There are a lot of things I was supposed to do before turning 30: own a share in a race horse, work in New York, complete a marathon, stop smoking. My failure to achieve any of them (the last two may well be linked) is a source of great shame but what really stings is that I didn’t manage to write a book before bidding farewell to my twenties. So just to rub it in, I have chosen four brilliant novels and one poem written when the authors were still under 30.
The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope (1717)
This mock-heroic poem is the high-point of 18th century satire and it was written by Pope at the age of 24. Based on an actual event, it describes in 794 faultless lines the furore caused when Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair, causing a feud between the two families. Pope uses the style of classical epics, such as Homer's Iliad, to describe the incident, thereby highlighting its triviality and sending up the aristocracy. Deft and delightfully rude, The Rape of the Lock might just be the most amusing poem ever written.
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (1837)
Dickens was 24 and a jobbing journalist when he was asked to write a series of tales for a magazine about the members of a fictional London club, which would accompany illustrations. Each story follows Samuel Pickwick, the founder of the Pickwick Club, as he and his chums head off into the English countryside for misadventure and encounters with all sorts of ripe characters. Funny enough to make you howl, The Pickwick Papers turned Dickens into a literary star.
The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith (2002)
Too often overlooked, this was published two years after White Teeth (when Smith was still only 26) and brims with all the literary dexterity of her debut, but is less self-conscious and possesses a welcome chilliness of observation – here is a writer whose view of the world is hardening. A clear-eyed exploration of Jewishness, as well as our obsession with celebrity, Smith's second novel confirmed her as the most exciting voice of her generation, a point she has since proved again and again.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (2013)
It seems scarcely believable that a writer in their 20s could produce something as intricate and ambitious as The Luminaries, an 832-page tour de force – part thriller; part reflection on the role of fiction – loosely stitched to the 19th century gold-rush in New Zealand. When a man called Walter Moody arrives in the town of Hokitika one stormy night, he stumbles upon 12 men in a cheap hotel and becomes tangled up in a series of unsolved crimes. At 28, Catton became the youngest winner of the Booker Prize, which… certainly makes you think.
Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney (2017)
Everyone has been getting hot under the collar about Rooney's second novel, Normal People (2018), which is odd because her debut, Conversations with Friends, is so obviously the better book. Set in post-crash Dublin, it follows two self-aware university students, Bobbi and Frances, as they attempt to negotiate the path into adulthood, a path that becomes rockier when they start hanging out with a married couple. Rooney writes with a cool detachment about millennial neuroses, young love and the agony of trying to work out who you are.
Rupert Hawksley is an arts and culture writer at The National