because it is the only work I've ever read that conveys what - to me - it feels like to be elderly. I know that William Boyd doesn't know what it's like to be elderly either, but in my opinion it's the most convincing imagined portrait thereof, and assists the growing respect and empathy I have for those who have experienced enough to grow their wisdom beyond anything I can comprehend.
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Highly recommended

The Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem
A wild, personal history in 1970s Brooklyn, this book follows two boys through their coming of age, set as the urban hip-hop culture is born and begins to rise. The story charts the links between the streetbound origins of rap and makes links with its forbears in the soul scene, viewed through the eyes of a picked-upon white kid and his black friend. The graffiti-art protagonists tag as they come of age, via a magical realism derived from the superheroes DC comics (an allusion I confess to missing until after finishing the book) which may or may not be a figment of the charaters' imaginations. It's profoundly atmospheric, evoking the richly coloured New York of twenty-something years ago.
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We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver
When a friend was reading this, I ended up saying to her: "we need to talk about you talking about We Need to Talk About Kevin". Then I read it, and I couldn't shut up about it either. It is a truly horrific black comedy centring on the aftermath of a high school massacre, from the point of view of the murderer's mother, in a series of letters to her estranged husband. Astonishingly well written and wickedly clever, it's brutally - almost pychopathically - honest, and darkly funny. And sadly the themes it explores are still relevant and raw. It will make you too incapable of shutting up about it.
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Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris
This book squeaked onto my list. It's by far from a perfect book, more of a bold experiment in structure, but it's tremendously entertaining. Written entirely in the first-person plural, it's a series of anecdotes from a contemporary advertising agency, exploring themes with which we office drones are all-too familar. It also has a tragic arc connecting these stories, which themselves deal with microcosmic triumphs, petty squabbles, and other tragedies.
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