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Laila Lalami's Top Ten List
1. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980). A magistrate for an unspecified empire finds himself thrust into a growing conflict on the frontier. Fearing an invasion, the empire sends an army to eliminate the threat of neighboring “barbarians,” and the magistrate, accused of plotting with the enemy, is beaten and jailed. As he suffers these trials, the magistrate reflects on civilization and nature, suffering and oppression, and man’s barbarous tendency toward violence.
2. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977). As witty and agile as a folk tale, psychologically acute and colorfully drawn, this novel blends elements of fable and the contemporary novel to depict a young man’s search for identity. In her protagonist, Macon Dead, Morrison created one of her greatest characters, and his reluctant coming of age becomes a comic, mythic, eloquent analysis of self-knowledge and community—how those things can save us, and what happens when they do not.
3. A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe (1966). This “bitter yet funny satire” as Anthony Burgess described it foreshadows the Nigerian coups of 1966 and shows the color and vivacity as well as the violence and corruption of a society making its own way between the two worlds.
4. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984). This Prix Goncourt–winning work might now be considered an early “fictional memoir.” Drawn from Duras’s life in prewar Indochina, it tells the story of the ill-fated love between a young girl and her Chinese lover. Lyrical, imagistic, and structured in cumulative short passages, Duras combines the beautiful and the terrible in this slim, compelling novel.
5. For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri (1973). Driven by famine from their home in the Rif, Mohamed’s family walks to Tangiers in search of a better life. But his father is unable to find work and grows violent. Mohamed learns how to charm and steal. During a short spell in a filthy Moroccan jail, a fellow inmate kindles his life-altering love of poetry. The celebrated writer Paul Bowles collaborated closely with the author on the translation.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986). Atwood offers another piercing fiction about humankind’s place in nature and women’s place in society in this chilling futuristic novel in which widespread sterility has led to totalitarian control of procreation. Offred has been forced into service as a Handmaid and will become a surrogate mother if the Commander manages to impregnate her before his embittered wife harms her. Garbed in a red habit and living like a slave, Offred covertly records her harrowing story, finding freedom in preserving her observations and in expressing her mordant wit and unnerving wisdom.
7. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961). An Indian man living in Trinidad, Mr. Biswas is a tenant in some houses and an unfavored relative in others. All he wants is a home of his own. His adult son narrates this story of his monumental search for a home and all that implies. The quest becomes a metaphor for the displacements of postcolonial life in this novel that, while filled with poverty and loneliness, is also a teeming, comic epic of Hindu life in Naipaul’s native West Indies.
8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This modernist novel follows the bizarre, often surreal adventures of an unnamed narrator, a black man, whose identity becomes a battleground in racially divided America. Expected to be submissive and obedient in the South, he must decipher the often contradictory rules whites set for a black man’s behavior. Traveling north to Harlem, he meets white leaders intent on controlling and manipulating him. Desperate to seize control of his life, he imitates Dostoevsky’s underground man, escaping down a manhole where he vows to remain until he can define himself. The book’s famous last line, “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you,” suggests how it transcends race to tell a universal story of the quest for self-determination.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel—part fantasy, part social history of Colombia— sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo— home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes— loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.
10. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984). The form of this novel, about two Native American families, reenacts that of a traditional Chippewa Indian story cycle—fourteen stories told by seven characters, forming a collage that forces the reader to sift through and weigh voice against voice, truth against truth. The book’s main story—a long-standing love triangle among a husband and wife and the promiscuous Lulu Lamartine—is often upstaged by Erdrich’s anti-mythic portrayal of Native Americans cut off from their traditional land, culture, and gods.