Reading is still the best way we know to relax, learn and escape reality. From American Psycho to American Pastoral, we have rounded up 22 lockdown-busting modern classics that will take you somewhere different – and stay with you forever…
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Part campus novel, part murder mystery, The Secret History has attracted a devoted cult following since it hit the shelves in 1992. Set in New England, it tells the story of a close-knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite institution based on the one Tartt herself attended in the mid-80s. Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, the group of clever, eccentric misfits discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and forever. This 640-page novel is a story of two parts: the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next. A modern classic, it is compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.
Winner of the Booker Prize in 2011, novella The Sense of an Ending is written by bestselling British author Julian Barnes. Friendships forged in childhood are tested to their limits when the past comes back to trouble 60-something Tony Webster. The more his past appears to unravel before him, the more blurred it becomes. What did happen all those years ago? Nothing is as it appears in this haunting novel. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, this is the work of one of the UK’s most distinguished writers – and a restrained and realistic reflection on a frustrated life.
With more than 20m copies sold in 57 languages, this story has been revered by everyone from Toni Morrison to Nelson Mandela. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is the first novel in Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed African Trilogy. It is propelled by a game-changing narrative about one warrior’s futile resistance to the decimation of his tribal heritage by British forces. Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance, he can only hurtle towards tragedy.
Disgrace was a Booker Prize winner in 1999, making J.M. Coetzee the first writer to win the trophy twice (he first won with Life & Times of Michael K in 1983). In 2003, he was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, setting him out as one of the foremost writers of his era. Disgrace is a searing exploration of race relations in post-apartheid South Africa. After years teaching romantic poetry at a university in Cape Town, David Lurie – middle-aged and twice divorced – has an impulsive affair with a student. The affair sours; he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy's isolated home. For a time, his daughter's influence and ways of the farm promise to soothe his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting, and he and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack.
On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister older Cecilia take off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her too is Robbie Turner. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever, as Briony commits a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone. Adapted into an Oscar winner starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan in 2007, this is rightly Ian McEwan’s most famous work.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
In the slums of 18th-century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift: an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odours of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille’s genius is such that he is not satisfied; he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the “ultimate perfume” – the scent of a beautiful young virgin. This story is beautifully narrated, and is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder, love and sensual depravity.
When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're skint, adrift and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, touched by addiction, success and pride. Yet their greatest challenge is Jude himself, by midlife a talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood and haunted by a trauma that will define his life forever. A devastating read.
Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, this book tells the story of the Kid, a 14-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a stark, forbidding world of shocking violence and demonic characters. Cormac McCarthy might be best known for The Road – which was made into a Nick Cave-scored film in 2009 – but Blood Meridian is an epic novel of the brutality and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West along the way.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
In the closing months of World War 2, bombardier John Yossarian is feeling frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His real problem is not the enemy; it is his own side, which keeps increasing the number of missions men must fly to complete their service. If Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions then he is caught in the original Catch-22 situation: if he flies, he is crazy, so doesn't have to; but if he doesn't want to fly, he must be sane and therefore well-equipped to fulfil the flight. Savage and wildly funny, Joseph Heller’s novel is a peerless exposition of the pointlessness of war.
After 50 years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is finally ready to have some fun. Unfortunately her husband Alfred is beginning to lose his sanity, and their children have long since fled the family home. As Alfred’s condition worsens and the Lamberts are forced to face up to their secrets and failures, Enid sets her heart on one last family Christmas. In The Corrections, American author Jonathan Franzen shows an old world of civic virtue and sexual inhibition colliding with the era of hands-off parenting, DIY mental healthcare and globalised greed. The upshot is an entertaining yet profoundly moving read.
When he hears her favourite Beatles song, 37-year-old Toru Watanabe recalls his first love, Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. He’s transported back almost 20 years to his student days in Tokyo – adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire – to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past. This 1987 coming-of-age novel by prolific Japanese author Haruki Murakami is a nostalgic story of loss and burgeoning sexuality. It remains one of his best.
Philip Roth’s most famous work is a piercing look at the promises of prosperity and domesticity in 20th-century America. ‘Swede’ Levov is living the American dream. He coasts through life, cushioned by his devoted family, his demanding yet lucrative business, his sporting prowess and his good looks. He is the embodiment of thriving, post-war America. Then one day in 1968, his bountiful luck deserts him and tragedy springs devastatingly close to home. Extraordinarily poignant, American Pastoral is the first in a trilogy of post-war American novels by Roth and cemented his reputation as one of the greatest of all American novelists.
City slicker Patrick Bateman is 26 and works on Wall Street. Handsome, sophisticated, charming and intelligent, he is also a psychopath. Taking readers on a voyage through an average month of his life – one filled with a killer soundtrack and an immaculate grooming regime – AmericanPsycho is a bleak, bitter black comedy about a world that’s all too familiar. Among the most controversial and talked-about novels of the last 50 years, this bestseller is a true modern classic. It spawned a decent Christian Bale film too.
It’s the early 1950s. James ‘Jim’ Dixon has fallen into a job at one of Britain's new red-brick universities. A moderately successful future in the history department beckons so long as the reluctant professor can: survive an all-singing, all-dancing weekend at department head Professor Welch's; deliver a lecture on 'Merrie England' in front of a rapt audience; and resist Christine, the endlessly desirable girlfriend of Welch's awful son Bertrand. Having a bad week? Allow Jim’s increasingly toe-curling misadventures to be your tonic.
Celebrated short-story writer George Saunders racked up an impressive list of accolades for his first novel, including the 2017 Booker Prize. His inspiration for Lincoln In The Bardo is the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, 11-year-old Willie, at the height of the American Civil War. At the time, newspapers reported that the grief-stricken president repeatedly broke into his son’s tomb in the dead of night to mourn over the boy’s corpse. Saunders takes this fragment of fact and runs with it, setting his story in the ‘bardo’ – a purgatorial realm borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism – where a host of disfigured, increasingly absurd spirits grapple for control of Willie’s soul, while the boy awaits his father’s return. Perhaps Saunders’ greatest achievement is the book’s ability to zip from the grotesque, cartoonish horror and surreal comedy of the bardo to a grave, reflective portrayal of Lincoln as he stands at a defining moment in the life of a nation. Ingenious, important and often hilarious.
Kilgore Trout is a widely published but virtually invisible writer who is invited to deliver a keynote address at a local arts festival in distant Midland City, Ohio. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy businessman who owns much in Midland City, but is increasingly mentally unstable. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 title is achronological and frequently shifts focus between Hoover and Trout, as well as supporting characters, including Vonnegut himself. In a frolic of comic outbursts against rule and reason – and a miraculous weaving of science fiction, memoir, parable, fairy tale and farce –Vonnegut attacks the whole spectrum of American society, releasing some of his best-loved literary creations as he goes.
Following Crash and Cocaine Nights, J.G. Ballard wrote this unnerving tale of life in a modern tower block as it runs out of control. Within the concealing walls of an elegant 40-storey building, the affluent tenants are hell-bent on an orgy of destruction. Cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on ‘enemy’ floors and the once-luxurious amenities become an arena for riots and technological mayhem. In this visionary tale of urban disillusionment, society slips into a violent reverse as the isolated inhabitants of the high rise, driven by primal urges, create a dystopian world ruled by the laws of the jungle. Ben Wheatley 2016’s film adaptation, starring Tom Hiddleston, is also worth a look.
Hunter S Thompson is roaring down the desert highway to Las Vegas with his attorney, the Samoan, to find the dark side of the American Dream. Armed with a drug arsenal of breath-taking proportions, they undergo a surreal succession of chemically enhanced confrontations with casino operators, police officers and an assortment of Middle Americans. A controversial bestseller when it appeared in 1971, the novel is littered with Ralph Steadman’s excellent illustrations, bringing to life the hallucinatory humour and nightmarish terror of Thompson’s musings on the collapse of modern society.
To the authorities in pursuit of him, outlaw Ned Kelly is a horse thief, bank robber and police killer. To his fellow ordinary Australians, Kelly is their own Robin Hood. In his 2001 Booker Prize winner, Peter Carey brings the famous bushranger wildly and passionately to life. The legendary Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but descriptive prose as he flees the police. By the age of 26, he is the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over whole towns and defying the law until he is finally captured. Through Carey’s handiwork, the gang comes alive as a classic outlaw tale is reworked with skill.
For more than 20 years, acclaimed author Edward St Aubyn chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting a portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose's story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind, the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family's chateau in the south of France, where the sadistic figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American wife, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel Bad News opens as 22-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father's ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed 24 hours. Back in England, the third novel Some Hope offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery.
The Wasp Factory is a bizarre, imaginative, disturbing and darkly comic look into the mind of a child psychopath. Frank is no ordinary 16-year-old. He lives with his father outside a remote Scottish village. Frank’s mother abandoned them years ago and his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals, there is some solace. When news comes of Eric’s escape from the hospital, Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother’s inevitable return – an event that explodes the mysteries of the past and changes Frank utterly.
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