Tumultuous times always inherit good art, and the literary world is no exception. These are the best fiction books released during the 2010s.
Fiction had a moment in the 2010s, despite the turmoil of the past decade (the world emerging from a devastating recession, the climate crisis, and global politics being led by a racist talk-show host, to name a few.) At the same time, the decade was filled with just as much hope, and some of the times’ best fiction books reflected this aptly.
Storytellers of fiction from around the world navigated the chaos to produce incredible bodies of fiction, reflecting their evolving societies. Listed in chronological order of publication, are 21 of the best fiction books of the 2010s.
How Should A Person Be?: A Novel from Life – Sheila Heti (2012)
Listed by the New York Times as one of The New Vanguard, a list of 15 books that are “changing the way we read and write in the 21st century,” How Should A Person Be? is a collage of fiction and semi-autobiographical non-fiction. Heti explores Toronto bohemia, the simmering dynamics of female friendship, and what it means to be an artist.
How Should A Person Be? presents a recurring aimlessness, focused on young, self-involved characters who spend a lot of time thinking about their outward appearance to other people. Innovative in her style, Heti’s experimentation with form and fiction pushed the boundaries of what a novel could be, and the reprinted edition (with the added “a novel from life”) is a stunning reimagining of traditional fiction.
NW – Zadie Smith (2012)
British novelist Zadie Smith was widely touted as a prodigy for her debut effort, White Teeth which exploded onto the literary scene in the early 2000s. With her fourth authorial effort, Smith’s writing evolved from novelistic realism to a distinctly modernist style, using a mix of literary and colloquial language, stream of consciousness, and numbered sections that successfully reflects the novel’s rapidly dissociative and distracted metropolitan consciousness.
With a title taken from the postcode area of North-West London, NW is filled with meditations on the intersections of class, race, and gender on the experiences of the four protagonists. Smith weaves these narratives together to paint a portrait of a radical, painful, and passionately truthful expression of the lows and highs of the Black-British experience.
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (2012)
Elena Ferrente (a nom-de-plume, whose real identity is still unknown) is one of Italy’s most acclaimed novelists and best known for her Neapolitan Novels, a quartet of novels that begin with My Brilliant Friend. The narrative paints a portrait of two women’s intense friendship, as well as their rivalry, growing up in the poor outskirts of Naples.
Language is seen as second to the narrative, which pushes through the novel with a tide of urgency. Grippingly unsentimental, My Brilliant Friend depicts an unglorified story of womanhood and class that uses its exploration of societal structures to masterfully examine the story of a nation.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)
Americanah won Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It details the story of two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they flee military-occupied Nigeria for the West, and the expansive novel covers Ifemelu’s emigration to America and Obinze’s undocumented migrant status in London.
An elegant novel, Adiche’s ability in delicately handling her protagonists’ humiliations and indignities is an incredible feat. The novel quietly interrogates the structural inequalities that underpin each character’s experience of emigration, identity, and home, constructing an intimate portrayal of what it means to love, and what it means to belong.
How to Be Both – Ali Smith (2014)
Wildly inventive and deeply compassionate, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both uses a dual narrative technique to combine the stories of a troubled teenager and an Italian fresco painter. Depending on which copy you get your hands on, the stories are presented in a different order. Intentionally printed in two different ways, Smith allowed for readers to randomly have different experiences reading the same text.
Received to wide critical acclaim, the genre-blurring fiction navigates fantastic complexity, pushing the boundaries of traditional literary form to amazing heights. How To Be Both was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 Folio Prize. The novel won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the Novel Award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards, and the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney (2015)
Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends is a startling exploration of love in the modern age. Following four characters: protagonist Frances, her best friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi, and the married couple Nick and Melissa, the novel explores themes of adultery, chronic illness, love, jealousy, and class differences with an astounding sharpness. Lauded by critics upon release, the novel has elevated its author to titles like “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and “the first Millennial author.”
City on Fire – Garth Risk Hallberg (2015)
Set in New York City in the 70s, City on Fire details the investigation of a seemingly random shooting in Central Park. The novel made waves during its acquisition, due to Hallberg receiving an advance of $2 million USD from publisher Alfred A. Knopf— widely considered one of the highest advances ever offered for a debut novel. As reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, City on Fire was described as “an amazing virtual reality machine,” with Kakutani crediting Halberg for possessing an “instinctive gift for spinning suspense not just out of dovetailing plotlines and odd Dickensian coincidences but also from secrets buried in his characters’ pasts.”
The Sellout – Paul Beatty (2015)
The Sellout takes place in Los Angeles and follows the experiences of a protagonist, Bon Bon, who grows artisanal marijuana and watermelons. It’s a work of satire that surprises you with the amount of sharp, caustic humour consistently proliferating the novel.
The novel won Paul Beatty his first Booker prize in 2016, making him the first American writer to be honoured with the award. The Sellout also won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
The Sympathizer is Vietnamese-American Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel. It blurs across many fiction genres like espionage, historical, political, metafiction, mystery, and dark comedy. The novel follows an anonymous narrator who is a North Vietnamese mole, as well as an immigrant, within the South Vietnamese community in America.
The dual identity of the narrator and the Americanisation of the Vietnam War in international literature are central themes in the novel. The Sympathizer was published 40 years to the month after the fall of Saigon, which is the initial scene of the book.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
A Little Life follows the lives of four friends in New York City as they move through time from college to middle-age. The novel received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, 2016’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.
The narrative navigates the complexities of friendship – admiration, jealously, love, and obsession – while exploring the nuances of fluid romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships.
A review from The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “A Little Life is the perfect chronicle of our age of anxiety, providing all its attendant dramas (cutting, binges and childhood sexual abuse) as well as its solaces: friendship, drugs, travel, love affairs and interior design.”
Outline – Rachel Cusk (2015)
Outline is the first in a trilogy of novels by Rachel Cusk and details an English writer’s experiences as she flies and teaches a writing workshop in Athens. In every chapter, the reader is privy to vignettes of intimate conversations around writing, love, commitment, and intimacy.
Cusk’s writing style is unapologetic – she details encounters of “disgust between men and women” and “the devastating distance between people” observed by her protagonist, with a frankness that is complex, yet borderline unsettling.
With an unbelievable knack for deep, intimate observation, it makes sense that Cusk’s Outline was shortlisted for the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, 2015 Folio Prize, and the 2015 Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan (2016)
The Association of Small Bombs is a devastating, incredibly intelligent novel. It handles grief, rage, and tragedy with an unparalleled literary agility. A commentary on the self-absorption of middle-class Delhi life and an interrogation of the way in which we perceive violence in South Asia, it’s no wonder that Karan Mahajan’s novel was finalised for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.
Mahajan’s narrative explores the tragedy and aftermath of a 1996 bombing of a market in New Delhi from the perspective of different characters, including the Kashmiri terrorist who sets off the bomb.
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi (2016)
Written by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half-sisters separated by circumstance, and subsequent chapters following their children and following generations.
Despite being her debut novel, the book was selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 award in 2016 and longlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize. Homegoing also received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for 2017, an American Book Award, and the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature.
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016)
The Underground Railroad is an alternate history novel that tells the story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves in 19th century America, who make a bid for freedom from their plantation by following the Underground Railroad; a rail transport system, series of safe houses, and secret routes.
Colson Whitehead’s novel was a huge success, winning winning several notable prizes like the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy (2017)
Winning the 1997 Booker prize with her debut novel, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy was poised to dominate the world of fiction. But the 20 years in between her debut and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness were spent choosing to cultivating her intellectual and political identity.
A vocal supporter of Kashmiri independence and a fierce opponent of the rising Hindu nationalism in her home country, Roy has cemented herself as a prolific writer of polemical, political non-fiction.
Roy’s political views have clearly informed her return to fiction. In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the author tells the story of contemporary India, covering events such as the 2002 Godhra train burning to the Kashmir insurgency.
Roy’s achronological narrative structure allows her to encompass the perspectives of a vastly diverse society – one that is proliferated with so many differences and disadvantages, that no single narrative voice would ever do them all justice.
Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Exit West is more than just a love story. Set in a unnamed, modern society, Mohsin Hamid masterfully accentuates the devastating reality of displacement and war with a touch of magical realism. The novel details the swift disruption of protagonists’ Nadia and Saeed’s lives as they escape the siege of their homeland in search of a better life.
Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Award, Exit West presents “magical doors” that transport people to distant lands, using dystopia to bypass the borders of military fire and treacherous seas that have claimed the lives of so many real-life Nadias and Saeeds.
Despite this, the migrant experiences – of terror, uncertainty, and hope – within Hamid’s novel are firmly rooted in realism, extrapolating the lives of millions like the Syrians, Afghanis, and Palestinians, whose lives have been destroyed by political crises.
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017)
Kamila Shamsie’s Booker-longlisted Home Fire is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antigone, set amongst the British Muslim community. It’s an incredibly powerful story, rich with political commentary, about the place of Muslims in a world that openly treats them as the enemy.
The story follows three siblings, Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz, the children of a dead jihadist, as well as the story of a father and son, Karamat and Eamonn, all of whom represent an insight into Muslim life in contemporary London.
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (2018)
An American Marriage focuses on the marriage of Celestial and Roy, a middle-class African-American couple whose relationship is violently disrupted by Roy’s wrongful conviction of a crime he didn’t commit. Tayari Jones’ skilful characterisation is brought to light as the reader moves through several narrators, allowing for a remarkable indictment of the American criminal justice system and its disturbing preoccupation with incarceration.
In a review by The Atlantic, Jones’ writing quality was described as “quiet” yet “powerful.” The review commended Jones’ technical skill in “illuminat[ing] the bits and pieces of a marriage: those almost imperceptible moments that make it, break it, and forcefully tear it apart.”
Severance – Ling Ma (2018)
Severance is a satirical sci-fi novel that follows the apocalyptic story of a world ravaged by “Shen Fever”, a fictional disease originating from China that triggers a global pandemic. Trust me, you’re not the only one feeling déjà vu.
Ling Ma’s use of the zombie apocalypse trope explores concepts of alienation, threading in powerful insights about Western imperialism and gender that contribute to her critical analysis of humanity’s dependence on late capitalism.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak (2019)
Described as a “rich, sensual novel that gives voice to the invisible,” Elif Shafak’s novel begins at the end of the protagonist, a forty-something sex worker named Leila’s, life. 10 Minutes 38 Second In This Strange World is a radically creative novel by the political novelist.
It tells the story of a Turkish woman reflecting on her life in the immediate moments after her brutal death. Leila has been murdered and dumped in a wheelie bin in the outskirts of Istanbul. But in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her heart stops beating, her mind continues to rapidly click through the memories of her life.
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (2019)
Girl, Woman, Other explores the interconnected lives of 12 characters, primarily Black British women. Through a non-linear narrative and masterful, free-flowing prose, Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker-winning novel is a profound reflection on Blackness and sexuality.
A stunning portrayal of contemporary Britain, Evaristo challenges the representation of Black women in British history and presents a grand, polyphonic depiction of Black womanhood as it moves, evolves, and blooms through time.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (2019)
Having previously won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong’s gorgeous, lyrical prose in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous captures the fragility of young, immigrant life.
Vuong’s searing observations as Little Dog, the young, gay protagonist of the novel, unleash themselves with a frankness that explores a life fractured by war, immigration, and sexuality.
Written in the epistolary form, Little Dog’s story is narrated as a series of letters to his mother, who cannot read English. Filled with equally startling moments of emotional pain as there is catharsis, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous wrestles with the limitations of language, culture and experience to frame a deeply emotional, coming-of-age story.