Here we go – my ten books of the decade (2010-2019). Unlike my books of the year, I have only included titles published in this decade. You’ll notice there’s an interesting skew towards the earlier years of the decade – I think it takes me a while to know whether or not a book will stick with me. I’ve also tended to favour books that I both loved and which have fed into my own development as a writer. So a partial and biased list, but still, here it is. Links are to my reviews:
The Still Point, Amy Sackville (2010). This luminous debut novel intercuts between the gruelling expedition narrative of a turn-of-the-century Arctic explorer and twenty-four hours in the life of his great-grand-niece in the present day. Sackville writes the kind of prose that slows down time, in the most wonderful way.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). I was totally obsessive about this book when it first came out; it made me look at everything sideways for some time. Ruth discovers the diary of fifteen-year-old Nao on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. These two narratives become intertwined in mindbending and yet hugely moving ways.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). This is both the simple love story of Ifemelu and Obinze and a sweeping, revealing look at the experiences of Nigerian immigrants to both Britain and the US, at how black women negotiate the world, and how ‘Westerners’ respond to being told about these things. Adichie’s masterpiece (so far), and an absolute must-read.
This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett (2013). If the Booker judges can do it, so can I; this is my ‘lifetime achievement’ award for all of Patchett’s incredible non-fiction, because my favourite, Truth and Beauty, was published in 2004 and so is ineligible for this exercise. However, there are some incredible essays in this collection, especially ‘This Dog’s Life’, which is hilarious on voluntary childlessness, and ‘The Wall’, which details how Patchett put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what her father’s life as a police captain had been like.
All The Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld (2013). Structurally perfect and emotionally incredible, this novel moves backwards through time to inquire into the past of Jake, a guarded, scarred young woman who was once a sheep-herder in Australia and now lives on a tiny British island, alone with her dog. This reads like a thriller but is as good as literary fiction gets.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell (2013). This is the best single collection of short stories I’ve ever read; many other collections have included short stories that are as good but haven’t been as strong across the board. What other collection ranges from a vampire drinking from a lemon that is ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’ to a massage therapist who finds that her clients’ tattoos move to a set of silk-weaving girls who plan an escape from their slavery?
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (2014). This post-apocalyptic novel is the only fiction I’ve ever read that has really pulled off the ‘story within a story’, with its depiction of the comic-book world of Station Eleven that now speaks to the survivors of a global pandemic. Magical.
The Secret Place, Tana French (2014). I was pleased that The Likeness was published in 2007, because it saved me from having to choose between my two favourite Tana French novels. Why read Tana French in general? Because she totally reinvents the police procedural, writing interrogation scenes with exceptional psychological depth, and also infusing the genre with a brilliant hint of the speculative. Why read The Secret Place in particular? Because it’s the best thing on adolescence I’ve ever read, offering teenage girls the respect they deserve, and it’s also a fantastic set-piece murder mystery.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, Anna North (2015). This relatively little-known novel is technically incredible; it uses six different narrators to tell the story of film director Sophie Stark, none of whom are Sophie herself and none of whom narrate more than once. The novel works, so cleverly, both as a set of perfect vignettes and as a bigger whole.
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi (2016). This memoir, written by a neurosurgeon who was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, especially his final letter to his daughter, but it’s also brilliant on the life of a doctor and on the intersections between the arts and the sciences. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
(God, 2013 was a good year for books! There are a lot I haven’t even included – The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, Bring Up The Bodies…)
Do you have any books of the decade?