The United Kingdom is always producing great new novels. For such a tiny place they sure manage to dominate the literary scene. Just some of the best modern novels to have recently come out of the islands include Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (a fantasy), Never Let Me Go (sci-fi), or Wolf Hall (historical fiction). I love these stories, but in recent years I have even more so enjoyed contemporary British experience novels, ones that delve into the modern British life.
I think that most Americans grow up with a bit of a rosy view of Britain. From Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter we associate the British Empire with charm, comfort, class. But of course the modern UK is no longer filled with the Pemberleys of our dreams, but is much more complex. From the 2011 London riots to Brexit, the United Kingdom has proved itself to be as messed up and confusing as the rest of the world. I love contemporary literature coming from any country, because it is another way to understand our own modern history as it happens. It’s really the easiest way to find “modern thought.”
These five novels are not all masterpieces. Some of them are quite simple, telling small and personal stories. But they are some of my favorite modern British* novels that deal with modern British life.
Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005)
A coworker of mine lent me Saturday earlier this year; it was one of the last McEwan books I hadn’t read. His novels cover an insane amount of ground, but Saturday is his most contemporary. Like all his novels, McEwan pulls it off with a little literary gimmick. The whole novel takes place during one day, on a Saturday in the winter of 2003, in London, the day of a large political demonstration protesting the United States’ invasion of Iraq.
Henry Perowne is a successful middle-aged doctor, looking forward to a visit from his daughter living in France, stressed about work, preoccupied with the news. It’s a slow novel which follows Henry from thought to thought, from waking beside his wife in the middle of the night to 5:15am on Sunday, in bed again. Saturday definitely has a plot – a surprising one that emerges unexpectedly at the end – but its beauty is found in the meandering.
He plays squash, debates politics with his daughter, gets into a fight with a man on the street. It’s a day in London both like any other and like no other. The looming setting of the Iraq war from the perspective of an Englishman was an interesting one for me. I was ten in 2003, too young to have an educated opinion about war, but for any American this slow-paced snapshot of London life will be interesting.
A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby (2005)
You can’t discuss contemporary British literature without mentioning Nick Hornby. Although A Long Way Down is not my personal favorite of his novels, it fits this list the best. The novel is written from four different first-person narratives, four people who meet on a rooftop in England, ready to commit suicide. They don’t – all of them coming down alive, but none of them convinced their their intentions for suicide are not valid enough.
The main characters cover a breadth of British life: a washed-up middle-aged celebrity, a single mother with a disabled adult son, a young woman trying to escape her family, and a recently dumped American with a failed music career. It’s a dark story, both amusing and heartbreaking in that classic Hornby style. Since the book covers many walks of life, it also gives insight into the British health care system, class tension, and alcoholism and drug abuse.
It’s a very unique story which ends in a challenging way, as Nick Hornby does not let his characters or readers off easy. He tells a complicated story about difficult lives and difficult people, letting the reader interpret the end. Crippling unhappiness is not an easy thing to understand, but Hornby writes with all the tenderness that has come to be expected of him.
Us, David Nicholls (2014)
I bought a copy of this new release in 2014 in the train station in Edinburgh, heading up to Inverness for a week. I bought it at a little book stand on a whim, because I had enjoyed Nicholls’ previous novel One Day (2009), which, by the way, was way better than the film. I read it while traveling through Scotland, which is appropriate because the novel is about a British family traveling through Europe. I’d just left France and this was the first novel I read that was partially set in Paris after I’d actually been there.
The novel opens with middle-aged wife Connie (ok, I love reading about middle-aged people, sue me) telling her husband she wants to separate, after their son Albie leaves for university. Connie’s husband, Douglas, convinced she is making a mistake, plans a grand tour through Europe for the family during their son’s break, to bring the family closer together, heal his marriage, and strengthen his relationship with Albie.
It’s a sweet and surprising novel, but also realistic to a fault. One reviewer Craig Brown said, “Reading it, you realize quite how many important areas of real life are ignored or avoided by most novelists, possibly because they are so hard to render.” It is a novel about the little things in life. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations. Not quite unhappiness, but complacency. It’s funny and sad all at the same time, which is a trademark of British literature. Nicholls has only published a few things, but his talent is on par with the names I listed before him.
A Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling (2012)
Ok, so this one is a bit controversial. It’s disliked by many and downright hated by others. Rowling’s first foray into contemporary fiction, A Casual Vacancy was a cluster of hit-and-miss ideas, but it was also a messy and fascinating picture of the conflicts that England faces in the 21st century. From parish politics to Estate poverty, from heart surgeons to social workers, A Casual Vacancy has it all. It boasts a huge cast of diverse and demanding characters.
The book is as diverse and complex as modern England, though trying to fit every issue that the country currently faces into one novel was perhaps Rowling’s downfall. But for me it was an interesting look at how an English town is actually run – how the neighborhoods are divided and segregated, how the local politics work, how the school system and the health insurance and all those weird daily operations work.
I read it immediately after its release, and I have not picked it up in a while, but it is definitely a fascinating book that has prompted a lot of good conversations with friends and family about everything from rape culture to immigration policies.
Capital, John Lanchester (2012)
Let me begin by saying this is one of my favorite novels, ever. I read it on my mom’s recommendation last year. I always want to compare it to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. If Trollope’s 19th century novel covered almost every aspect of life in London at that time, then Lanchester’s novel does the same for the 21st century.
It is set during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, in a row of houses in Clapham. The novel begins with a brief history of the row houses, when they were built and why, how they rose in value, and how the current residents got to be there. Capital follows the intertwining lives of a wealthy widow, her street artist grandson, an investment banker and his spendy wife, a Pakistani family and their relatives, a football star from Senegal, and a Polish migrant worker.
Lanchester is a journalist first, and he wrote a nonfiction account of the market crash a few years before he published Capital. He writes with the eye of a journalist and an economist. And while I compare him to Trollope, Claire Tomalin of The Observer compared him to Dickens in her review of the novel, calling it a “big, fat London novel.” It’s not a perfect novel, but it is as chock full of history and economics as it is with vibrant London life. It’s a modern British classic with a respectful nod to the classics that came before.
* British, because none of them are Irish, I checked.
Sarah V Diehl