Top 10 British, Irish or Commonwealth Novels from 1980 to 2005

This is one of the 200 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee

    "Disgrace" is a novel that explores the life of a middle-aged professor in South Africa who is dismissed from his position after having an affair with a student. After losing his job, he moves to the countryside to live with his daughter, where they experience a violent attack that significantly alters their lives. The story delves into themes of post-apartheid South Africa, racial tension, sexual exploitation, and the struggle for personal redemption.

  • Money by Martin Amis

    "Money" is a darkly humorous novel that follows the life of John Self, a hedonistic, self-destructive director of commercials, as he navigates the excesses and depravities of 1980s New York and London. His life is filled with overindulgence in food, alcohol, drugs, and women, leading to a downward spiral of self-destruction. The novel is a satire on the excesses of capitalism and the obsession with wealth and materialism, and it also explores themes of identity, self-loathing, and the destructive power of addiction.

  • Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

    "Earthly Powers" is a sprawling, complex novel that explores the intertwined lives of a homosexual British writer and an Italian-American Cardinal over the course of the 20th century. The narrative delves into themes of faith, homosexuality, and the nature of evil, while also providing a critique of modern society. It's a vivid tapestry of historical events, including two World Wars and Vatican II, providing a backdrop for the personal and spiritual struggles of its protagonists.

  • 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.

  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

    "The Blue Flower" is a historical novel centered around the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg, an 18th-century German poet and philosopher, known as Novalis. The story focuses on his philosophical development and his romantic relationship with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn. It explores themes of love, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge, all set against the backdrop of the late Enlightenment period in Germany.

  • The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

    The book follows a renowned pianist who arrives in a Central European city to give a concert. However, his time there becomes increasingly surreal and disjointed as he is pulled in different directions by the demands of the locals, his own past, and his responsibilities. The narrative explores themes of memory, time, and self-delusion, creating a dream-like atmosphere that blurs the lines between reality and illusion.

  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

    The novel tells the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the exact moment when India gained its independence. As a result, he shares a mystical connection with other children born at the same time, all of whom possess unique, magical abilities. As Saleem grows up, his life mirrors the political and cultural changes happening in his country, from the partition of India and Pakistan, to the Bangladesh War of Independence. The story is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, exploring themes of identity, fate, and the power of storytelling.

  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

    The novel is a poignant tale of an English butler, Stevens, who reflects on his life and career during a road trip through the English countryside. As he delves into his past, he reveals his unquestioning loyalty to his former employer, Lord Darlington, and his unexpressed love for the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. The narrative explores themes of dignity, duty, and regret, as Stevens comes to terms with his unquestioning devotion to his employer and the missed opportunities in his personal life.

  • Amongst Women by John McGahern

    "Amongst Women" is a novel that tells the story of Michael Moran, a bitter, aging Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran, and his relationships with his wife and five children. The narrative explores themes of family, power, love, and the struggle between freedom and control. Moran's domineering personality and the effects of his past experiences in the IRA have a profound impact on his family, shaping their lives and relationships in complex and often destructive ways.

  • That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

    This book tells the story of a couple who have moved from London to rural Ireland to live a quiet and peaceful life. Their days are filled with simple pleasures and the beauty of the natural world. However, their tranquility is occasionally disrupted by the complex relationships and struggles of their neighbors. The novel offers a deeply moving exploration of love, loss, and the relentless passage of time.

About this list

The Observer, 10 Books

The Observer asked 150 literary luminaries to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005.

Added about 10 years ago.

How Good is this List?

This list has a weight of 30%. 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:

  • Limited to 25 or less years
  • Limited to a single language

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