The best novels in English: readers' alternative list

After Robert McCrum finished his two-year-long project compiling the best novels written in English, you had a lot to add. Here are the 15 books that received most votes to join the list

Which are the 100 best novels ever written in the English language? No list could possibly satisfy everyone, as is always the case with listicles. When writer Robert McCrum completed his own, after developing it over the course of two years, it was greeted with a mix of enthusiasm and criticism. Most of the scepticism centred on the lack of diversity, though many readers had their own favourite omission. So we asked you to nominate the books you thought should have made the list. Here are the novels that received the most nominations, in no particular order – we have included all that received a minimum of two votes.

best novels

1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

“It’s the ideal postcolonial novel. Its inventive idiomatic prose highlights the malleability of the English language: no other writer (of Urdu Novels) has evoked the true essence of another language in English. Period.” Steven Ikeme

“Brilliant, distinctive, thought-provoking and illuminating of a sense of place and time. Also quite readable.” Ryan

“This book is a seminal piece of great story telling. Set in the advent of colonialism and its implications for the native people, the clash of cultures of two different worlds.A story of how a way of life was replaced by another culture.” Kinnie Hindowah

“It’s an excellent example of black African writing in English of which I felt your list was sadly lacking. Black African novelists are often sorely under represented in literary criticism and lists of this kind. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe explores the colonial experience by arguably using the tools of colonialism itself, ie the English language. The story is told from the African perspective and his use of African colloquialisms and proverbs is genuinely subversive and innovative.” Nathan Loughran


2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

“As a non-native English speaker and someone who grew up in an Asian culture, English as a language appears very articulate and clear to me. And most well written English literature works, including poems, embody such almost straightforward characters, both in their wording and storytelling ... until I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I still remember how struck I was to see the English words be played in a way that’s mostly familiar to me in other Asian literature. The gentle singsong wording and wave-like storytelling combined with the vividness of English captured me like a dream. I’ve read many more English novels since, some as captivating and clever, but none carries the same magic.” Ling

“The God of Small Things – though a fairly recent book – resonates very strongly with me. It explores caste, sexism, colonialism and the strange unspoken rules that tie Indian families together. Like in most great novels, the prose itself is stunning, with imagery fresh and original and at the same time, somehow familiar. I’m a girl from a South Indian village and I was raised by a single mother and my grandmother. Perhaps it is this coincidence that ties me so strongly to the book, to see in tangible words the burden that history passes along to Indian women.” Sita

“I have never been so moved by a book as this one. Every character is complete and completely human; the plot is intricate and perfectly woven; the sentences sparkle with lapidary precision. When common words fail, she creates her own lexicon (a device I usually loathe in lesser hands) and creates poetry within the prose – ‘Furrywhirring,’ ‘Sariflapping,’ ‘ OrangedrinkLemondrink Man’, ‘fatly baffled.’ The description of the God of Small Things or mundane tragedies as a flippant, skipping boy in short pants is as evocative as it is heart breaking. Roy frames tragic personal stories within the context of the greater tragedy of Indian social strictures and politics. And the ending made me cry for two solid hours. I read the book four years ago and writing this critique is making my throat tighten even now, such is its incandescent power and brilliance.” Pam Norris

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

“Brutal, heartbreaking and beautiful.” Tanith

“Beloved is one of the greatest novels ever written – in any language or culture, any genre or generation, any time or clime. It is a measure of Morrison’s rare and remarkable gift as a writer that one can say of this innovative novel: all humanity is here. It is the most extraordinary excavation of the bones and ghosts of American history (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow segregation), limned in a deeply haunting, profoundly moving multi-layered epic tragedy. With compelling candour, courage and conviction, Morrison’s imperishable masterpiece distils an eerie evocation of mood, setting, landscape and atmosphere, a complex, even complicated deployment of character and characterisation, multiple points of view from an interlude of astutely individuated voices. [...] Toni Morrison’s Beloved is, as TS Eliot wrote of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.’” Idowu Omoyele

“This novel is important to English literature in three respects. Firstly, it not only broaches a significant historical topic (American slavery), but in many ways prescribes solutions to our treatment of slavery’s history. The novel also uses a beautiful and poetic style to hone in its themes. Lastly, Morrison utilises magical realism to enhance the setting and the characters that occupy it. Morrison is one of the first American authors to use magical realism as a primary stylistic choice.” Sean Fortenberry


4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

“Despite the passage of time, I have not forgotten how prescient The Handmaid’s Tale was, and how prescient it felt. She described a future that didn’t seem so far-fetched. Living in America gives you a sense, sometimes, that the fundamentalist Christians, with their literalist readings of the Bible, would be capable of reading the story of an infertile woman who had her husband impregnate her handmaid and see that as a solution to infertility in the modern age. And Atwood not only gets the reading of the Bible correct, she also foresaw that we would wreck the planet at the level of reproduction, too. Sometimes, when another “crazy” thing comes to pass in American politics/culture, I find myself thinking that we’re moving closer to Atwood’s nightmare future. If you combine that prescience with Atwood’s deft handling of language – she really is a prose virtuosa – and you have the making of a classic.” Lorraine Berry

5. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

“McCarthy is certainly one of the finest living authors in the world today and this novel is his best ... A Texan, his dark descriptions of the American West are second to none. His voice is unique and unmatched in its originality. This is a novel which hypnotises, horrifies and leaves the reader as dazed as man who has stood too close to freight-train as it has roared by his head. Jolting and vividly spattered with blood, the pages brand themselves deeply into the readers memory and imagination: A true American masterpiece crafted by a true master.” Mark Hall

“It is the best novel written in the twentieth century. It tells a fascinating and complex story with incredible power. It demonstrates McCarthy’s total mastery of both language and narrative. It has arguably the greatest villain ever written. It shows the utter superfluousness of punctuation. It evokes a little-known period in American history with startling beauty and incredible realism.” TheMarxOfProgress

“Mccarthy’s novel is a masterpiece with a nihilistic bent and lurid prose. The Judge is one of the most sinister characters in the history of literature.” Jay Tucker


6. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

“This is the one book that whisked me away to India. It shows you a world that you’ve maybe never thought about before, it makes you feel empathy for the struggles of Indian beggars, it shows you what life was like in the countryside and in the city. It’s a caleidoscope of people and stories. It educates you about Indian politics and history. And it’s a very moving book as well. It can bring tears into your eyes (not mine of course, I’m talking about a friend...)” Isabelle Meyer

“A great and fluid command of the language, an achingly accurate portrayal of the complexity of human choices, startling humour in places you least expect, tender treatment of the tragedy that is the human condition... This book takes you right into the drama of ordinary, seemingly forgettable lives.” Vivian Ligo

“It is a beautifully written, tragic tale of how four characters from different backgrounds join together, but how their lives follow different paths because of their caste. Even though it’s so very sad, there is so much love and humour and the irony that it’s the ‘luckiest’ character who is the most miserable!” Kim


7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)

“David Foster Wallace was a creative force that measured the disillusion and sadness of a generation of people who felt emptiness that took a shape that no-one could really identify or wrestle with. Infinite Jest, his magnum opus, represents all of these feelings and more. It is a work that confronts the substance of how happiness is truly fleeting. A work over-brimming with intelligence, humour, pathos and insight. I can think of few works that capture the mood of a time as Infinite Jest does. It is prescient, chilling, hilarious, comforting, and all of it simultaneously.” Ben James

“The best writer of his generation has to have a spot on the list. The best novel of the past 20 years is hilarious, sad and absurd – often within the same page. At over 1,000 pages you’ll struggle through bits of it, and suddenly you’ll realise you’ve finished and want to immediately start again.” Jay Tucker


More Resources:

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