1. Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood (2003)
In the first book in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, the Booker winner speculates about the havoc science can wreak on the world. The big warning here – don’t trust corporations to run the planet – is blaring louder and louder as the century progresses.
2. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
The title is the question Winterson’s adoptive mother asked as she threw her daughter out, aged 16, for having a girlfriend. The autobiographical story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the trials of Winterson’s later life, is urgent, wise and moving.
3. Human Chain
by Seamus Heaney (2010)
The Nobel laureate tends to the fragments of memory and loss with moving precision in his final poetry collection. A book of elegies and echoes, these poems are infused with a haunting sense of pathos, with a line often left hanging to suspend the reader in longing and regret.
4. Levels of Life
by Julian Barnes (2013)
The British novelist combines fiction and non-fiction to form a searing essay on grief and love for his late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Barnes divides the book into three parts with disparate themes – 19th-century ballooning, photography and marriage. Their convergence is wonderfully achieved.
5. Hope in the Dark
by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
Writing against “the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”, the US thinker finds optimism in political activism and its ability to change the world. The book ranges widely from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, to the invention of Viagra.
6. The Line of Beauty
by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
Oxford graduate Nick Guest has the questionable good fortune of moving into the grand west London home of a rising Tory MP. Thatcher-era degeneracy is lavishly displayed as Nick falls in love with the son of a supermarket magnate, and the novel records how Aids began to poison gay life in London. In peerless prose, Hollinghurst captures something close to the spirit of an age.
7. The Green Road
by Anne Enright (2015)
A reunion dominates the Irish novelist’s family drama, but the individual stories of the five members of the Madigan clan – the matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna, who escape and are bound to return – are beautifully held in balance. When the Madigans do finally come together halfway through the book, Enright masterfully reminds us of the weight of history and family.
by Martin Amis (2000)
Known for the firecracker phrases and broad satires of his fiction, Amis presented a much warmer face in his memoir. His life is haunted by the disappearance of his cousin Lucy, who is revealed 20 years later to have been murdered by Fred West. But Amis also has much fun recollecting his “velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted” youth, and paints a moving portrait of his father’s comic gusto as old age reduces him to a kind of “anti-Kingsley”.
9. The Hare with Amber Eyes
by Edmund de Waal (2010)
In this exquisite family memoir, the ceramicist explains how he came to inherit a collection of 264 netsuke – small Japanese ornaments – from his great-uncle. The unlikely survival of the netsuke entails De Waal telling a story that moves from Paris to Austria under the Nazis to Japan, and he beautifully conjures a sense of place. The book doubles as a set of profound reflections on objects and what they mean to us.
by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
A moving, book-length poem from the UK’s first female poet laureate, Rapture won the TS Eliot prize in 2005. From falling in love to betrayal and separation, Duffy reimagines romance with refreshing originality.