The BBC tasked a panel of six writers, curators and critics with selecting 100 of the most influential English-language novels published in the past 300 years.
After months of discussion, panellists Stig Abell, Mariella Frostrup, Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal, Alexander McCall Smith and Syima Aslam have released their list on BBC Arts.
Divided into 10 categories such as “identity,” “love sex & romance,” “coming of age” and “rule breakers,” the list covers a range of classic and contemporary literature, including major fantasy and children’s series.
Five Canadian books are on the list: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Unless by Carol Shields, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and American War by Omar El Akkad.
Published in 1996, Fugitive Pieces was Michaels’s first novel. The story of a boy’s unlikely survival during the Second World War and his haunted life in its aftermath won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Fugitive Pieces was also a commercial success, becoming an international bestselling novel. It was later adapted into a film.
Michaels lives in Toronto, where she is the city’s poet laureate.
Michaels’s book is included in the BBC’s “identity” category, alongside Beloved by Toni Morrison, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
Carol Shields’s Unless was published to critical acclaim in 2002. The novel follows a well-to-do middle-aged writer named Reta Winters, whose daughter disappears and turns up on a Toronto street corner begging for money. The book was a finalist for the Giller Prize and was featured on Canada Reads in 2011, when it was defended by Lorne Cardinal.
Shields’s work has been translated into 33 languages. Her long list of literary honours includes the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which she won for The Stone Diaries.
Born in Illinois, Shields moved to Canada in 1957. Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published at the age of 40. She died in 2003 at the age of 68.
Unless is included under the BBC’s “politics, power & protest” category, alongside The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore.
Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
Emily Starr is perhaps not as famous as her fellow L.M. Montgomery creation Anne Shirley, but the dark-haired heroine has snagged a spot on the BBC’s “coming of age” category with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Published in 1923, Emily of New of Moon follows a girl who is sent to live with her strict aunt after the death of her beloved father. Life is challenging at first for Emily at New Moon Farm, but with her quick wit and fellow outcasts she’s able to cobble together a sense of home.
Montgomery is one of P.E.I.’s most celebrated writers. Her first novel was Anne of Green Gables, published in 1907. Montgomery died in 1942 at the age of 67.
Oryx and Crake was published in 2003 and is the first book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The narrator, who calls himself Snowman, lives in isolation in an ecologically destroyed future. Grieving the loss of his friend Crake and beloved Oryx, Snowman has been left alone to raise genetically modified humanoids designed to survive the apocalypse.
Atwood, 79, has been publishing poetry, fiction and nonfiction since the 1960s. She recently co-won the Booker Prize for The Testaments, a sequel to the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The Toronto writer turns 80 on Nov. 18, 2019.
Other books on the BBC’s “coming of age category” include The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.
Omar El Akkad’s American War is the most recently published Canadian novel on the BBC’s list. The journalist’s debut book came out in 2017 and won the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for fiction, a $10,000 award. It was also featured on Canada Reads 2018, when it was defended by Tahmoh Penikett.
The novel tells the story of a young woman born on the losing side of a second American Civil War. Louisiana-born Sarat Chestnut grows up primarily in a refugee camp where she’s groomed as a weapon in the war between the north and south.
As a journalist, El Akkad has reported from Afghanistan and Guantànamo Bay, as well as on events like the Arab Spring and the Black Lives Matter movement.
American War is in the BBC’s “crime & conflict” category, alongside Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Regeneration by Pat Barker, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.