I don't tend to read much contemporary literature, though I keep up with what's being published. A big part of the reason I don't read many contemporary novels is the fact that I speed read. A novel by Thomas Mann will take me days, but most contemporary novels can be dispatched in a day, or a day and a half - they just leave less of an imprint because I spend less time with them. But when I find a gem, I pay attention to that author, though it's probably not random that many of these authors write really, really long books. Excluding heavy hitters, like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, and Umberto Eco, and pop culture phenomena, like J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin, here are seven contemporary novelists whose work we should definitely be reading.
Antonio Lobo Antunes
Enormously prolific Portuguese author Antunes has written more than two dozen books, many of them available in translation, and he's still hard at work. My favorite of his is the exquisite The Natural Order of Things, a complex story that weaves the history of Portugal with the secretive lives of a diverse cast of characters, including a teenager suffering from diabetes, a miner who believes he can fly underground, and a woman forced to live in an attic like Bertha Rochester. Antunes's work is ambitious and dense, a cross between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a modernist version of Charlotte Bronte.
Author of the fabulous alternate history novel, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke is simply one of the top contemporary fantasy writers. Her writing has a strong nineteenth century flavor, reminiscent of Austen, Collins, and MacDonald, and she deftly manages huge numbers of characters entangled in very complicated plots. Her first novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two rival British magicians who have revived the ancient discipline of magic. She is currently working on a second book set in the same alternate history timeline.
Davis is my favorite contemporary American author and one I discovered entirely by accident. Her books have the magical qualities of fairy tales, a Dahlian sense of grotesquerie, and an unflinching view of human violence and cruelty. She has written six novels, including The Girl who Trod on a Loaf, about the friendship that develops between two women, one a composer writing on a opera based on the Andersen fairy tale that shares its title with the novel, and Versailles, a gorgeous re-imagining of Marie Antoinette's life.
Russian-born Makine, who writes in his second language, French, has not gone more than three years without publishing a novel since 1990. The speed at which he works is all the more incredible given the Flaubertian precision and powerfully sensual descriptiveness of his writing. All but three of his recent works have been translated into English, including the incredible The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, about an expatriate Russian aristocrat whose son suffers from hemophilia, and the critically acclaimed Dreams of My Russian Summers.
Seth has written three novels, numerous volumes of poetry, non-fiction, and a children's book. He's best known for his masterpiece, A Suitable Boy, a novel about arranged marriage and tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, which will hopefully have a sequel, A Suitable Girl, published soon (Seth just missed his deadline and the publishers are less than thrilled). Seth has an extraordinary ability to write about music, its performance, and its practice, and he has fostered a close kinship with Pushkin, and in particular, Pushkin's masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, that enriches the works of both writers.
One of my favorite living writers, this Pakistani author, who writes in English, was deservedly included on the Granta list of best young writers this year. Shamsie doesn't shy away from moral complexity either in her own characters or in the labyrinthine politics of the post- 9/11 world. Her most recent novel, Burnt Shadows, follows her characters from World War II-era Nagasaki, to New York and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 and is a searing depiction of the chains of violence ensnaring ordinary people in an increasingly globalized world.
This American writer has three novels and a volume of short stories under her belt. Her first novel, The Gardens of Kyoto, is both about adolescence and the remembering of adolescence, as well as a delicate examination of what it means to be a woman in a world at war. Walbert's language is haunting and subtle, but it also has a spoken quality to it that renders it unusually accessible, while her meditations on memory recall Milan Kundera.