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The Best Novels You’ve Never Read

Sixty-one critics reveal their favorite underrated book of the past ten years.

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Talk to any critic and you’ll hear about a book you must read—often one you were begged to read by some reviewer when it came out, but which quickly slipped off your radar. Such is the plight of critics. Which is why we decided, with the help of the National Book Critics Circle, to ask professional critics (and some other writers) to pick the best under-the-radar book of the past ten years or so. We sought out novels, but a few memoirs popped up. And though we’d never have presumed to forecast the results, we did expect some consensus and certainly one clear winner—a buried genius everyone agreed was primed for a Roberto Bolaño–style resurrection. We were delightfully foiled. These picks were idiosyncratic, contentious (that writer’s underrated? Really?), with no two alike. Until one novelist surged ahead to victory—garnering a whopping two votes.


DOMINION
By Calvin Baker
Less jaded than Colson Whitehead, less kitschy than Toni Morrison, Calvin Baker is my favorite contemporary African-American novelist, and Dominion is his best book yet.
—Dale Peck


THE LAST SAMURAI
By Helen Dewitt
For its playful, steady, angst-attuned intelligence and its utter conceptual exceptionality.
—Sven Birkerts


SUZY ZEUS GETS ORGANIZED
By Maggie Robbins
A sweet-and-sour novel in verse that very flatteringly assumes the reader is as witty as the writer.
— Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News


KALIMANTAAN
By C.S. Godshalk
A novel about a self-appointed British raja on the island of Borneo, this book changed the way I thought about imperialism, just as Pat Barker’s trilogy changed the way I thought about the First World War.
—Alice Truax

Copies sold of David Markson’s last two novels before his new one, according to BookScan: 6,000


SEPHARAD
By Antonio Muñoz Molina
A true masterpiece of late-twentieth-century fiction, wrestling with the five centuries of Continental trauma from the Inquisition to the Holocaust in a way that is truly novel (in every sense of that word).
—Daniel Mendelsohn


TEXACO
By Patrick Chamoiseau
An epic story that takes in everything from New World slavery to the aftermath of industrialization, fusing the oral traditions of his native Martinique with experimental writing.
—Jean Stein


THE DEBT TO PLEASURE
By John Lanchester
Pure wicked literary pleasure. Well received when published, but not nearly as well read as deserved. Ghostly progenitor: Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
—Ron Rosenbaum


THE LAKE
By John McGahern
A beautiful, hymnlike epilogue to the life’s work of this Irish master; it should be beloved by everyone who cares about life and literature.
—Andrew O’Hagan


DARK BACK OF TIME
By Javier Marías
A fascinating sample of his unique mixture of myth, autobiography, and satire.
—Elaine Showalter


METEOR IN THE MADHOUSE
By Leon Forrest
The posthumous volume of the most overlooked author of the last 30 years. He comments on what must be repressed to conceive history (and genealogy) along racial lines.
—Milton Welch


OUT OF SHEER RAGE
By Geoff Dyer
The best book about writer’s block someone actually managed to finish writing.
—Marco Roth, n+1


BORN TWICE
By Giuseppe Pontiggia
This great [Italian] novel of fatherhood has been woefully underread in the U.S., perhaps because Pontiggia died soon after its publication here.
—Janice Harayda, One-Minute Book Reviews


WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
By Jincy Willett
Beautifully written, seriously intended, very funny books with believable characters are extremely rare, and this is one of those rarities.
—Kurt Andersen


ACHILLES
By Elizabeth Cook
This is a meditative, intense retelling of the life of Homer’s hero, remarkable for its lush artfulness and the subtle intelligence of its prose.
—Meghan O’Rourke, literary editor of Slate


OH PURE AND RADIANT HEART
By Lydia Millet
Largely unsung. Not only did I love reading it (until the very end), but I also found the title resoundingly beautiful.
—Helen Schulman


VARIETIES OF EXILE
By Mavis Gallant
Canadian expats look lovingly home in this collection by Mavis Gallant, a kind of Alice Munro for those who got out.
—Chris Beha, Bookforum


MORTALS
By Norman Rush
Rush’s second best book (after Mating) is better than almost anyone else’s best book.
—Benjamin Kunkel


EXPERIENCE
By Martin Amis
The cleverest and funniest and most moving memoir I’ve ever read, and each time I reread it I’m simply drunk with pleasure.
—Jim Holt


GRIEF
By Andrew Holleran
This slim but singularly affecting novel put in an appearance to conditional praise last June and, to my knowledge, sank thereafter without a trace. A meditation on personal loss and the loss of erotic/romantic possibilities for aging homosexual men (and by implication aging everyones) it’s bone-spare but plangent with meaning—the kind of novel that would be immediately hailed if it were written by a laconic European writer.
—Daphne Merkin


THE MUNCH MANCINI MYSTERY SERIES
By Barbara Seranella
Although her books are gritty and tough, Seranella wrote with a humanity and dry wit that transcended the genre.
—Mia Geiger


TRANSMISSION
By Hari Kunzru
Sleek and jangly, cerebral and humane—a novel about a young Indian software geek and the computer virus that swamps both Bollywood and Silicon Valley.
—Dwight Garner, Times Book Review


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