In the early years of this twenty-first century it seemed as if everybody was compiling lists inspired by the century just passed—the best movies, the best athletes, the worst disasters, the worst fashion statements. I’m a little late. Here’s a very personal list of the 10 best reads in English published in that amazing hundred-year period.
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (1981), G. B. Edwards.
This still somewhat obscure novel, the fictionalized autobiography of a man from Guernsey, is, in fact, a story of the century. Written as the reflections of an eighty-year-old who has spent his entire life on this Channel Island, it was published posthumously (Edwards died in 1976 at the age of 77). William Golding, who was awarded both the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize, summed it up best: “To read it is not like reading but living.”
The Sweet Dove Died (1978), Barbara Pym.
How do you select only one Barbara Pym novel when putting together a list of this sort? To me, much more than just a later day Jane Austen, Pym’s knowledge of human nature, deceptively simple prose style, and gentle wit make her very much a star in her own right. Although less overtly comic than Excellent Women, Less Than Angels, or even her last book, A Few Green Leaves, The Sweet Dove Died somehow resonates the most strongly with Pym’s particular genius.
Fifth Business (1970), Robertson Davies.
On a winter’s day in an Ontario village, a boy throws a snowball embedded with a rock at another boy. The intended victim ducks and the missile hits a pregnant woman. Davies Deptford Trilogy chronicles the results of this single act and Fifth Business, the first and best book of the series, introduces the characters, their story, their foibles and their passions. As a novel, it easily stands alone.
A Mixture of Frailties (1958), an earlier Davies book, does not match the sophistication, but is nonetheless a rewarding read as well.
The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Here is the classic American dream novel. Fitzgerald writes about Daisy, the flapper heroine who personifies this dream, that “her voice is full of money….That was it….It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it….high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.” And critic Lionel Trilling has suggested that hero Jay Gatsby, the rich but shady outsider in a xenophobic upper class world, “comes inevitably to stand for America itself.”
Tender is the Night (1934) may be Fitzgerald’s more personal and sensual book, but with Gatsby he achieves stylistic perfection.
The Fortnight in September (1931), R.C. Sheriff.
This straightforward story of a family’s annual holiday at a British seaside resort was written two years after Sheriff’s award-winning stage play, Journey’s End. That play dealt with the hopes and fears of some soldiers in World War I waiting in a dugout for an attack to begin. The Fortnight in September celebrates the simple and fragile joys of the ordinary—joys which would have been especially precious to the soldiers.
Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Virginia Woolf.
Some might be more impressed with James Joyce’s use of the stream of consciousness technique in Ulysses or in Finnegan’s Wake, but I believe Woolf manages to make this style more accessible and consequently more rewarding. It’s fascinating to read how, with minimal strokes, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith emerge as fully developed and empathetic characters.
The Raj Quartet (1966-75), Paul Scott.
This monumental series of four novels (The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and A Division of the Spoils) can easily be considered as one book. Again, it is an epic which examines the consequences of a single act (here the gang rape of a young British woman in 1942) and follows the labyrinth of consequences. Similar in theme to E. M. Forster’s brilliant A Passage to India (1924), The Raj Quartet, although considerably longer and more involved than the earlier book, is somehow more engaging.
Stones for Ibarra (1984), Harriet Doerr.
This gentle, poignant love story was the first novel of a 73-year-old Californian. It is a touching and beautifully written tale of a young couple dealing both with their adjustment to a dramatically different culture and with their own mortality. Along with the story itself, Stones for Ibarra offers an intriguing glimpse of a declining Mexican village in the days before drug cartels.
The Remains of the Day (1989), Kazuo Ishiguro.
Also in its way a love story, at its core The Remains of the Day is a remarkable evocation of the life and character of an English butler serving in an aristocratic house in the middle of the twentieth-century. It won the Booker Prize in 1989.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Willa Cather.
Based on the actual lives of two French missionaries attempting to bring religion to New Mexico in the second half of the nineteenth-century, Cather’s episodic novel manages to breathe life into her two well-meaning, honorable characters; they stay alive in memory long after the book is finished.
And some noteworthy honorable mentions:
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1948); The Soloist, Paul Saltzman (1994); Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor (1971); On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin (1982); Hotel Du Lac, Anita Brookner (1984); Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936); Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938); The Market Square (1966), Miss Read.
For laughing out loud, I can strongly recommend Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (1955) and his campy, illustrated, would-be movie queen’s memoir, Little Me (1961); Nancy Mitford’s two novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (1945 and 1949); and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994). This last book is non-fiction but reads like fiction and has some of the great belly laughs of all times.
And for fans of mysteries, may I suggest Peter Lovesey’s enthralling Peter Diamond books (The Last Detective, 1991 is the first)? Also: The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh. Then there’s Agatha Christie. Who doesn’t love Agatha Christie? But if by some chance you’ve escaped her charms and are looking for her best, try The Murder of Roger Akroyd (1926). This could be followed closely by The Body in the Library (1942) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934).