Perhaps my opinion here owes much to the fact that I’m Canadian and therefore still subject to excessive colonial reverence for people with cool accents and universities that date to the 13th century who put all the “u”s in the proper places in the words! But people who love books in America are, in my opinion, overly focused on contemporary American authors. Contemporary American authors are, in my opinion, not necessarily doing the best and most interesting work in fiction today, if I’m to make generalizations. I’d much prefer picking up just about any living British novelist whose last name is not Amis. But often when I name these folks people haven’t heard of them, because so much of the American book marketing machine is steadily trained on the homegrown.
Here is my list of the novelists you must read to get up to snuff on British novel-writing. For authors who I perceive to already be big names in America — Ian MacEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel — I tried to focus on lesser-known books.
Bonus: None of these novels are set in Brooklyn, and vanishingly few are about writers. There’s a whole other world out there.
Charlotte Mendelson, Almost English
Shortlisted for the Booker this year, Mendelson’s novel stuffs five women in a tiny apartment together and lets things devolve from there.
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home
An unexpected houseguest causes trouble in a marriage in Levy’s Booker-shortlisted novel.
Jim Crace, Being Dead
A novel literally about the decomposition of a couple’s bodies.
Nicola Barker, Darkmans
A jester haunts this byzantine but hilarious book.
Ian MacEwan, The Child in Time
Once a child goes missing, she becomes frozen in her parents’ mind at the age of her disappearance.
Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y.
A graduate student finds a rare manuscript and gets lost in an alternate dimension.
Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels
A self-destructive heir to a British family fortune descends into the muck.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
Ishiguro is the king of the unreliable narrator, and in The Unconsoled, a pianist begins to lose his memory and sense of place in the world.
Ali Smith, There but for the
A dinner party guest causes a media circus in this book, which is a bit of an acquired taste — Smith loves to play with language — but well worth the work.
Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency
The requisite Thatcherite-family-saga entry on the list.
Maggie O’Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
A slim and elegant page-turner of a book about a woman who suddenly re-acquires a long-lost aunt.
A.S. Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale
I would have included Possession here were it not so well-known, but Byatt is best on the inner dramas of biographers and literary critics, and this is no exception.
Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon
A debut novel about a smart young woman who is also a juvenile delinquent. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this summer.
Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love
An amazing exploration of female friendship, and, well, appetite.
Helen Oyeyemi, White Is for Witching
A young woman suffering from pica ends up living with ghosts. Delightful.
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
Alfred, Lord Tennyson and a maybe-quack doctor at an insane asylum. Need I say more?
Evie Wyld, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice
War veterans suffer in rural Australia, all described in incandescent prose.
Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident
A quite hilarious novel about a man pursuing an unrequited crush, a genre that generally annoys me. Probably helps that her name here is Adele Hitler (no relation, of course).
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Post-WWII Jamaicans in London. This one is a bit of a cheat as it was an international bestseller. But worth revisiting!