Now, by "contemporary", I mean authors who are still alive. Not sure what other people mean by contemporary, but just in case there's some confusion. No F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Patrick Whites, or Miles Franklins to be seen. These books are by living people who might or might not have a Facebook page, but certainly have witnesses to their ongoing existence on earth. Today, anyway. And, hopefully, next week.
So, now that's cleared up...
I love these novels for all kinds of reasons - some literary, some personal, and some a bit of both. Either way, I have no hesitation in recommending them to people who ask - and, weirdly, a lot of people do - because they rarely bite me on the backside later. The worst that happens is that disgruntled readers think I'm a wanker. But that's OK. I think they're wankers too. :-)
Number 5: The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
I love the sparseness of the prose, her unique turn of phrase, and Proulx's incredible ability to cast a fine mist of grey over her writing. Newfoundland, where it's set, is cold and grey and damp and, somehow, that tone pervades the whole novel. I was living in Hawaii when I read this book, but remember feeling cold - genuinely cold - when I turned the pages. (OK. So maybe I had the A/C ramped up. But still.) I loved the protagonist, Quoyle, "a great damp loaf of a man", because he was so unlike any main character I'd known - square chin, broad, thick body. Slow and heavy, and dull, too, if his wife - the absurdly named Petal - were any judge, although he turned out to be anything but. Still, I shouldn't have loved him the way I did because he didn't fit my exacting image of a hero. Yet I did.
Mostly, though, I loved the language - "great damp loaf", yes, but also "pain like gravel under the knee". I could see, feel, hear this place I'd never been to before, and I had such a strong image of it that, despite enjoying the film, never allowed Lasse Hallstrom's incarnation of Newfoundland replace the vision I took from the novel. Quoyle will never be Kevin Spacey, destined, instead to remain a "great damp loaf of a man" in my mind, forever and ever.
Number 4: A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Ah, Owen. This book doesn't even have a full title in my small, somewhat tragic world. I call it "Owen" because rarely has a character of such miniscule size cast such a dwarfing shadow over my literary soul. Owen Meany is tiny, shrill, and moralistic. As a young boy he spoke indignantly of "THE UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" perpetrated by the Catholics (as a lapsed Catholic, I felt an UNSPEAKABLE DELIGHT that there was such a thing), and always in that wrecked voice perpetually caught between a shiek and a squeal. Owen's UPPER CASE direct speech was the first time I'd seen such blatant disregard for the lexicon, and I felt a genuine thrill at John Irving's audacity. WRITING IN ALL CAPS? IMAGINE!
John Irving had me at Garp. By the time Owen came along, I was a goner. (Or at least until the Fourth Hand. But that's another posting.)
Number 3: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver might very well be me in another life. The me that didn't have children and didn't want to. The me that moved countries and wrote angrily - long distance - about her abandoned home. The me that imagined any child could grow up to be a high school serial killer if he didn't have a mother who loved him. This novel riveted me because I both loathed and loved the protagonist's voice. The letters she writes to her estranged husband are a testament to the perpetual and pointless second guessing and only iffing we parents subject ourselves to any time our children break our code, or our rules, or even the law. Kevin does more than break the law - he defies nature. And so does Kevin's mother, or we think she does, until we work through her angst and see just what kind of horrible price had to be paid in order for her to forgive herself. This one divides my reading friends, but those who love this book, love it fiercely, angrily, determinedly. So, for that reason alone, as a means of dividing my friends into those who get it and those who don't - those who get me, and those who don't - it's my favourite of standard recommendations.
Number 2: Beloved, Toni Morrison
My first foray into contemporary Nobel winning literature, and one that stayed with me for years afterwards. Small, sharp sentences, original and unforgettable imagery and a mystery teased out just long enough to keep me engaged without distracting from the amazing characterisations. The beauty of the language, the power of the story, and the strange mix of brutal reality alongside paranormal intrigue is positively breathtaking. Read, and re-read. Then read again.
Number 1: The Road, Cormac McCarthy
I always start discussions of The Road with a sigh. So picture me sighing. There's something about this novel that moves me - no, pains me - in a way that no other novel does. Or will. The language is as sparse as it is poignant. There is not an errant word, nor a superlative in sight. The characterisations of the boy and his father - characters without names, on a landscape so bleak it defies description - are as true and as clear as if they were my own family. I don't know their eye colour, the cut of their hair, what they liked, or what they did before I first met them on the page. I don't need to. They have each other, and that's really all there is. And, incredibly, it's more than enough.
This story is an ode to the love of a father for his son - the love of a parent for their child - and yet, the word "love" is not used once. There are no grand speeches. No waxing lyrical on the power of the paternal bond. It's one step in front of the other. One silent but grim decision followed closely by the next, surviving every brutal day with dogged relentlessness, in a world where the truest expression of love is in the shape of two solitary bullets, saved for that day when the worst happens. Can you do it? the man asks himself. Can you kill your own son?
McCarthy has painted a world so brutal and desperate that you find yourself praying he can.
Read it if you dare. Be warned though, you'll not read anything else like it again.