Nearly Forgotten Novels from the 1980s that are Exceptionally Good

Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino (1980) – Although Gilbert Sorrentino, who died earlier this year, wrote the post-modernist classic “Mulligan Stew”, he also wrote some sweet emotional realistic novels. This is my favorite, A date in New Jersey is described from four different points of view. It is humorous, sad, and moving.
Good Behaviour (1981) and Time After Time (1983) by Molly Keane  – First she was M. J. Farrell and wrote 10 novels from 1928 to 1961 when her husband died. She stopped writing for twenty years, then came back gloriously as Molly Keane.  ‘Good Behaviour’ was shortlisted for the Booker in 1981 losing to Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Chil;dren’.  I doubt either of these two Keane novels is forgotten by anyone who has read them. Molly Keane was in her mid-seventies when these books were published. These books are sharply written dark comedies about self-destructive aristocratic Irish-Anglo families who live in manors.
‘My Present Age’ (1985) and ‘Homesick’ (1989) by Guy Vanderhaeghe There are few authors whose next book I look forward to with more anticipation than Guy Vanderhaeghe, the Saskatchewan, Canada novelist. I tuned into Vanderhaeghe early on with these two novels and also his book of short stories ‘Man Descending’. I’ve read everything he’s published and have never been disappointed. Each of his novels is an adventure. Here is a quote from “My Present Age”.
    “Embrace one another with courage. Search each other’s hearts for hidden suffering and never flee what you discover! That’s the ticket!”

Sweetsir by Helen Yglesias (1981) – A novel about a woman’s “justifiable” murder of her husband with a carving knife. Helen Yglesias tells the detailed story starting with the girl in high school to her romance with Morgan Sweetsir to their marriage and early passion to his increasing violence against her. This is a novel that is based on the newspaper headlines, realistic but not at all melodramatic. Instead of a polemic, this is a human story.

An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd (1982) and ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan (1981) – How I miss the comic novels that William Boyd wrote early in his career and the short macabre novels that Ian McEwan wrote early in his career. Perhaps it was a good thing for these two novelists to mature and become well-rounded, but I really do miss their early work.

14 responses to this post.

  1. I read Good Behaviour with a Booker group some years ago – but had to hunt all over Melbourne to find a copy. (I ended up with a first edition but it was very cheap). As you say, piercing black humour and wickedly funny, and it has aged well.


    • Hi Lisa,
      I’m very surprised they wouldn’t be selling these Molly Keane novels in Australia. Most everyone who has encountered these Keane novels, including you and I, think they are special. Imagine how difficult it would be to find her early novels which she wrote as M. J. Farrell. Someday soon I want to read ‘Queen Lear’ which was her third book as Molly Keane.


  2. […] Almost Forgotten Novels from a 1980s which have been Exceptionally Good … […]


  3. It’s great to see all these authors I don’t know. I love Molly Keane, but have never heard of Sorrentino or Helen Yglesias. I’m trying to branch out and read more “contemporary” literature (though I suppose the ’80s is not all that contemporary anymore). I’ll write down these suggestions.


    • Hi Mad Housewife,
      I’m quite sure that many people would not consider literature from the 1980s “contemporary”, but compared to the ancient Greeks or Romans or even Shakespeare it’s very contemporary. We’re still sifting out which books from then are worth keeping. And like Irene Nemirovsky and Dawn Powell in the 1940s, there will be writers that have been completely forgotten brought back and assume places higher than some of the literary ‘stars’ of the era.


  4. Posted by marco on May 31, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
    Little, Big (1982) by John Crowley

    I was recently reminded of them after discovering the A.V. book club, in which they were both featured:

    They are well known, if not perhaps much read, in the fantasy/science-fiction world (Little, Big is “fantasy”, Riddley Walker “science fiction”) but seem all but unknown to the larger public. Both have been included by Harold Bloom in the Western Canon. Both seem to be the very epitome of a cult classic, inspiring lifelong devotion in some while leaving others puzzled or annoyed (no prize for guessing where I fall).

    Just today, I’ve read this appraisal of Riddley Walker by Peter Carey:

    “What do you call a future that feels like an apocalyptic past or a possible parallel of the scary stupid present? I call it a work of genius. An entire invented history and lexicon, one of the masterworks of the past 40 years.”

    To which I add Harold Bloom’s recommendation of Little, Big:

    “I have read and reread Little, Big at least a dozen times, and always am startled and refreshed. It seems to me the best book of its kind since Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Like the Alice books, Little, Big is an imaginative masterpiece, in which the sense of wonder never subsides. Little, Big is a family saga in which several generations live on surprisingly close terms with the faery folk, hence the title. So perpetually fresh is this book, changing each time I reread it, that I find it virtually impossible to describe, and scarcely can summarize it. I pick it up again at odd moments, sometimes when I wake up at night and can’t fall asleep again. Though it is a good-sized volume, I think I remember every page. Little, Big is for readers from nine to ninety, because it naturalizes and renders domestic the marvelous.

    Wallace Stevens said that poetry was “one of the enlargements of life.” So is Little, Big. I have recommended it to scores of friends and students, and invariably they tell me they have found wisdom and delight. “


    • Hi Marco,
      I remember Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ causing quite a stir back then, and I did read it and much admire it. It is one of those books I should re-read, because it is quite short. Thanks for remembering ‘Riddley Walker’.

      I’m not at all familiar with ‘Little, Big’ or John Crowley. I know at one point I was going to read him, but somehow he got dropped from my ‘to be read’ list. I’m going to put him back on the list.

      I suppose especially in the 1980s my reading tastes turned excessively to realism, and I may have missed some great fantasy and science fiction.

      I looked at Peter Carey’s list, and I’ve read seven out of nine on the list.


  5. […] If your TBR can stand it, Tony’s Book World has more superb ideas for your next book: “Nearly Forgotten Novels from the 1980s that are Exceptionally Good“ […]


  6. Posted by marco on June 4, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    I have read
    6/9 of Carey’s list (lacking Cunningham, Ishiguro and Barker)
    8/10 of Gibson’s list (lacking the Engh and the Sterling)
    3/10 of the memoirs (Coetzee, Duras, Ondaatje)
    2 of the humor books (Waugh and Adams)
    1 of the thrillers (Le Carrè)
    and 1 of the science books (Sacks)

    Gibson’ s Science Fiction recommendations are very strong as well.


  7. Here is what I came up with for what I read
    7/9 of Carey’s list (lacking Cunningham and Barker)
    0/10 of Gibson’s list – shut out here
    1/10 of the memoirs (Exley)
    4 of the humor books (The Onion, Waugh, Roth, and Adams)
    0 of the thrillers
    and 0 of the science books


  8. Posted by someoneelse on July 18, 2010 at 1:15 PM

    Now this is going to be difficult. I’m trying to find a book I read in1987. It is written by an English author who was then quite new and I think this was his first novel. It concerned a set of English people living in London in the early 1980’s one scene had a party in Birling Gap (UK) and at the beginning was a description concerning a baby being placed in a basket and put in a stream. I seem to remember Egypt was mentioned but in what context i am not sure now. That’s it. It was great story !


    • Hi Someoneelse,
      Thinking abou your question, the first book that comes to mind is ‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift. This was his third novel which was published in 1983. I don’t remember the specifics of the plot, but the stories relate to the water. It was a much-awarded novel.


  9. Wow! Thanks! I generally needed to jot down in my site something like that. Can i consider part of yourpost to my blog site?


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