Thursday, May 8, 2014

8 of the Best 21st Century Novels (So Far)

Though I don't tend to read much in the way of contemporary fiction, I avidly follow the careers of a number of writers that are consistently turning out wonderful novels, many of them represented on this list. I suspect that many of these novels, if not all of them, will someday be remembered as the classics of our era. The writers represented here are from all over the world, from Cuba to Pakistan, Italy to India.

Versailles - Kathryn Davis
Davis's gorgeous, impressionistic novel is one of the finest interpretations of the life of Marie Antoinette, the total antithesis of Sofia Coppola's mind-bogglingly bad film. Davis's prose is unfailingly beautiful and her depiction of the overly maligned and overly idolized monarch neither softens her selfishness nor lampoons the foibles born of her naivete. One is able to sympathize with the famously beheaded queen, but it is not at the cost of a nuanced understanding of the miseries that drove the French populace to revolution and the Terror.

Baudolino - Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is one of the most brilliant, erudite writers at work today, a man whose work on semiotics is written so well that it is as fascinating as his novels. Baudolino, like The Name of the Rose, is a labyrinth of textual reference and linguistic acrobatics; it is also extremely funny and filled to the brim with profound reflections on theology, mythology, philosophy, politics, art, and a host of other subjects. The hero of the epic story is a young peasant, Baudolino, sold to Frederick I in 1155 and raised by him as a foster son, who grows to be a man determined to seek out the legendary kingdom of Prete Giovanni.

Life of Pi - Yann Martel 
Though this wildly popular novel hardly needs introduction, it in fact lives up to its reputation. The suspenseful and philosophical tale of a boy shipwrecked and trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days, Martel's novel focuses on both unfolding the story and reminding us of the inevitable deception inherent to any act of storytelling. Life of Pi is uplifting, but Martel's approach is full-frontal, fearlessly interrogating spirituality, the limits of self-determination, and the boundlessness of the human imagination.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
Though Atonement is McEwan's true masterpiece (so far, in any case), this deeply disturbing and very bitter novella follows close behind. Set in 1962, Edward Mayhew and Florence Porting are on honeymoon at Chesil Beach. They are in love, but they haven't been able to speak frankly with each other and come from very different backgrounds, in terms of class, education, and values. Their first night together bursts open the seams of their frail relationship and determines the course of their future lives.

Magic Seeds - V. S. Naipul
Nobel laureate Naipul's novel follows Willie Somerset Chandran, displaced from his birth country of India and, after a revolution, the (unnamed) African country where he has lived for nearly two decades. He drifts into a half-hearted mission with communist guerrilla fighters in India, his adherence a symptom of apathy and fear rather than revolutionary fervor. Though not nearly as sickeningly brutal as his 1975 novel, Guerrillas, Magic Seeds is an intense interrogation of the uneasy space in which violent politics and a lack of individual purpose mingle.

Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire - Jose Manuel Prieto
This wonderful novel by Cuban novelist Prieto follows J., a smuggler who is on the hunt for a rare Russian butterfly, and his Russian lover V., whose seemingly ephemeral interest in him is revived when she begins to write him love letters. Though it is clear from the beginning that J. is seeking V. far more than the butterfly, perhaps the real object of his quest is a perfectly written love letter. A blend of thriller and epistolary love story, Nocturnal Butterflies is on a par with the best postmodernist work of the past few decades.

The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling
Unfairly slammed by critics and readers alike, who were perhaps unsure how to approach anything outside of Harry Potter by the wealthiest writer in the world, The Casual Vacancy is actually a truly wonderful novel, a portrait of a small English town where a councilman's sudden death has far-reaching consequences for many of the town's denizens. Rowling easily navigates her large cast of characters, pulling the reader into intimacy with them and instilling genuine empathy and at times utter horror. The Casual Vacancy will hopefully sustain a better reputation as Rowling continues to write widely across genres.

Broken Verses - Kamila Shamsie
Pakistani author Shamsie is one of the finest writers currently at work. This novel is about Aasmaani, the daughter of a famous Pakistani activist who disappeared fourteen years before, who begins to receive letters written in the code invented by her mother and her mother's lover, a poet who has been beaten to death by government agents. Desperate to reconnect with her mother, Aasmaani begins to decode the letters and becomes involved in an intrigue that could cost her life if she isn't imagining it. Broken Verses is a marvelous novel, one far greater than the sum of its parts.

No comments:

Post a Comment