100 Greatest Novels (Nos 20 to 11)

20 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

I felt totally manipulated by this novel and hated how it ended – the conceit of the writer as narrator within the novel writing about events that she had witnessed. But even that strong reaction was, I recognised, just the sort of powerful response to the book which McEwan was trying to achieve. It is amazing how much one can loathe a central character and still be compelled to read on. So I think this is a great book on many different levels and in particular how the memory of it continues to nag me years after reading it.

19 Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)

A proto-feminist novel in that the central character around whom all others revolve is an independent woman although, this being Victorian era, her travails are largely around her relationships with three different men. The book is mostly written from the perspective of one of these men, Gabriel, with whom the reader is invited to empathise and whose character is strong and constant – which further undermines the claims to feminism.  Nevertheless it presents a compelling picture of rural life in Victorian England.

18 Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1939)

Often collected with Mr Norris Changes Trains, which precedes it, this semi-autobiographical presents a fictionalised portrait of the decadent Berlin of the Weimar Republic as it became swamped by the emerging power of the Nazi Party. Its characters are real and flawed which gives them a life and spontaneity which captivated me when I first read it. They are portrayed with sympathy but a degree of objective distance which Isherwood himself later regretted but which I found made it easier for me to get into the novel.

17 Nausea by John Paul Sartre (1938)

This is in many ways a work of introspection, causing the reader to constantly test their own reactions against those of the central character whose philosophical development is the mainspring of the book’s development. You are neither called upon to like nor dislike the protagonist but to follow his self-absorption. This is another example of a book where I find I am provoked into thinking by confronting perspectives and views that challenge my own preconceptions. It is for this ability to make me think that I find this such a great read.

16 Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

I love how playful this novel is. The central character flips from male to female gender and back with casual disregard for consequences and maintains a youthful (say 30-ish) age constantly through the centuries spanned by the story. It is partly a mockery of the earnest historical biographer and partly a portrait of Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West. In spite of this playfulness, I find it more solid than some of her other works such as To The Lighthouse which are harder to pin down and are more impressionistic.

15 Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Contains one of the strongest portrayals of a character in any novel: Captain Ahab the whaler obsessed with the eponymous whale which nearly killed him before the start of the story. It is a tragedy but it is also an exploration of people from different cultures and social levels and has almost documentary attention to detail in the scenes from the whaling ship. Melville feels free to draw on diverse sources and styles to create the atmosphere of the ship and its crew so that it is almost poetic in feel, in spite of its length.

14 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862)

An epic tale set during the turmoil of France following the fall of Napoleon. Characters weave in and out of the central story concerning the unjust fall of Jean Valjean and his redemption (inevitably through suffering thoughout his life). Into this huge tapestry are woven plots and subplots which sometimes threaten to derail the plot completely. As a devastating critique of the life and times portrayed it is without equal.

13 A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

I came to this through Burgess’s fascination with James Joyce.  The language used by the narrator is a concocted melange of European languages in homage to the technique used by Joyce in his later works.  This obsession with language enables the reader to both experience the perspective of the teenage characters through their language and gives the necessary distance to understand the larger narrative frame within which Burgess is questioning the role of the state in interfering with individual free will and behaviour.

12 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

A deep and lengthy peering into the mind and, this being Russian, soul of a young man who commits a crime.  His motives are at heart base but he persuades himself that he is acting for higher and worthy motives.  The novel charts how this deliberate self-delusion is stripped away until the point, when he accepts the punishment, that he can begin to redeem himself. That this should be ultimately attributable to the love of a good woman is cliched, but that it should be done at the last when he is suddenly and unexpectedly presented with a chance to get away with his crime scot-free is a powerful scene which has stayed with me ever since I first read it many years ago.

11 For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)

Set in the Spanish Civil War, this book is the archetype of Hemingway’s lean prose style. He strips the words down to the bare essentials and leaves the reader to fill in the gaps. Much of the writing is a deliberate paraphrasing of the Spanish language and expressions – which gives it a stylised feel but grounds it in its setting. Undoubtedly a political novel, it is written from the Republican/Anti-Fascist side it transcends this to be universal in its consideration of themes of honour, country (in particular its land and the soil) and matters of life and death.


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