Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
Toni Morrison has spent the past four decades writing challenging and insightful novels featuring black characters. Among the most powerful of these is Beloved, about a slave woman named Sethe and her daughter Denver, who live and work on a plantation in the wake of their failed escape from slavery, and are haunted by the ghost of a baby known only as Beloved. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of the escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her daughter because she couldn’t bear to see her return to the plantation. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and ten years later, Jonathan Demme directed a film adaptation, which famously starred (and was produced by) Oprah. It’s also won a spot on English syllabi in high schools and colleges around the country.
Khaled Husseini, The Kite Runner (2003)
Set between the fall Afghanistan’s monarchy and the Soviet invasion of the country, Khaled Husseini’s The Kite Runner tracks the friendship of Amir, a businessman’s son, and Hassan, the child of his father’s servant. Although they share a sublime friendship in their home country, a traumatic event tears them apart and continues to haunt Amir. Later, under Soviet threat, he and his father flee to California while his friend’s family remains in Afghanistan. Published only a year and a half after 9/11, and adapted for an Oscar-nominated 2007 film, the former physician’s first novel was a long-running bestseller, its success fueled by American readers’ hunger to learn more about a country we were waging war against but still didn’t really understand.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992)
A surprise bestseller published by the literary imprint Alfred A. Knopf, The Secret History is a campus novel that follows an eccentric clique of Classics students at a Vermont college whose decadent ways result in conspiracy, murder, and a lifetime of guilt. For those with a taste for glamor, damage, and high art, Tartt’s debut novel is hard to beat.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Perhaps the greatest feminist novel of the past few decades, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines an American dystopia set in the near future, in which an extremist religious group has overthrown the US government. The military dictatorship has frozen the assets of all women — and all men they deem unsavory — leaving them entirely dependent on men. As a result, some are virtuous Wives while others are Handmaids, like the novel’s protagonist, Offred, named for their male masters and forced to bear their children so the Wives don’t have to. The book has remained controversial over the years, won several major awards, and been adapted for the screen, the stage, radio, and even opera.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005)
Most of Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro’s books have been masterpieces, so while we could have picked any number of them, we’re going with his most recent. Time‘s best novel of 2005, Never Let Me Go paints a picturesque but deeply unsettling portrait of an eerie, timeless British dystopia, in which cloned children at an idyllic boarding school are bred to have their organs harvested for transplants and eventually die, in their 20s, on the operating table. The book has been translated into no fewer than 20 languages, and a film adaptation, directed by Mark Romanek and starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, hit theaters this year.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997)
Not only a novelist but also a renowned social-justice activist, Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel, The God of Small Things. Her beautifully written, wide-ranging story of twins in ’60s India as the caste system began to crumble is a tale of family disaster but expands to examine a time of great social and political upheaval in Roy’s home country.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004)
Bolaño had already been dead for five years when, in 2008, he was anointed with the National Book Critics Circle Award for his posthumously published final novel. As the story goes, the Chilean author managed to get his first draft of 2666 to his editor before dying of liver failure. While it came out the next year in Spain, an English translation didn’t appear until late 2008. The death-obsessed, 900-page volume is far too cryptic and complex to summarize (even the title itself is a mystery), but for those who value such qualities in a novel, it’s unquestionably required reading.
Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
In his debut novel, a complex and thought-provoking book and also an addictive page-turner, Chang-rae Lee introduces us to Henry Park, the quintessential Korean-American outsider. After the death of their child, Henry’s wife leaves him, and he begins to struggle with his work at a private intelligence firm, as well as his American identity. Native Speaker earned Lee a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a slew of smaller laurels.
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000)
One of the brightest stars of the 21st century’s graphic-novel renaissance, Marjane Satrapi chronicled her childhood in the late ’70s, amid the Iranian Revolution, life as an expatriate, and later return to Iran in two Persepolis books. Translated into many languages and adapted into an Academy Award-nominated 2007 film by the same name, Persepolis has given readers around the world an intimate, illustrated glimpse of life in a place many of us still struggle to understand.
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
Literary theorists may prefer British writer Winterson’s later novels, whose gender-fucked postmodern styles and story lines lend themselves more readily to lengthy analysis. But it is her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, that introduces her to most young readers. The likely semi-autobiographical novel follows a protagonist named Jeanette who grows up in an evangelical Christian community whose dreams of missionary work are thrown into crisis when her budding lesbianism becomes apparent. The award-winning book was adapted into a BBC miniseries in 1990 and remains a staple of contemporary and LGBT literature syallabi.