The 21st Century's 12 Greatest Novels

This is one of the 268 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    This novel tells the story of Oscar de Leon, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy novels, and falling in love, but is perpetually unlucky in his romantic endeavors. The narrative not only explores Oscar's life but also delves into the lives of his family members, each affected by the curse that has plagued their family for generations. The book is a blend of magical realism and historical fiction, providing a detailed account of the brutal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic and its impact on the country's people and diaspora.

  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones

    "The Known World" is a historical novel set in antebellum Virginia, exploring the complex relationships between slaves, free blacks, and whites. The story revolves around a black man who becomes a slave owner, his wife, and their slaves. It provides a unique perspective on the moral complexities and personal consequences of slavery, while also examining the intricate social hierarchy of the time. The narrative is filled with richly drawn characters, each with their own stories and struggles, offering a vivid portrayal of a little-known aspect of American history.

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

    The novel is a historical fiction set in the 1500s, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble beginnings who rises to become the King's chief minister. The narrative explores the political and religious upheavals of the time, including King Henry's break with the Catholic Church and his controversial marriage to Anne Boleyn. The protagonist's cunning, ambition, and survival instincts are central to the plot as he navigates the treacherous waters of the Tudor court.

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

    The novel is a series of reflections written by an elderly dying pastor in 1956 in Gilead, Iowa, as a letter to his young son. The protagonist, John Ames, shares his family history, personal thoughts, and the struggles of his life, including the tension with his namesake and godson who returns to their small town. The book explores themes of faith, regret, and the beauty of existence, providing a profound meditation on life and death.

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

    The novel revolves around the lives of the Lambert family, an old-fashioned midwestern couple and their three adult children. The parents, Alfred and Enid, are dealing with Alfred's Parkinson's disease and their own marital problems, while their children are each facing their own personal and professional crises. The narrative explores the themes of family dynamics, societal expectations, and the struggles of modern life. The story climaxes with the family's last Christmas together at their childhood home.

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

    The book follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, one a skilled escape artist and the other a talented artist, before, during, and after World War II. They create a popular comic book superhero, which brings them fame and fortune. However, their success is complicated by personal struggles, including the escape artist's attempts to rescue his family from Nazi-occupied Prague and the artist's struggle with his sexuality. The narrative explores themes of escapism, identity, and the golden age of comic books.

  • A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

    "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is an interconnected collection of stories about a group of characters whose lives intersect in the music industry. The narrative spans several decades, tracing the characters' journey from their youth to middle age. It explores themes of time, change, and the impact of technology on human relationships and the music industry. The novel is known for its experimental structure, including a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.

  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

    The novel follows Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier, who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. During the tour, they're honored at a Dallas Cowboys game, which exposes the commercialization and shallow appreciation of their sacrifices. Amidst the celebration, Billy grapples with his understanding of heroism, patriotism, family, and the stark contrast between the realities of war and America's perceptions.

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan

    Atonement is a powerful novel that explores the consequences of a young girl's false accusation. The narrative follows the lives of three characters, the accuser, her older sister, and the sister's lover, who is wrongly accused. This false accusation irrevocably alters their lives, leading to the accused's imprisonment and eventual enlistment in World War II, while the sisters grapple with guilt, estrangement, and their own personal growth. The novel is a profound exploration of guilt, forgiveness, and the destructive power of misinterpretation.

  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    The novel is set in Nigeria during the Biafran War, exploring the impact of the conflict on the lives of its characters. The story is told from the perspective of three characters: a young houseboy, a radical university professor, and the professor's wealthy lover. The narrative delves into themes of love, race, and war, offering a vivid depiction of the horrors of conflict and the resilience of the human spirit.

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith

    This novel follows the lives of two friends, a working-class Englishman and a Bangladeshi Muslim, living in London. The story explores the complex relationships between people of different races, cultures, and generations in modern Britain, with themes of identity, immigration, and the cultural and social changes that have shaped the country. The narrative is enriched by the characters' personal histories and the historical events that have shaped their lives.

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The book follows the life of Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American hermaphrodite, who narrates her epic story starting from her grandparents' incestuous relationship in a small village in Asia Minor to her own self-discovery in 20th century America. The novel delves into themes of identity, gender, and the American dream, while also providing a detailed history of Detroit through the eyes of three generations of an immigrant family.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    The novel follows a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States for a university education. While there, she experiences racism and begins blogging about her experiences as an African woman in America. Meanwhile, her high school sweetheart faces his own struggles in England and Nigeria. The story is a powerful exploration of race, immigration, and the complex nature of identity, love, and belonging.

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

    The novel follows the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who was brought to England on a Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia during World War II. As an adult, Jacques embarks on a journey to uncover his past, including his original identity, his parent's fate, and his own lost history. The narrative is a haunting exploration of memory, identity, and the lasting impact of the Holocaust.

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

    This novel tells the story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Their intense, complicated friendship is marked by competition, mutual respect, and deep affection. As they navigate the challenges of adolescence, including family drama, academic struggles, and romantic entanglements, their bond is tested and transformed. The narrative explores themes of female friendship, social class, education, and the struggle for personal autonomy in a patriarchal society.

  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

    Set in the 1980s during the era of Margaret Thatcher's conservative government in Britain, this novel follows the life of a young gay man named Nick Guest. Coming from a middle-class background, he moves into the home of his wealthy friend's family and becomes infatuated with the opulence and power of the upper class. As he navigates his way through this new world, he also explores his sexuality, all while dealing with the societal and political implications of the AIDS crisis.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    In a post-apocalyptic world, a father and his young son journey through a desolate landscape, struggling to survive. They face numerous threats including starvation, extreme weather, and dangerous encounters with other survivors. The father, who is terminally ill, is driven by his love and concern for his son, and is determined to protect him at all costs. The story is a haunting exploration of the depths of human resilience, the power of love, and the instinct to survive against all odds.

  • NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

    This novel follows the lives of four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan - as they navigate adulthood in the diverse, vibrant, and sometimes volatile neighborhood where they grew up. The narrative explores themes of identity, class, friendship, and the complex nature of urban life, intertwining the characters' stories in a way that reflects the interconnectedness and fragmentation of city living.

  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

    The novel is a sprawling, ambitious work that spans continents and time periods, centering around an elusive, reclusive German author. It intertwines five different narratives: a group of European academics searching for the author, a professor in Mexico dealing with his own personal crises, a New York reporter sent to cover a boxing match in Mexico, an African-American journalist in Detroit, and the horrifying and unsolved murders of hundreds of women in a Mexican border town. The narratives are linked by themes of violence, mystery, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world.

  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

    "The Great Fire" is a historical novel set in the aftermath of World War II. The story follows a British war hero, Aldred Leith, who is sent to occupied Japan to research the effects of the war on the country's culture. During his stay, he falls in love with a young girl, Helen, who is the daughter of the Australian camp commander. Despite the age difference and societal expectations, the two form a deep bond. The book explores themes of love, war, cultural change, and personal transformation.

About this list

BBC, 20 Books

What are the greatest novels of the opening years of this tumultuous century? In search of a collective critical assessment, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled several dozen book critics, including The New York Times Book Review’s Parul Sehgal, Time magazine's book editor Lev Grossman, Newsday book editor Tom Beer, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin, C Max Magee, founder of The Millions, Booklist's Donna Seaman, Kirkus Reviews' Laurie Muchnick and many more. We asked each to name the best novels published in English since 1 January 2000. The critics named 156 novels in all, and based on the votes these are the top 12.

*Note
Although it says 12, they list more

Added over 4 years ago.

How Good is this List?

This list has a weight of 72%. To learn more about what this means please visit the Rankings page.

Here is a list of what is decreasing the importance of this list:

  • List: only covers 25 years

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