Best fiction books of the decade

Books that break out of the rut, books that are heavy with promise of things to come — our list of the best fiction of the decade

December 28, 2019 09:00 am | Updated July 12, 2020 11:37 am IST

Vector illustration of the beautiful girl face behind big book

Vector illustration of the beautiful girl face behind big book

The decade did not see earth-shaking changes in fiction-writing. Established writers like Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy or Kazuo Ishiguro chiefly wrote along the lines that have made them famous, and the results were not startling. While a few new authors — notably Sally Rooney, Lucy Ellmann, or closer home, Madhuri Vijay, Roshan Ali, Amitabha Bagchi — broke the mould of the expected, most gave in to market forces, and the results, again, were anything but startling.

We list here 10 books that stood out over the last 10 years for different reasons — some set a trend, some made history glamorous, while some took India’s regional literature to the world.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By now, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a feminist icon, and to read this novel is to know where her appeal lies. She has a way of telling the truth, and telling it straight, so that it hits home with the clarity of a revelation. Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze, both from Nigeria, migrate to the West for studies, the former to the U.S. and the latter to the U.K. There is a clinical dissection of the various levels of ‘wokeness’ that the two encounter in both countries. There is a special emphasis on appearance — hair, especially — which sort of seals the fate of any African immigrant. In America, Ifemelu is assumed to be instinctively part of a ‘black consciousness’, although she grew up reading Mark Twain and Graham Greene. A deeply felt novel and a landmark for post-colonial studies.




Bring up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel

The Tudors never fail to thrill — you have the endless books, movies and television series on them as proof. Bring up the Bodies takes up the story from Wolf Hall , about the crafty Thomas Cromwell, plotting, fighting, dismembering with gusto. Here his worthy opponent is Henry VIII’s mistress, and later wife, Anne Boleyn, who is famous as a flirt but also has a very clever head on her shoulders. Cromwell appreciates her pro-Reformation ideas, and the way she occasions Church of England’s break with Rome through her marriage to Henry, till she tries to get rid of him. Her head rolls, of course. Cromwell comes across as dark, deep, self-aware, ruthless, but with flashes of tenderness. Sequels usually disappoint — Mantel’s doesn’t.



Ghachar Ghochar

Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur

If there’s a translation revolution happening in India now, with works written in regional languages getting almost as much attention as Indian writing in English, Ghachar Ghochar can be said to have started it. Originally written in Kannada and set in Bengaluru, Ghachar Ghochar was described by Deborah Smith in her review in The Guardian as “both fascinatingly different from much Indian writing in English, and [providing] a masterclass in crafting, particularly on the power of leaving things unsaid.” The dysfunctional family at the centre is caught in the throes of g hachar ghochar, a nonsense phrase that suggests something tangled up beyond mending. Srinath Perur conveys Shanbag’s fine nuances into English with aplomb.

Read full review here.



The Lives of Others

Neel Mukherjee

Mukherjee has a genius for imagining the lives of others in their entirety and that skill is honed to perfection in this novel set in the Calcutta of the 1960s and the paddy fields on the edges of West Bengal. The eldest son of the well-to-do Gupta family, Supratik, joins the CPI(M), hoping for a classless society. It’s a dream, of course, and the novel shows how class privileges are taken for granted even by Supratik. Food and its lack is a running theme — Supratik, who has berated his mother for the heaps of food she prepares, recognises hunger for what it is when he joins the ragtag bunch of rebels. The descriptions of nature are beautiful and the examinations of inner lives incisive.

Read full review here.



The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s debut novel, which won him the 2015 Yuva Puraskar, started the roll of awards that was to follow. And foreshadowed the controversies. The Mysterious Ailment stands out for its fiery women. Putki Baskey, daughter of the patriarch, Somai, from a Santhal village in Jharkhand, is indomitable. She dresses to the hilt, dances, drinks, drops lovers like handkerchiefs. Her bestie, Della, is as wayward. What marks this novella is its unapologetic realism, also the defining characteristic of Hansda’s later collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance , which the Jharkhand government banned briefly , alleging that it offended the dignity of Santhali women.



There’s Gunpowder in the Air

Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Arunava Sinha

This 2019 DSC Prize shortlisted novel is remarkable on several counts. Like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland , this is also set in Calcutta of the Naxalite years, but to read Byapari’s fictionalised account is to get the feel of lived experience (Bypari was once jailed for his Naxalite connections). While there is lament for the young lives lost, there is also humour — in the shape of an indomitable cat and a ghost that has made the jail its last stomping ground. In all its delicious irony, jail life comes to resemble domestic life — with a jail guard who resents his duties; a petty thief who finds his real calling when inspired by the idealistic young men around him; there is routine, which becomes a rhythm; there’s bad food to wait for, unexpected treats to look forward to. Arunava Sinha’s measured translation keeps the flavour of Byapari’s no-frills Bengali intact.

Read full review here.



The Sellout

Paul Beatty

This Booker winner means to offend, and how. The satire is scathing, and it spares none. Set in LA, the novel is narrated by Bonbon, who observes and describes his black community with a zen detachment. In the process, the hallowed tenets of the U.S. Constitution are challenged, and the idea of racial equality turned on its head. But Beatty, the first American to win the Booker, fights shy of calling his novel a satire: indeed, he is reluctant to talk about it at all, believing that a work of art should speak for itself.

Read an extract from 'The Sellout'



Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

If there’s a definitive Barnes, this is the one. This 2011 Man Booker Prize winner gathers in its pages almost all of Barnes’s pet themes — an eroded sense of seriousness in the English psyche, class, ageing, mortality, tricky remembrance. The title is a reference to literary critic Frank Kermode’s book of the same name, where he explains how writers bring in plot twists to make readers readjust their sense of an ending. Expectedly, Barnes does the same, showing how we restructure memory in the way we want things to happen, while reality might have been otherwise. A novel of ideas, glittering with intelligent insights.



We That Are Young

Preti Taneja

Who could have thought that King Lear could be recast in Delhi, that too by a young Indian academic-activist? Preti Taneja plays with all the stereotypes of post-colonial writing in her novel, subverting them smartly. Lear is the ageing tycoon, Devraj, who heads the sprawling India Company. The characters rage, as they must, as does nature — a reminder of the effects of climate change and what we have brought upon ourselves. On the political plane, there are the anti-corruption riots of 2011 in which Devraj’s family gets caught. Taneja unabashedly uses filmi tropes to her advantage to notch up the drama. The much appreciated novel won Taneja the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize.




Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel

Murakami is cult, and 1Q84 , published in English in 2011, adds to the legions of his devotees. Incidentally, the novel also features a religious cult, the Sakigake, which operates in much the same way as English Socialism does in Orwell’s 1984 . The “Q” in the title denotes a “‘question mark.’ The world that bears a question.” In Japanese, ‘nine’ is pronounced like ‘Q’, making the title a pun on 1984 . In the hyper-real sky of 1Q84 , there are two moons, one true and the other false, one good and the other evil. As the song goes, it’s a “Barnum and Bailey world,/ just as phony as it can be”. The key to get to the real world? Belief “in me”, in love. With its heady mix of old-fashioned tropes and post-modern glitz, 1Q84 whispers just the right things in the ears of Gen Z.


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