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

The dawn of the 21st century sounded like the future. In reality, it also arrived with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. As the seconds ticked towards 01/01/2000, there was a much-publicised fear that a “Millennium Bug” would cause global technology to crash, and planes to fall out of the sky.

The Bug didn’t land at midnight – but early in this decade, shattering events would alter the world irrevocably: the atrocity of the 9/11 attacks; the subsequent, sprawling horror of the so-called “war on terror”.

The preceding decade obviously hadn’t been free from global conflicts, but the Noughties might have been a blockbuster sequel, with warfare increasingly presented as a real-time “shock and awe” media spectacle. Conflicted emotions would be channelled through creative expressions, from books to movies and music. The rising digital age also brought a DIY ethos, and the possibility that anything from a story to a video clip could prove a viral hit. The impact of youth culture could no longer be side-lined. Mainstream books began to feature a richer disparity of human experience, voices and perspectives. If this decade was marked by uncertainty, it also evoked an exploratory spirit – with multi-genre books exploring where we came from, and where our world might be heading next.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith

In many ways, White Teeth appeared the quintessential new millennium novel: a brightly cosmopolitan debut written by then 21-year-old London literary talent Zadie Smith, endorsed by her elders (“It has bite,” punned Salman Rushdie) and winning titles including The Guardian First Book Award. Its narrative packed in decades of multi-cultural family ties with comic asides and a twist of fundamentalism, starting with wartime pals Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, and eventually centering on their respective offspring: smart yet shy Irie; identical twins (and polar opposites) Magid and Millat. A couple of decades on, Smith’s portrait of London feels like a slightly quaint period piece, but the dialogue and wry details still pulse with city life.

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

British author David Mitchell had experimented with tricksy narrative structures in works including his 1999 debut Ghostwritten; he expanded on this to particularly grand effect in his third novel Cloud Atlas: an odyssey spanning 1,000 years across space, time and fictional genre: including historical drama, environmental mystery and dystopian sci-fi. The book’s matryoshka-style form had each different story emerging from the last, and ultimately resolving in reverse chronological order. This proved harder to replicate in the 2012 Hollywood adaptation, but Mitchell’s story-telling (and unexpectedly playful touches) prompted enchantment, bewilderment, and equally lavish reviews. The Times opined that “The novel’s scale, ambition and execution make almost everything in contemporary fiction look like a squalid straggle of Nissen huts”.

Noughts & Crosses (2001) by Malorie Blackman

Young Adult fiction arguably powered up in the Noughties, really connecting with youth and grown-up audiences alike. British writer (and more recently, Children’s Laureate 2013-15) Malorie Blackman delivered a particularly strong example in the first of her Noughts & Crosses series. Real-world systemic racism was given a role-reversal in this tale of an alternative near-future; darker-skinned Crosses were the elite race, with light-skinned noughts suffering discrimination. The story played out via the illicit friendship and budding romance between nought Callum and Sephy (daughter of a Cross statesman); its relatable themes earned far-ranging praise. UK rapper Stormzy enthused that: “The Noughts And Crosses series are still my favourite books of all time and they showed me just how amazing storytelling could be” – and in 2019, he played a memorable supporting role (as a bigoted newspaper boss) in the TV adaptation.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver

The 1999 Columbine school shooting was a painfully raw memory when this seventh novel from US author Lionel Shriver appeared; the horrifying recurrence of real-life “copycat” killings have meant it never feels like a distant trauma. In Shriver’s fictional tale, we read the first-person account of Eva Khatchadourian, whose teenage son Kevin committed a high school massacre, and is now in a correctional facility. Through Eva’s letters to her absent husband, a darkly unsettling yet queasily compelling picture emerged: of a deeply disturbed youth and also a complex maternal perspective. New Stateman summed up the novel as “Desperate Housewives as written by Euripides”.

Persepolis (2000) by Marjanne Satrapi

Civilian insights humanize the reality of “foreign” conflicts, over any media headline. In Persepolis, writer and illustrator Marjane Satrapi documented her own childhood experience in late-70s revolutionary Iran, through vividly expressive, lithograph-like black-and-white visuals, and innocent observations that revealed bold, often hilarious, frequently heartbreaking truths. Opposition to the book came from both Iranian authorities and US conservatives, yet it connected the comics and literary worlds, and inspired a sequel (2004), an animated movie (2007) and a fan tribute responding to 2009’s Iranian elections. Everything sparked from this first volume – and its unforgettably resonant final frame.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz

Loveable losers abound in literature, but there was still something special about Oscar Wao: a dumpy, awkward “hardcore sci-fi and fantasy” nerd who longed for intimacy, yet seemed destined for the infinite friendzone. Dominican American author Junot Diaz conjured a tale that spliced diaspora experience, urban “Spanglish” slang, tropical folklore, tragicomedy and political context (with occasional footnotes fleshing this out). In 2015, a BBC Culture poll declared this to be the best novel of the 21st century to date. It was so easy to feel wrapped up with Oscar and tough yet tender characters including his sister Lola; the book’s emotional power lingers, years later.

Small Island (2004) by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy drew from historical research and her own British Jamaican heritage (including her father’s arrival in the UK on the Empire Windrush) for her multi-prize-winning fourth novel. Small Island seemed to signal a point where the Windrush generation’s far-ranging legacy was increasingly explored across mainstream culture. It related a post-war migration story – and the birth of a modern Britain – through four vividly contrasting narrators: young Jamaican RAF recruit Gilbert, finding he’s cruelly spurned by the “Motherland” following his wartime service; his young wife Hortense finding her sense of “Englishness” is grimly dislocated when she reaches England; their white landlady Queenie experiencing her own awakenings; and her soldier husband Bernard finally returning home. The Guardian noted that “[Levy’s] imagination illuminates old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time”.

Read more: Books to help you understand colonialism

Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan

Turbulent emotions characteristically lurk beneath the cool veneer of Ian McEwan’s novels. This worked to particularly assured effect in Atonement: a novel widely regarded as McEwan’s masterwork, portraying adolescence, class etiquette, love, deceit, conflict and contrition, taking us from 1935 to a present-day denouement that cast shocking clarity on the past. In 2010, Time magazine highlighted Atonement as one of the greatest English-language novels written since 1923, with critic Richard Lacoyo enthusing: “Even as [McEwan] shows us the deadly force of storytelling, he demonstrates its beguilements on every page”. In 2007, Atonement was adapted for screen, in an aptly heady, Oscar-winning film version.

Read more: 'This novel had everything': an oral history of Ian McEwan's Atonement

 Half Of A Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The title of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel referred to the flag of Biafra: a West African republic that declared independence between 1967 and 1970. Its plot gave us several captivating characters – young houseboy Ugwu; his erudite employer Odenigbo; headstrong twin sisters Olanna and Kainene; English writer Richard – amid the promise of independence (personal and political), and the unfolding horrors of the Nigerian Civil War, which by this point had seemed forgotten by Western history books. Adichie’s writing proved elegantly evocative, yet spiked with unforgettably brutal images of a man-made humanitarian crisis; the fact that this tale is rooted in recent colonial history was highlighted through excerpts of a “non-fiction” book-within-the-book, entitled: The World Was Silent While We Died.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

Dystopian fiction seemed to make a “comeback” in the conflicted climate of the Noughties. Seasoned US writer Cormac McCarthy already had nihilistic form with 1985’s Blood Meridian and 2005’s No Country For Old Men, but The Road proved his bleakest vision yet: following a nameless father and son trawling through an endless post-apocalyptic wasteland, encountering fragments of civilization, dangers and depravity. McCarthy’s prose was lean yet richly descriptive; The Road also led to an acclaimed 2009 movie adaptation. Reviewing in The Independent, UK novelist Clive Sinclair noted that: “Despite its biblical undertow, the journey that father and son undertake is unmistakably an American one: a grim re-enactment of pioneer crossings (as well as later ones by Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig.”

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishigiro

Modern science both saved human lives and devalued them in Never Let Me Go – and Kazuo Ishigiro’s serene touch was precisely what lent weight to its dystopian tragedy, in book (and 2010 film) form. The story relates the friendship, and intensifying bond, between three young friends at an English boarding school, and their realization that they and their peers have been cloned as organ donors for other people, and are destined to “complete” their lives young. In an interview with The Guardian, Ishigiro described the characters’ exclusive school as “a protected world”, explaining: “To some extent at least, you have to protect children from what you know, and drip-feed information to them. Sometimes that is kindly meant, and sometimes not.”

Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

History was rewritten – and the historic epic rebooted – in British writer Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which gave an unusually sympathetic starring role to Thomas Cromwell, who’d risen to power as Henry VIII’s chief minister. This wasn’t the first time that Mantel had offered an alternative slant on a controversial figure (her 1992 French Revolution novel A Place Of Greater Safety had rehabilitated Robespierre), but it was her most expansive project. The lengthy Wolf Hall covered 1500 to 1535 (when Cromwell was at the peak of his influence), and commenced a trilogy that won her the Booker Prize for both this first volume, and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up The Bodies. The Times praised Wolf Hall’s “wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle – one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago feel new again, and shocking again, too.”

Adrian Mole And The Weapons Of Mass Destruction (2004) by Sue Townsend

By the turn of the 21st century, Sue Townsend’s anti-hero diarist Adrian Mole was long past puberty – yet clearly hadn’t outgrown his gauche phase. The sixth instalment of the much-loved Mole diaries depicts thirtysomething Adrian still aspiring to literary fame and luxury living (in the East Midlands), and pining over his childhood sweetheart Pandora (now a New Labour MP). Adrian sinks into debt, and disillusionment with shiny Blairite Britain, while Iraq is invaded (and his teenage son Glenn deployed with the army), and Saddam’s WMDs remain unfound. Townsend’s hilariously sharp satire came with genuine empathy – and it captured an era when “British values” unravelled.

Twilight (2005) by Stephanie Meyers

Gothic fiction never strictly went out of fashion, but Twilight really coursed through the veins of Noughties pop culture, thanks to its blend of smalltown high school romance and monster lore. Meanwhile, a Twilight fanfiction site would feature an explicitly adult-orientated spin-off, entitled Master of the Universe by “Snowqueen’s Icedragon” – aka British writer EL James, who would eventually rework and self-publish this as 2011’s Fifty Shades Of Grey

The YA book’s best-selling status soared further after 2008’s first movie adaptation, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as human girl Bella meets 104-year-old vampire boy Edward; Twilight spawned a prolific series of books and films, and Stephanie Meyer is reportedly planning to write further instalments.

Life Of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel

There was no way of simply summing up this global bestseller from Canadian author Yann Martel. Life Of Pi was a florid tall tale with unexpectedly grisly twists; a multi-faith meditation on the human condition; and the account of 16-year-old shipwreck survivor Pi Patel, cast adrift at sea with zoo creatures including an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Such intricacies ensured that the book was unlike anything else of its time, and inspired adaptations for screen (a 2012 movie directed by Ang Lee) and stage. The Observer remarked that “Martel has large amounts of intellectual fun with outrageous fable… Mostly, it dramatizes and articulates the possibilities of storytelling, which for this writer is a kind of extremist high-wire act”.

The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga

Globalisation, class struggle, progress and corruption were the very timely themes of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning debut novel The White Tiger. Its narrator, Balram Halwai, presented himself as a quintessential – and murderously driven – self-made man, ascending from “The Darkness” of his impoverished low-caste background, into “The Light” of a wealthy modern nation. The book’s dark humour and unflattering depictions of modern Indian society drew controversy as well as praise, particularly given Adiga’s own privileged international upbringing, but the author insisted that money was merely an amoral force in this drama. “I’m not opposed to the economic boom going on right now,” he told The Times of India. “My role as a novelist is only to dramatize certain conflicts taking place because of the generation of so much wealth.”

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (2005/ English translation 2008) by Steig Larsson

The Scandi crime thiller was served in hyper-stylised fashion in the first instalment of Stieg Larsson’s international best-selling Millennium Trilogy – released (and adapted for film) posthumously, as the Swedish author died of a heart attack in 2004. Its plot had investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist teaming up with twentysomething techno-punk hacker Lisbeth Salander (the very “girl” of the title, whose look and fierce attitude felt very on trend in the early Noughties) to crack a cold case; its themes were undeniably brutal (the book’s original title had been Men Who Hate Women), yet its delivery was slick. The Guardian stated that: “This is a striking novel, full of passion, an evocative sense of place and subtle insights into venal, corrupt minds”. By 2010, Larsson would become the first author to sell 1million ebooks online.

The Corrections (2001) by Jonathan Franzen

It was possible that Jonathan Franzen’s American satire, featuring mom and pop, and three respectively wayward grown kids, particularly struck a chord given its release in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It’s undeniable that Franzen’s narrative, its relatable absurdity and pert details, warranted praise; The NYT praised the book’s “Wordplay worthy of Nabokov… Tiny, revelatory gestures… magically precise images… Knowing one-liners”. Unfortunately, Franzen also cast himself as a kind of high-handed Noughties literary bro, who baulked at The Corrections being included alongside “schmaltzy” titles in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Oprah coolly disinvited Franzen – but the pair reached an entente cordiale in 2010, when she reprised, and he more graciously accepted, her invitation.

Everything Is Illuminated (2002) by Jonathan Safran Foer

The debut novel from tipped author Jonathan Safran Foer gave fresh treatment to the age-old road trip format, as well as a self-reflexive twist. It presented a young Jewish American protagonist, called Jonathan Safran Foer, on a quest to find the woman who had saved his grandfather’s life, after the Nazi destruction of the Polish shtetl where he’d been born. It was also ebulliently narrated by Jonathan’s Ukrainian guide and “fluid” translator Alex Perchov – and while the novel’s “wacky foreigners” drew criticism, the heart-rending roots of the story, and rapport between Jonathan and Alex did prove a massive hit – as did 2005 film adaptation, starring Elijah Wood and Gogol Bordello musician Eugene Hutz.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon

We investigated an unusual suburban crime scene – a neighbourhood dog skewered by a pitchfork – through the inquisitive and logical eyes of Christopher John Francis Boone: a mathematician with some “behavioural problems”, aged 15 years and three months. The Curious Incident proved an international bestseller with significantly broad appeal; in Britain, the book was released simultaneously in YA and adult editions, and presented a neurodiverse perspective on a mainstream platform, winning multi-category awards (including the Whitbread Book of the Year, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize), and inspiring a stage adaptation. Although reviewers would generally refer to Christopher as being on the autistic spectrum, Haddon would later explain on his blog that “The Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s… if anything, it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”

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