The 12 Contemporary British Novels That We All Need

When it comes to thinking about the most influential authors in the history of literature, you certainly will think of British authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare. 

However, British literature goes well beyond these names. Indeed, in the modern era, there are plenty of amazing contemporary British novels – all written by fantastic authors. 

The 12 Contemporary British Novels That We All Need

If you have been wondering who these authors are and what these novels are that we cannot live without – then join me as I explore the 12 contemporary British novels that we all need. 

About Contemporary British Novels 

When I say contemporary, I’m referring to novels that were written after the Second World War.

While for some of you, this will not be your idea of contemporary, this is the generally agreed premise. 

It’s important to clarify this. British literature spans centuries, so I need to provide a clear timeline. 

There are many contemporary British authors and while many of their novels will share some of the themes of previous novels, the writing style and overall tone are generally different.

Of course, the specific style and tone depends on the author. 

For example, two popular contemporary British authors like David Mitchell who wrote Black Swan Green, and Richard Osman, who wrote the Thursday Murder Club series – whilst are authors in the same era, their writing style is much different. 

This is always intriguing to me. With any author, it’s usually possible to see their history and influences shine through into their literature, and it allows us to view a window of their experiences through their writing. 

Finally, contemporary British literature usually uses different language than previous literature.

What I mean here is the use of new words that are now in the dictionary through contemporary and popular use. 

Of course, this is also seen in historical literature – ranging from Shakespearean English to Victorian Dickens. 

The 12 Contemporary British Novels You Need

I’m now going to show you the 12 contemporary British novels that we all need and certainly cannot live without! Explore these novels with me below. 

Julian Barnes: The Sense Of An Ending

The Sense of an Ending

I’ll kick this list off with an extremely popular British author; Julian Barnes, who is a winner of the man booker prize, and this book is a best seller! 

This book is certainly one that is surrounded by contemporary issues. It follows the story of Tony Webster, who thought he’d finally created a new life for himself.

He had a new career path that provided excellent retirement, a home, and children of his own.

However, he must revise his place in this world when a mysterious legacy is presented to him. This leads the reader on an amazing journey of mystery and intrigue. 

This is extremely emotional, psychological, and enthralling and you will want to read all of this book in one single sitting. 


  • Thrilling 
  • Excellent pacing throughout 
  • Contemporary issues explored 


  • Sometimes can confuse you and you have to re-read chapters 


  • Life and being “reborn” 
  • Escaping your past 
  • Love and family 

Chris Cleave: Little Bee

Little Bee: A Novel

This is a book that I am apprehensive to speak too much about, as I’m a little wary I might spoil the plot.

However, what I can tell you is that the story revolves around a young Nigerian girl called Little Bee.

She’s a sixteen year old refugee orphan, and her life has been plagued with horrific events and trauma.

Her life later is turned upside down though when she meets a wealthy British woman, and you read on to discover a whole lot more about their characters.

You learn of their pasts and their present, and the way that Chris wrote this novel allows for plenty of character development, which is done in a fantastically paced way. 

I’ll also say that despite the very depressing start to this book (on the beach), the novel does progress into a much more upbeat tone. Please continue to read this book and do not be put off by the early stages – they are necessary though. 


  • Amazing character development
  • Unique style of humor and tragedy combined 
  • Relatable characters 


  • Very shocking start 


  • Refugee and orphan experiences 
  • Racism 
  • Wealth and standing in society 

Jojo Moyes: Me Before You

Me Before You (Me Before You Trilogy)

JoJo Moyes is a best-selling author, whose fame absolutely took off when her literature debuted in the United States.

This story is an extremely beautiful romance novel that captures the hearts and minds of the readers.

The novel follows Louisa Clark, who lives a pretty normal and straightforward life.

A typical family with a steady relationship, living in a small village – which she’d never really ventured away from.

However, her life becomes much more interesting and spontaneous.

She takes a job working for a man called Will Traynor, who is an ex Master Of The Universe. He is wheelchair bound though, following a terrible accident.

His character arc went essentially the opposite of Louisa’s. He went from living life one hundred miles an hour to being essentially homebound.

Despite his treatment and attitude toward Louisa, he does confide in her eventually.

After he explains his need to live life to its fullest once again, Louisa strives to make this happen and shows him life is much more than what he is living – simultaneously discovering the same answers, moving away from her life of normality and stagnation. 

If you’re a fan of John Greene’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you’ll adore this novel.


  • Relatable story 
  • Rollercoaster of emotions 
  • Easy to read 


  • Not for people who aren’t fans of emotional literature 


  • The nature of life 
  • Love and romance 
  • Depression and happiness 

Ian McEwan: Atonement

Atonement: A Novel

I will be honest with you, this novel is very dark and touches upon many issues that can trigger traumas and stressful situations.

However, the way in which Ian McEwan explores these issues through his characters is very humbling. 

Set shortly before the horrific events of the Second World War, the story is about a number of characters, but primarily Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner. 

Thirteen year old Briony witnesses flirtation between her older sister Cecilia and the son of a servant Robbie – and she doesn’t understand what is going on.

A horrible crime occurs, and the story follows the attempt towards redemption through the horrendous chaos of the Second World War – all the way through to the conclusion of the 1900s. 

It’s a masterpiece of a novel that is heartbreaking and explores multiple areas of contemporary importance. 


  • Intriguing story of crime and redemption
  • Includes contemporary issues 
  • Relatable for some people 


  • Can be very dark at times 


  • Childhood 
  • Redemption and forgiveness 
  • Love and war 

Ruth Ware: In A Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Next up, I’ve included an amazing mystery.

It’s a very gripping, mysterious, and psychologically dark novel thriller that follows the life of a reclusive writer called Leonora.

She is invited to a camping trip in the wooded, English countryside – and despite her reservations, she decides to go on the excursion.

To start with, Leonora’s psychology gets the better of her, with horrible memories from her past.

Meanwhile, friends both old and new begin to unravel some dark secrets, and this culminates in a realization between every member of the party – they are not alone on this trip… 

This a literary debut from Ruth Ware but one that stands up as one of the most entertaining reads you could pick up, and as a result, she has won multiple awards. 


  • Thrilling 
  • Suspenseful 
  • Psychologically absorbing 


  • You have to read until the end to fully comprehend what is happening! 


  • Dark pasts 
  • Anxiety and loneliness 
  • Secrets 

Ruth Rendell: The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door: A Novel

Despite the title, this is not your typical “girl next door” story. In fact, it’s far from it! This is a murder investigation that spans decades.

We begin the novel set in the latter months of the Second World War, following a group of children who are all friends. 

They discover and explore a tunnel where they meet and discuss stories, making it their own “secret garden”.

However, decades later – a discovery of human remains is found in the same area. 

The friends reunite to discuss their history of the area with the police – but with secrets emerging, will the friends be able to carry on? 

It’s a truly gripping tale that rivals any mystery novel you can think of, receiving praise from huge authors like Stephen King


  • Mysterious 
  • Unique tale 
  • Gripping 


  • Characters are not as relatable to everybody as in other novels 


  • History 
  • Secrets 
  • Mystery 

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

This is a truly unique story. It’s a reimagining of the events under the reign of Henry the Eighth with a whole new take on it.

With the country in trouble and heading towards an era without a male heir, civil war could erupt and destroy all of England. 

However, Thomas Cromwell steps in to try to help the situation and becomes a confidant of the King.

Henry wants to annul his marriage and marry Anne Boleyn – but he is met with strict opposition. 

Cromwell could help the King, and it seems as though he has these intentions – but is he actually acting with a different plan in mind?


  • Reimagining of history 
  • Unique style 
  • Grounded in reality 


  • Far removed from contemporary issues, difficult to relate 


  • English history 
  • Friendship vs traitors 
  • Religion 

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas: A Novel

From the mind of an author who is extremely set in contemporary society, but with a very knowledgeable background of history – David Mitchell explores a set of disparate characters but all of which have common goals and thought processes. 

It’s difficult to explain the plot of this book. It has somewhat of a convoluted timeline, which makes sense when you reach the end.

However, the jump between countries and time can get a little confusing at times. 

Despite this, the novel explores some contemporary societal areas like same-gender relationships, mental health, and education. 

It’s certainly a book that you would need to read to understand fully – and the pacing, intertwined with Mitchell’s dry, witty humor is very enjoyable. 


  • Funny 
  • Real, relatable issues 
  • Very interesting characters


  • Convoluted timeframe/geography 


  • History 
  • Health 
  • Love and life 

Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

Life After Life: A Novel

Set in the early 20th Century, you are taken on a journey of the protagonist Ursula Todd who you discover has a seemingly infinite amount of lives.

Meanwhile, the world is heading to war – but can Ursula use her incredible power to help mankind?

This is an epic tale that constantly keeps you guessing and allows you to explore real history from an outside perspective looking in. 

Essentially, this is a story that begs the question to the reader – what would you do if you could live again and again until you got what you wanted?


  • An intriguing tale that draws you in
  • Explores real history 
  • Psychologically thrilling 


  • Reminiscent of other stories 


  • Sci-fi 
  • History 
  • Emotions 

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters provides the reader with a truly magnificent tale of early 20th century London with this novel.

In fact, it is such a successful book that it was shortlisted for the man booker prize a total of three times! 

At a time when ex-service staff are disillusioned by post-World War One England and houses are missing some who never returned, you explore the story of Mrs. Wray and her family who take in lodgers. 

However, they were unaware of how much their lives would be changed with these new people in their lives. 


  • Grounded in real-life events 
  • Humbling examination of ex-servicemen and their families 
  • Great pacing 


  • Characters can sometimes be confused for others 


  • Post-war England 
  • Family and love 
  • Trust 

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel

Neil Gaiman’s novels have been popular among modern readers for a while now, and this addition to his collection is easy to understand why.

I personally love this book, through its tone and very relatable story. 

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, where he has not lived or even thought anything about for decades.

While his actual house is no longer in existence, he sits by a pond at the end of a lane that his childhood friend used to call an ocean. 

Upon sitting by this pond, memories of the girl and his past all start flooding back to him and they become very powerful and overwhelming. 

It’s a story that many people can relate to, and it makes you think of your own life’s journey and where you are now. 


  • Grounded in reality 
  • Relatable characters and story 
  • Powerful and mysterious 


  • Can be slightly difficult to follow at times, so you have to persist with it


  • The journey of life 
  • Mortality 
  • Childhood 

Zadie Smith: White Teeth

White Teeth: A Novel

Zadie Smith manages to highlight the diverse nature of England in the post-war era with this fascinating story.

While the story centers around two friends, it is the supporting characters and their cultural backgrounds that make this story so intriguing. 

This is a best-selling novel that encapsulates the difficulties that some people face in England, dealing with race and religious issues.


  • A powerful take on race 
  • A real story with relatable characters 
  • Easy read 


  • Characters aren’t relatable for everybody 


  • Race and racism 
  • Diversity 
  • New cultures 

The Bottom Line 

Contemporary British novels are among some of the best types of literature ever written, and as I have shown – there’s a huge variety of reasons why this could be the case. I hope I’ve helped you to pick out some of the best books to read at home!

Frequently Asked Questions 

I’ll now answer some of the most frequently asked questions about contemporary British novels.

What Are The Major Characteristics Of Contemporary British Literature?

While every author will be different and every novel will have its own themes, it is noticeable that contemporary British literature explores formalism, absurdism, individualism, and symbolism. 

In fact, these characteristics are also seen in other contemporary media and entertainment.

Is The Harry Potter Series Contemporary Literature?

Harry Potter is children’s fiction, despite its popularity with many adults and its often dark nature.

Despite being modern, it is not grounded with the same contemporary characteristics that these novels in my list all share. 

Why Do We Love Contemporary British Literature?

There are many reasons why we cannot live without some contemporary British novels. Arguably, the main reason is that we can relate so much more with the characters than we can in other fiction. 

However, some people love this fiction because of the author’s writing style and character creation.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question and it comes down to you to answer why you love contemporary British literature so much! 

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Anna Davis