Books that shaped the 1990s
Books that shaped the 1990s

The 1990s was a slippery old decade to define. Concertinaed between the Cold War and the War on Terror, it has been dubbed “the holiday from history” – a decade of relative peace and prosperity, free from the existential angst of decades past. No global conflicts to speak of (notwithstanding Blur vs. Oasis, of course), no economic doom to wallow in, no Margaret Thatcher.

With the dawn of a new millennium about to break, it was (for most people) a strange, floating decade of positivity, hope and a thing nobody yet understood called the World Wide Web.

It was the decade of Girl Power, Neighbours, and New Labour. Thatcher was out, Mandela was free and the Berlin Wall was rubble. Charles and Diana was the new soap opera and "Cool Britannia" ruled the airwaves.

As for books, there were many that sought to paint the times with words. Here, from Michael Crichton to Alice Walker, Sue Townsend to Jonathan Coe, are 20 authors who did it best.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990)

What better way to kick off the dawn of the Technological Age than with a science experiment gone wrong, a theme park destroyed, and a horde of blood-thirsty dinosaurs raised from the dead?

“As a pop novelist, he was divine,” Steven King said of Michael Crichton after the author's death in 2008. “He made you believe that cloning dinosaurs wasn't just over the horizon but possible tomorrow. Maybe today.”

Spielberg was half right. Nobody unlocked the riddle of dinosaur cloning, just a sheep called Dolly. 

Still, Jurassic Park was the most successful science fiction book of the decade. Its film adaptation, scripted by Crichton and directed by Spielberg, became the highest-grossing movie in history, until it was sunk by Titanic in 1998.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

This wondrous work of fantastical fiction won Ben Okri the Booker Prize in 1991, sure. But its cultural currency wasn't officially rubber stamped until Radiohead based the hit song Street Spirit (Fade Out) on it. “It’s a very weird book, and I liked it so much that I wrote a song about it,” said Thom Yorke in a 1993 interview.

It follows Azaro, a spirit child suspended between life and death in an unnamed Nigerian city, possessed by “boiling hallucinations” of the invisible, hideous demons who haunt his community.

Doused heavily in African folklore, the novel exploded the dehumanising effects of decolonisation on a world tormented by corruption and evil, imported largely by the West.

The Famished Road succeeds magnificently in telling a story heretofore untold in English,” wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New York Times. “Okri has … created a political fable about the crisis of democracy in Africa and throughout the modern world.”

Wild Swans by Jung Chang (1991)

Everyone had watched the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests devolve into massacre two years earlier, shining a harsh light on Chairman Mao's tyranny over China.

But if those images provided a keyhole to life inside one of the world's most secretive societies, Wild Swans flung open the door, and gave ordinary Chinese civilians a voice that had never been heard before.

It obliterated best-selling records worldwide, was translated into 37 languages – including Chinese, where it was instantly banned – and sold more than 10 million copies.

“It arrived at just the right time to satisfy a readership hungry for information about this unknown country,” wrote The Guardian in 2005. “For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party.”

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)

The 90s was a plentiful decade for Nick Hornby, bearing such fruits as High Fidelity and About a Boy. But it was Fever Pitch that made him famous.

Published the same year the Premier League was born, Hornby captured perfectly what it meant to be a diehard football fan – not the pints-and-a-punchup Saturday afternoon thug, but the kind who's in it purely for the love of game. That, and the eternal belief that however badly today goes, things might just get better next weekend.

It is, in other words, a book about hope, which is just what post-Thatcherite Britain needed as the world dusted itself off after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It remains the best book ever written about football fandom, growing up, and merging with the mob to forget yourself in a roaring crowd.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

This was everyone's favourite novel in the 1990s, a platinum-plated phenomenon that swept through the literary landscape like a Category-4 hurricane.

A smorgasbord of style and story, it centres on a bunch of toxically pretentious 20-something classics students as they descend into fatal madness fuelled by Greek mythology. After a Dionysian ritual goes wrong, they murder one of their number and things get worse from there.

“Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment crossed with the story of Euripides’ Bacchae set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in her 1992 review. “[It's] a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists.” And so it did.

Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker (1992)

She'd already become the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer for The Colour Purple a decade earlier, but Alice Walker hadn't finished when it came to calling out the cycle of brutality and degradation meted out on women by men.

So she turned her pen to female genital mutilation, a centuries-old practice to which much of the world had, until then, turned a blind eye. The story follows Tashi, an African woman living in America as she tries to overcome the trauma of her own horrifying experience and the identity conflict it kicks up inside her.

As such, this expansive, polyphonic hymn to the human spirit became one of the first novels to illustrate the beliefs, effects, practices, and horrors behind FGM, giving a voice to the countless voiceless women who have endured it.

The Queen and I by Sue Townsend (1992)

In 1992, the same year Margaret Thatcher's reign over Britain ended, Sue Townsend imagined a nation where a John Major never took charge. Instead, the country became a republic, forcing the Royal Family out of their palaces and into a rundown Leicester council estate to live off welfare handouts.

In this reality, Charles gets into a brawl and is jailed; Diana haunts charity shops for designer castoffs and snares a suave West Indian boyfriend; Philip slumps into terminal mental decline; and the Royal corgie becomes leader of a local pack of mongrels. As for the Queen, she becomes Liz Windsor and buckles down, learning to sew and cook and keep the pesky social services at bay.

This warm-hearted satire sold by the truckload, skewering the class divide and the welfare state and riffing on the wave of ridicule washing over the Royal Family at the time.

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

Imagine what life in the 20th century would have looked like if Hitler had got his way.

Fatherland wasn't the first work of speculative fiction to rewrite the Germans as victors in the Second World War. But it was Robert Harris' forensic attention to detail that set his time-tinkering “what-if-athon” ahead of anything else.

His masterstroke was to create a genre within a genre – a detective story set in a Europe ruled by Nazis in 1964, as a hard-bitten sleuth investigates the drowning of a prominent politician, and finds romance in his American reporter sidekick. And soon they unravel a conspiracy that leads all the way to the top of the Reich.

With the Cold War over, the West was lounging louche in moral righteousness. But Fatherland provided a healthy reminder to anyone who liked to pretend that they could never be part of something evil, and showed exactly how it happens.

Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab (1993)

In 1991, at the peak of the first Iraq War, Andy McNab led Bravo Two Zero, one of the most controversial British SAS missions in post-war history, when eight soldiers were dropped inside Iraq with the instruction to disable scud missiles.

The group found themselves immediately out of radio contact and three died as they tried to escape to the Syrian border. McNab was captured a few miles from safety, imprisoned and tortured by his Iraqi captors. They became what is believed to be the most highly-decorated patrol since the Boer War.

It may have been based on truth (the debate over its veracity continues today), but it read like a novel thanks to McNab's dark humour and breakneck storytelling. It was an instant bestseller and remains the most successful military history book of all time. 

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

Irvine Welsh's ferociously poetic portrayal of junkies, hookers, psychos, bigots and social security scam artists living by what's left of their wits in Edinburgh did for Nineties literature what The Sex Pistols did for music in the Seventies. It was a white-hot blast of pure punk energy.

The novel pulled no punches in exposing the high levels of unemployment, urban decay and drug abuse that plagued certain corners of late-Thatcherite Britain.

It was a book about the grim nature of addiction, yes, but it was also about friendship that sparkled with humanity and compassion for a band of hideously down-and-out addicts it refused to condemn.

But it wasn't just its gritty themes that got readers hooked, Welsh's use of language – a writhing hybrid of Scottish brogue and English – was trailblazing, described by the The Sunday Times as "the voice of punk, grown up, grown wiser and grown eloquent".

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993)

It was a book that did just what it said on the tin: an uproariously funny portrait of childhood in Dublin in 1968. “This must be one of the truest and funniest presentations of juvenile experience in any recent literature,” wrote the Scottish poet Mick Imlah.

It follows a year in the life of, yes, Paddy, a ten-year-old cheeky chappie of the kind they only make in Ireland. His is a life of jumpers-for-goalposts, dead arms, trapping rats and exploring sewers as he navigates his tiny reality with the intense clarity of a boy who knows nothing of the real world. Until, one day, his dad leaves his mum and he is pushed unwillingly and prematurely towards adulthood.

It was a gleaming window into the mind of a ten-year-old boy, an intimate portrait of the innocence of childhood and its inevitable death. A novel of such depth and feeling that it won the Booker and was added to the national GCSE curriculum almost instantly.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993)

This, in a bullet shell, was a beautifully written story that breathed new life into the nation's fading memories of the First World War. Because, according to Sebastian Faulks, we didn't remember the First World War like we did the second. Its survivors were now dying, and they were taking its memory with them.

So Faulks wrote Birdsong, about a young Englishman who enters an intense love affair in France before he is dragged to the trenches of No Man’s Land. “Outside academia, the First World War was at that time an almost closed book,” Faulks later wrote. “It was as though people felt those four years had been dealt with, assimilated and filed away. I passionately disagreed.”

His painstaking research – years of trawling the archives and speaking to veterans – paid off. The book, with its visceral depictions of the mud, blood, fear and friendship of war, was an international sensation, reawakening the world to the horrors of war like a trench whistle at dawn.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (1994)

This enchanting epic wartime love story infused with the authentic scent of Greek island life became the must-have beach accessory for all British holidaymakers in the late 1990s.

The author A. S. Byatt compared it to Charles Dickens. TV presenter Jeremy Paxman called it “absolutely brilliant”. Even heartthrob of the hour Hugh Grant was shown nose-deep in the paperback in the final scene of Notting Hill, then Britain's highest-grossing film of all time.

The story about love, war, heroism and a mandolin-strumming Italian soldier who cares more about life's pleasures than about the Fascist cult of death, plucked heart strings all over the world, sold millions of copies and remained on the bestseller lists for four years.

What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe (1995)

It usually takes a few years to gain a sober perspective on an era that's just died. And when it came to Jonathan Coe's turn to dissect and destroy Thatcherite policy, he obliterated 1980s politics like the bombs she'd dropped on Baghdad four years earlier.

To that end, he packaged all the “naked, clawing, brutish greed” that, as he saw it, defined that era in one upper-class family, the Winshaws – a clan of rapacious bankers, career politicians, ravenous tabloid hacks, and dealers in arms and art … “the meanest, greediest, cruellest bunch of back-stabbing penny-pinching bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth”.

As the Guardian's Robert McCrum put it, “[It's] the finest English satire from the 80s … a memorable and explicit commentary on Thatcherism, a topic that many other novelists shrank from.”

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)

Another book to ride the wave of First World War fever that swept the 1990s. This was the third in Pat Barker's epic Regeneration Trilogy that explored sanity, madness, trauma and recovery in the aftermath of war.

It came at a pertinent time, just as mental health was becoming a foreground issue in the Nineties cultural discourse. “I think the historical novel can be a backdoor into the present which is very valuable,” Barker once said.

The Sunday Times called it "brilliant, intense and subtle". Publishers Weekly dubbed it "a triumph of an imagination at once poetic and practical." While novelist Jonathan Coe hailed it as "one of the few real masterpieces of late 20th century British fiction."

As Barker said when accepting her Booker prize in 1995: "The Somme is like the Holocaust: it revealed things we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It never becomes the past."

Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding (1996)

For a novel that began as a newspaper column about the trials of single-girl life in London, BJD exceeded all expectations, becoming one of the most successful British fiction exports of the 20th century.

This hilarious faux-diary of a perennial spinster who lives hard, loves hard and drinks even harder than that, blew in on a cyclone of critical and commercial acclaim, selling 15 million copies, spawning two blockbuster films which each took over £150m at the box office.

As Helen Fielding wrote of the book's success in 2013, "I suspected that what Bridget had unwittingly tapped into was the gap between how people feel they are expected to be on the outside and how they actually feel inside."

The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)

On the face of it, it's about the beauty of beach life. But behind the sun-bleached sands and tropical lagoons, then-26-year-old Alex Garland's debut novel was a bitter critique of human selfishness and the hypocrisy of backpacker culture.

Now a cult classic, it follows an English traveller who finds a map to a hidden beach paradise. There he finds a small, self-sufficient community of Western bohemians who've swapped real-world responsibility for palm trees, coconuts and cannabis. At first it seems like Eden... until it turns to Hell.

It came to define a generation at war with ennui, as much an iconic Nineties staple as Britpop, Nintendo or the Simpsons. Nick Hornby referred to it as "a Lord of the Flies for Generation X", while the Sunday Oregonian called it "Generation X's first great novel".

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Hello, sorry... it's time to “talk” about Fight Club again. Truth is, we haven't really stopped talking about Fight Club since Chuck Palahniuk wrote the story of a depressed pen-pusher who finds freedom, identity and brotherhood in organised punch ups.

If you don't know, it's about a terminal insomniac trapped in the murky penumbra of his own sanity who finds salvation in a charismatic soap salesman with a zest for life and a taste for anarchy. Together, they form a bareknuckle fight club for disenfranchised men before launching a masterplan to take revenge on the capitalist machine that is sucking the world dry of its humanity.

And boy, did it touch a nerve. But why? Here's the movie adaptation's co-star Edward Norton to explain: "It took aim right at what a lot of us were starting to feel … The book was so sardonic and hilarious in observing the vicissitudes of Gen-X/Gen-Y's nervous anticipation of what the world was becoming—and what we were expected to buy into."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (1997)

It doesn't need an intro – everyone knows who Harry is, where Hogwarts is, and what Quidditch is. It was the story that launched the most successful book series in history, and changed the literary world.

The series has sold more than 500 million copies, been translated into 80 languages, inspired a series of blockbuster movies, launched a theme park, and turned Rowling from a single mother on benefits to being named the world's first billionaire author by Forbes. You know the rest.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

Not only did this win Arundati Roy the Booker Prize, but it made her the biggest-selling non-expat Indian writer in Britain at the time. The God of Small Things, in other words, was a very big thing indeed.

It is, first and foremost, a story of childhood, set in Kerala, India, during the political turmoil of the 1960s. Rahel and Estha are twins doing their best to negotiate a weird world of adult imperfection that they can't quite understand.

And from there grows a novel that provided as warm and powerful a slice of Indian life as anything that the British reading public had read before.

“[It's] a novel that turns out to be as subtle as it is powerful, a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character,” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani." It became the literary sensation of the 1990s.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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