Who makes the cut, and why? Instinct, is what it came down to. Some books earned their spot because of how profoundly they moved me, others because they tell us something important about the world we’re living in. Not all were enjoyable reads — some were difficult, disturbing, and almost impossible to get through. But they’re all reflecting truths we need to be sensible to. So after much teeth-gnashing and hair-tearing, here, in no particular order, is a list of the 20 best books of the decade.
My Brilliant Friend, the first of the quartet that makes up the Neapolitan Novels came in 2011 and — I say this without any hint of exaggeration — changed my life forever. It is the most real, raw, and breathtakingly honest portrayal of the rich tapestry of emotions woven around lifelong female friendships. The series starts with 66-year-old Elena Greco being informed by her childhood friend’s son that his mother, Lila Cerullo, has vanished into thin air, taking every physical reminder of her ever having existed in the first place. Furious, Elena decides to commit their six-decade-long friendship to paper — a story that includes adultery, domestic violence, divorce, and the exhausting poverty of Naples in the 50s. It’s the kind of series that makes you want to learn a language just so you can read the original (in Italian), even though Ann Goldstein’s translation from is everything you can possibly hope for.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “biography” of cancer is possibly the most ambitious book I’ve read this decade. It’s also an exhausting, often depressing, and emotionally depleting book to read, thanks to the Mukherjee’s precise and unsparing prose as he weaves the long, life-sucking history of cancer with his own observations as a doctor specialising in the disease. Even as I call it one of the most important books of the decade, I know that few among us will ever read it. And yet, I must insist that you do.
Can you imagine how staggeringly good a series has to be for its author to win the coveted Hugo Award (science fiction’s most coveted writing prize) for all three books in the trilogy? Not only is NK Jemisin the first black author to win the award, she’s the only one to have won it three years in a row. The books are set in a massive earth-like continent called Stillness, ravaged by periodic environmental catastrophes called Seasons. And within this fantastical, intricate world Jemisin unpacks, with incredible thoughtfulness and sensitivity the intense, complex, and all-too-real experiences of slavery, repression, resistance, and even family.
It’s tough to care about a book narrated in first person plural (“we”), but Julie Otsuka has this sneaky way of making you care despite yourself, even though no individual character is allowed to develop or emerge for longer than a couple of paragraphs. The “we” narrating this PEN/Faulkner and National Book Award-winning book are a group of Japanese mail order brides, sailing to San Francisco, each one clutching what she thinks is a picture of her fiance, each one thinking she’s about to marry a good-looking, successful man. It’s only upon arrival that they learn that these photos are at least a couple of decades old, and their husbands-to-be are neither good-looking, nor successful. Compelling premise? You bet it is.
Either you’re the kind of person who buys a book titled Men Explain Things To Me, or you’re not. If you are, it’s next to impossible not to enjoy each sarcasm-laced paragraph of the book. Solnit may not have come up with the term ‘mansplaining’, but the seven essays that make up Men Explain Things To Me examine men’s fondness for assuming that they know it all, and they know it better than the women around them in a way that’s both tension-building and relieving. If I had to pick one writer who has shaped my feminism the most, and one book that I find myself thinking about at odd, unrelated moments, it would be Rebecca Solnit and Men Explain Things To Me.
Here’s my dirty little literary secret — this Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Paul Beatty is the first Booker winner that I’ve managed to read to the end. There are few writers who can balance scorching sarcasm and offensiveness without alienating their audience, but Beaty does just that with the deliberate provocation and outrageousness of The Sellout’s plot, making it a scathing indictment of race relations and bigotry in Trump’s America. Its protagonist is a character called ‘Me’, a black man who has been summoned to the Supreme Court of America to stand trial for “owning” a slave and trying to reinstate segregation in his quiet, Los Angeles suburb. It’s every bit as delicious and messed up as it sounds.
It is my belief that every serious reader must read at least one book of poetry a year, and that’s how I found myself tucked in bed with Beauty Was The Case They Gave Me one night near the start of the decade. Almost 10 years on, it’s still a book that feels like an old friend’s hug. If anyone tells you good, serious, meaningful poetry isn’t funny, show them Beauty Was The Case They Gave Me. Especially, show them Yellow Rose, in which Leidner zigzags from dick jokes to war and its many body bags with a speed that will leave his readers reeling. If there’s one poetry collection you read this decade, let it be Leidner’s.
Narcopolis is a dramatic, richly described book that I don’t know why I like, but I can’t pretend that I don’t. Set in 1970s Bombay, it has the most oddly compelling mix of characters I’ve seen in a novel in recent times — there’s Dimple, a eunuch who is part opium dealer part prostitute; her violent customer Rumi; her gentle customer Dom; Rashid, the owner of the opium den where these characters converge and cross paths with each other. The books spans three decades, narrators come and go, the city changes, opium’s popularity wanes as other more lethal drugs infiltrate the city, communism and terrorism are on the rise… You get the drift. In the hands of a lesser writer, Narcopolis could have been a bleak, unbearable book, but Thayil’s soulful ruminations and acerbic rants make it unputdownable.
It’s difficult to talk about Trust Exercise, Susan Choi’s fifth and — to me — best novel yet, without giving away its shocking, subversive climax, even if unintentionally. So I’ll just stick to the barest of facts — Trust Exercise is written in three mind-bending parts, the first set in a suburban school in 1980s America, tracing the fledgling romance between Sarah and David, and the unequal friendship between Sarah and Karen. In the second part, we’re suddenly made to realise that the fist part was a story in a story, as an offended Karen takes over from Sarah, who has conveniently appropriated Karen’s story to fit it within her own. And the third part… I’m just going to beg you to read it, because not reading it would be a tragedy.
It’s unusual for a debut novelist to be so expansive in the scope of their storytelling, yet so intimate with the emotions they concern themselves with. Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field is both a meditation about intense personal grief, and the terror that underpins the experience of collective tragedy. The Far Field’s protagonist, Shalini, is in Kashmir looking for some connection to her dead mother’s past, but soon finds herself embroiled in conflicts and situations far more horrifying than she is equipped to deal with. While that’s not unusual — books about Kashmir tend to focus on its bloody history and present — what makes Vijay’s love letter to the Valley stand apart is her acceptance, even insistence, that her protagonist and her readers never forget their place: we’re privileged outsiders, and we must never forget that.
Aimee Bender’s inimitable fabulist flair is on glorious display in this tragic, yet, paradoxically, lighthearted novel. Around her 9th birthday, Rose Edelstein acquires the magical ability to taste feelings within food. She tastes her mother’s loneliness when she bites into her lemon cake, her thrill in the roast beef when she starts an affair… You get the drift. With every bite of everything she ever eats, Rose now knows something about the world her young self has no business knowing. Don’t tell e you’re not hooked already.
If I had to pick an author who really, truly, gets the millennium zeitgeist, it would be Sally Rooney. Just 28, and already two books old, Rooney is already being hailed as the voice of her generation. It’s a voice that combines the vagaries of love with contemplations about capitalism, completely unfazed. Conversations With Friends’ Bobbi and Frances are millenial poetry performers women who become lovers before they become friends locked in an all-consuming, intense, co-dependent relationship that sees them get involved with a married couple… and if that makes you greedy to get your hands on Rooney’s debut novel, it should.
How can a book about a desperate death wish, spark so much joy? It’s a thought I kept grappling with while reading All My Puny Sorrows. The book is the story of two sisters, Elf and Yoli; the former desperate to end her life, the latter adamant to keep her sister alive and rekindle in her a love for living. Ironically, it’s the successful sister, Elf — a world-famous concert pianist — who has no desire to live; while the twice-divorced, failing book writer Yoli can’t understand why anyone might want to stop living. All My Puny Sorrows is a bittersweet, poignant, large-hearted book that impresses upon its readers how our individual sorrows are both crushingly big and laughably small, both at the same time, and a reminder of what joy might look like even among the most profound sadnesses of our lives.
14. Dear Life, Alice Munro
No one does longing the way Alice Munro, and no one does people, quite like she does. How can one person have this uncanny ability to write characters with such precision that you find yourself, infuriatingly, identifying with all of them? The many stories that make up Dear Life will leave you feeling all that and more, as Munro delves into themes as varied as prostitution, adultery, incest. I love all Alice Munro, but I love this one especially because the last four stories in the collection are as authobiographical as the author claims she will ever get.
Every once in a while there comes along a book that messes with your mind so much, you find yourself thinking about it years later, and it still makes a small chill run up your spine. Gone Girl was that book to me. It’s a crime novel, so I don’t want to ruin the climax — and what a climax it was! — with spoilers, but I’ll say this: on the surface, it’s impossible to imagine the goings on of the book to translate into real life, but Gillian Flynn’s unrelenting attention to detail ensures that you do imagine the characters are real, not fictional beings, which is frankly, what messed with my mind. The mere possibility that people like that roam the earth, seemingly normal…Creepy.
Americanah is an earnest, thoroughly enjoyable and touching love story set against the backdrop of immigration. But more than anything, it’s a reminder — that immigrant experiences aren’t uniform, and they’re often not pretty. Adichie’s protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze travel to the US and England, face intense financial struggle, deal with their circumstances in completely different ways, and go on to lead very different lives. But among all their hardships, they also love and find their identities. Americanah is proof that Adichie is as gifted at tapping into the humanity of her characters as she is as sharp social critique, making her an author whose work no serious reader can afford to skip.
Child sexual abuse and homosexuality are dense, difficult subjects on their own, individually. Combining the two in one narrative could be a recipe for disaster. But not when the author doing it possesses the mastery that Anuradha Roy does. Sleeping On Jupiter is the story of 25-year-old Nomi who returns to India from Norway to put to rest the demons of her past — one that includes murder, abandonment, and sexual abuse by a spiritual guri at the age of seven. Interwoven within Nomi’s tale are the stories of the women she meets on her journey, a forbidden, secret, same-sex love story, and an exposition of India’s many cultural hypocrisies. Frankly, I’m amazed that Sleeping On Jupiter isn’t a movie or a Netflix special already.
Being Mortal is nothing, if not a sobering book. It is surgeon author Atul Gawande’s long hard look at the question most of us are too terrified to voice out loud — is a long life really worth living, if that life is without self-respect? It’s a rare, honest peek into the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of doctors, and how little even they — the ones we think must hold all the answers to all our sufferings — know when it comes to death and the process of dying. Being Mortal is not a book for everyone: it requires a willingness to engage with mortality and accept its inevitability to be able to stomach it. I’d recommend it to anyone who can.
Amitabha Bagchi’s fourth novel is packed with characters — a staggering 100 or so — but each one has a purpose to exist, as fleeting as their individual narrative might be. Half The Night is about many things: the tenuous relationship between fathers and sons, duty, sacrifice, the caste system, patriarchy, the role of women. But all of these themes coalesce into one central idea — the importance of our history to give us a sense of belonging, in the context of the past, present, and future. It is the heartwarming, compelling story of two families and their intertwined destinies, spread over three generations, from pre-Independent India to the Indian of the 1970s and 80s, and one of my favourite books from the decade.
When Yashica Dutt, a fashion and culture writer in New York, suddenly decided to “come out” as Dalit, it sent shock waves through her world. In Coming Out As Dalit: A Memoir, Dutt details how, from the time she was a toddler, her mother had drilled it into her and her siblings the importance of pretending that they were Brahmins, if they were to amount to anything in India; and how she meticulously erased her Dalit identity, living in constant fear of being “found out”. As shameful as Dutt’s recollections force you to feel, the book serves a bigger purpose. It’s as much a journalistic project as it is a memoir, tracing India’s fractured relationship with caste, and the hatred for lower castes that is not just part of our history but also our present, no matter how hard we try to deny it. If I could, I’d make it required reading in schools and colleges across the country.