For all the praise given to the Austens’ and Dickens’ of Britain’s past, a relatively small amount of attention has been paid to England’s postwar canon. Far from doting upon the same social issues, these novels often express the difficulties of adjusting to modernity after colonial rule, to adapting to suburban life, to rejecting and accepting new subversive movements. This list barely scratches the surface, but I hope these selections lead you to discover the manifold trends that have populated the hearts and minds of the United Kingdom. Let us know what you think.
Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim (1954)
Thought written in the 1950’s, Amis’ novel about the anachronistic nature of educational institutions in England speaks to the major social shifts during the era. With poets like Philip Larkin and playwrights like John Osborne bitterly expressing their chagrin for the new post-war era, Lucky Jim is a refreshing satire of the old, staunch, British order.
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net (1954)
By combining a keen eye for relationships with the emerging existentialist philosophy of post-war France, Under the Net is a novel of ideas that does not languish excessively on dead-end ideas. Rather, it is a beautifully-wrought account of a comatose world of confused youth and bombed-out landscapes, an ideal vision of Paris now bleak and gloomy.
John Fowles – The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)
Switching between the narration of the past and present, Fowles’ novel is a Victorian love story with a twist. Playing with many Victorian-era clichés, Fowles story of “forbidden love” combines historical revisionism and pastiche-like satire to deflate our modern-day view of Victorians as staunch and chaste authoritarians. Partly based on Claire de Duras’ Ourika, it was one of the first postmodernist novels of the era to confront historical revisionism.
J.G. Ballard – Crash (1973)
Crash is a novel like no other. Envisioning a future where our sex drive is literally, well, a “sex drive”, Ballard’s mad prose describes a landscape of parking lots, highways and airports, where transcendance is not a spiritual experience, but rather a consumerist one. Ballard’s novels have been derided by many as crude and overindulgent, but the author’s nightmarish vision of sex and technology forever binding has many contemporary implications. In short, few other authors would foresee just how dramatically computers would become the new voices of the libido.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark: A Life in 4 Books (1981)
Grey’s book is a semi-autobiographical account of the novelist’s Glasgow upbringing, but there is little about the work that is conventional. In fact, the book starts in “Book 3” and then reverts to his childhood, were descriptions of Scotland during World War II are combined with otherworldly visions. The novel is pure postmodernism; by drawing on several perspectives to frame his past, we come to a better understanding of the protagonist’s brilliant but troubled mind.
William Golding – Rites of Passage (1981)
Part 1 of Golding’s seafaring trilogy contains many similarities to his popular classic Lord of the Flies: characters from different backgrounds must work hard to maintain their microcosmic society as the behest of each other (many of whom are privy to the subtleties of navigation. Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, the narrator of the novels, witnesses the rising tide of class struggle that Englishmen had to face after the Napoleonic era.
Graham Swift – Waterland (1982)
Graham Swift may still be active today, but none of his novels have matched this 1982 achievement, a combination of regional history, personal upbringing and digressions ad infinitum. Set in England’s Fenland region, the novel follows a schoolteacher’s as he struggles to come to terms with his past in the strange, eel infested lowlands on England’s East Coast. Swift’s novel is postmodernist because it offers a whole new type of “history”, one combining the distant past with personal recollection and present-day retrospection.
Martin Amis – Money (1984)
Amis’ father reportedly hated Money so much that he threw the book across the room, but while their satire differs dramatically in content, Martin speaks boldly of a decade of greed and mindless overindulgence. About John Self, an ad man hopping over the Atlantic between New York and London, Money sublimely describes modern life and its excesses with a conversational but hilarious wit.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984)
Banks’ popularity skyrocketed after this controversial novel became an instant cult favorite. Grotesque and gruesome, the novel follows Frank, a 16-year old living in the isolated Scottish Northwest who engages in intricate but deranged fantasies involving the killing of animals. Banks would later turn to Science fiction, but his dreamscapes have left an indelible mark on the imagination of its readers.
Julian Barnes – Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
Barnes has written many unique works, many of which combine various literary styles to create a complex, interwoven whole. Flaubert’s Parrot, a loosely-written biography of the famous French author, contains subtle interjections from a speaker haunted by a past he does not want to confront. The novel is a meditation on the capabilities and limitations of fiction, and how we use it to deal with conflicts in our own life.
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus (1984)
Carter’s carnivalesque tour-de-force about Fevvers, a winged woman who became a turn-of-the-century circus icon, combines magic realism with a postmodernist take on the era of big-tent circuses. While it is easy to doubt the validity of the story Fevvers tells the reader, her probable fabulations only brighten the bleaker aspects of the story. Carter understands that, as a novelist, need not tell a completely “true” (or true-to-life) story to be deemed important. I think you should give them credit, too–a novelist’s most important job is to, well, make stories up.
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985)
Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel actually contains many similarities to James Joyce’s modernist Bildungsroman,Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. About her religious upbringing in rural England, the novel chronicles her own formation from a devout Christian to a secular Lesbian in a world where men had, at most, a peripheral presence. In her later novels, Winterson will continue to confront these themes by combining them with fantastical elements.
Jan Morris – Last Letters from Hav (1985)
Last Letters from Hav was written at end of a prolific and storied career as a travel writer, essayist and novelist. About an imaginary peninsula in the East Mediterranean, Morris uses her skill as a travel writer to evoke a vivid sense of verisimilitude when describing the strange but alluring sights. Including a city-wide rooftop race and a litany of fantastical elements, the island stands as a symbol to not just the exotic, but to the richest depths of the imagination, too.
Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming-Pool Library (1988)
During the 1980’s, the Thatcher and Reagan administrations responded disappointingly to the AIDS epidemic, prompting a rise in Queer Theory and fiction among writers. One of the finest novels of this era was Hollinghurst’s Swimming-Pool Library, a homosexual love story set before the epidemic brutalized the community. Describing the relationship between an elderly man and a youth who saves his life.
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day (1989)
Many extraordinary English novels concern very ordinary people and very ordinary events, but as Ishiguro’s first novel suggests, it is sometimes the undercurrent that drives the most forcefully. About a butler forced to serve under Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer, the novel is a simply-told tale that meditates upon the power of regret as one nears nears the end of their life.
Hanif Kureishi – The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
The postcolonialist movement in England prompted many authors of diverse nationalities to write about their life in England, free from conventional anglo-European representations. The Buddha of Suburbia, which follows the rise of the punk movement through the eyes of disenchanted suburbanite kids, examines the racial and social divides that create and destroy relationships. In the novel, the adolescent Karim attempts to forge relationships with other youth as his parents’ marriage falls apart before his eyes.
AS Byatt – Possession (1991)
One major critique of postmodernist fiction is that it is inevitably steeped in erudition far beyond the reaches of the average reader. Fortunately, Byatt’s Possession makes such obsessive research both interesting and alluring, as the study of two 19th century poets becomes a love story for the two contemporaries investigating them. Possession accomplishes what so many novels fail to do: To make the endless search for knowledge sexy.
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
It is far more difficult to generate controversy with a novel in this day and age, but Welsh successfully outraged a number of critics and conservative moralists with his shocking description of drug use in Scotland. While the eventual cinematic adaption would further bolster the novel’s popularity, Welsh has remained an icon of punk fiction on the literary scene.
Louis de Bernières – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)
Set on the small Greek island of Cephalonia during the Second World War, the novel looks at the creation of personal relationships in times of war and strife. Part historical drama and part magic realism, de Bernières closely examines the relationship between a young islander and an Italian captain seemingly uninterested in war. Several major novels during this era challenged grand historical narratives, showing that humanity prevailed over staunch nationalism and ruthless war.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth (2000)
Smith wrote White Teeth in her early 20’s, but this ambitious novel provided a whole new perspective on the English “city novel” popularized by Dickens in the 1800’s. Set in modern London, Zadie Smith’s debut novel chronicles Bangladeshi and Jamaican families as they struggle to express their identity in an increasingly saturated society. Smith has no intention to make grandiose statements about the modern immigrant condition. Rather, White Teeth is an unbiased view of modern urban life through the lens of characters we learn to love and hate in startlingly uncanny fashion.
Ian McEwan – Atonement (2001)
Like several other novels on the list, global popularity of the work would not reach fruition until its cinematic adaptation, but in England alone, this novel was praised for its dramatic prose and insightful take on the ways that fiction intervenes in our lives. Told from the perspective of Briony Tallis, a young English novelist, Atonement follows her life, one overshadowed by the events of her youth and the Second World War. Tallis’ lies, however, will provide both misery and mercy throughout the novel, thereby reminding us readers about the ineffable presence of fiction in the real world.
Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog of The Night Time (2003)
Both heartwarming and tragic, Haddon’s foray into the mind of a fifteen year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome has been hailed for its surgical accuracy in depicting the condition. Unable to lie and only capable of seeing the world through mathematical constructs, the narrator “investigates” the death of his neighbors’ dog, only to delve deep into the troubling marriage between his parents. Accessible and simply told, the book is nevertheless a watershed.
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas (2005)
Cloud Atlas is a compilation of six different stories set in the past, present and future, from the South Pacific to rural Belgium to a futuristic South Korea. It is told in Matryoshka-doll fashion about people facing their mortality while realizing they are part of a deeper, more transcendent pattern of life. Drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s confounding vision of “The Eternal Return”, the novel suggests that there is hope in the inexorable repetition of the human spirit
James Lever – Me, Cheeta (2009)
Lever’s satire of autobiography and Hollywood fame is one of the most hilarious books to come out of England in recent years. Written from the “point of view” of a retired chimpanzee/hollywood actor, the fake memoir goes over all of the conventional celebrity tropes, including his difficult upbringing (taken from his home in the jungle), his addiction to booze and cigars, as well as his foray into painting in what he calls “apeist” art.
Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies (2008/2012)
The first two parts of Mantel’s trilogy revolving around the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII are richly-detailed and vividly dramatic. Born in poverty but continually rising, Cromwell oversees Henry’s controversial reign as he divorces Catherine of Aragon and founds the church of England. Not only has Mantel challenged the modern-day view of Cromwell as a mean-spirited tyrant operating behind the scenes, but she has also contributed to a resurgence of historical fiction in England.