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My Top Ten Novels & Pictures of Other Novels

While I have been doing my training walks for the Camino de Santiago (remember to donate!), I have been thinking about the things that are most important to me, partly because of a limited weight allowance for my rucksack. But it seems to have prompted other reflections around the same theme including reading. Luckily, I don’t need to decide on books to take for this trip since I have a Kindle and subscribe to audio books, but I have been asking myself what ten novels I would take to a desert island.

I found the selection process a curious one and have surprised myself with the final list. I ended up choosing novels I have read at least twice (with the exception of Burial Rites but I am already about to start re-reading). That seemed to me to be the most important thing. There is no Dickens; I need to be in the right mood for his intensity and his wit although I do think he is a truly brilliant novelist; similarly Woolf didn’t quite make it, despite being one of my favourite novelists: she too is intense and places strong demands on the reader and probably I will need to save my energy for fighting off killer insects. One thing that really surprised me is that I only chose to include one male writer - Wilkie Collins. This was by no means conscious at the time but reveals that while I have probably read as many male writers as I have female writers, in the end these female writers simply impress me more and connect to me more.

Six of the top ten. Couldn't find the others... [except late addition The Poisonwood Bible]

1. The Bone People by Keri Hulme (1984). I think this is my favourite novel. It won the Booker Prize to the fury of much of the press who found it an incomprehensible, badly written and overlong. In some ways I agree, but I don’t think it stops it from being an extraordinary piece of writing which hits me in the stomach every time I read it (and I have read it four times over the years.) I think Hulme could have done some cutting and could have made more of a tighter ending, but then it would have been a different novel. I simply love it, perhaps because of the rawness and the experimentalism and the profoundly moving observations about being a woman, being lonely, love, a desire to change oneself and others, and one’s relationship with place, home and family. I don’t think it is an easy read: the narrative moves from first to third constantly and is full of Maori expressions, some of which are glossed, many of which aren’t. The story? A woman lives in a tower and has, for reasons we discover, entirely isolated herself from society. A young boy breaks through her defences and things change. There are complicated ethical debates explored in the novel, none of which are easy to digest or even easy to accept; indeed there are some areas that Hulme explores that I don’t feel happy with in terms of their resolutions within the novel (to say more would give away the story). And yet, I go back to it because I find it so powerful and because of the incredible prose, which often hovers on poetry but is without any pretention whatsoever.

2. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996). I had to have an Atwood novel, the difficulty was which one because they are all simply amazing. I have chosen Alias Grace, because while thinking about this list I had the urge to re-read it, which I am now doing and loving it just as much as the last time I read it.

Atwood’s ninth novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker, is based on the celebrated murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy, in 1843 in Canada. Two members of Kinnear’s household were convicted and Atwood has explored the story of Grace Marks, telling it via a fictional doctor who went to visit her in prison. It is a highly disturbing novel, which explores female power and lack of power, immigrant life in the 1800s, poverty and abuse, and madness. Margaret Atwood has always struck me as one of those rare writers who is able to change her voice and style in every novel. Usually one likes a novelist for her or his style – we know what we are getting with a novel by Graham Greene for instance – but my love for Atwood is for the complete surprise I will always have: I never know what to expect except the certainty that I will love it. This one has a more gothic feel, perhaps, than her others and interestingly she goes back in time, rather than to an imagined future as she has done for quite a few of her novels (including my second choice for this list, the Maad Adam sequence). I am very excited to say that a Netflix production is coming out soon of Alias Grace so it will be interesting to see what they do with it. I have been happy with The Handmaid’s Tale despite massive additions to the plot, because they have kept it true in so many others to the original. And if you have never tried Atwood, you have a basket of treats awaiting you.

3. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013) is my next choice. It struck me as rather curious that there are so many similarities between this novel and Atwood’s. Both are based on a notorious nineteenth century murder committed by a woman; Kent’s heroine does not escape the death penalty, however, and became the last woman in Iceland to be hanged. Like Atwood’s novel, the narrative is told by various characters and uses extracts from archival material, but the themes are different as is the style of writing. The remoteness of Iceland is so evocative in Burial Rites, as is the absolute certainty of approaching death that is explored by the protagonist, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. In that way I found it a deeply existential novel and it has lingered with me ever since I first read it. It isn’t a cheerful novel - it can’t be when we know that it will end in a hanging - but there is something uplifting about the prose which I found stunning. Critics seem to have a go at writers who are ambitious with projects: I was quite shocked to read some fairly harsh reviews of this book once I had read the actual novel. It was a controversial publication because Kent was an unknown MA student when she got a large advance, and critics have attacked this and her writing style, picking her up on tiny points in a way they don’t do with some writers. It is not a perfect novel, and certainly not as sophisticated in the way that Atwood’s novels are, but it is a thought-provoking and powerful piece of writing. (Interestingly, three nearly-chosen novels for my list were also about bleak snow-locked landscapes: Nevil Shute’s An Old Captivity, Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves and Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum, although the latter isn’t a novel anyway but a memoir/travel narrative/history. Something about snowy adventures, settlers and explorers, I suppose.)

Random picture of some of my books.

4. Which brings me to Joanna Kavenna and an actual novel of hers which has made it to my list: The Birth of Love (2010). This book combines some of my favourite elements of a novel: a composite narrative (we get four different stories which are ultimately shown to be connected), a reconsideration of a historical figure (in this case the man who discovered that using antiseptic would save women from dying after giving birth), a flawed and rather Prufrockian anti-hero, and a bit of dystopian action which I always love. Some critics compared the futuristic element to Brave New World but in doing so they rather misread The Birth of Love. I re-read Brave New World recently and was shocked at the way that women were represented, as if women are simply passive participants in the future rather than humans whose future role is equally at stake as men’s. Kavenna’s novel questions Huxley’s vision and I found it a witty riposte to Huxley.

An obvious connection between the stories is childbirth, a theme rarely explored in novels and Kavenna presents it breathtakingly. One narrative thread describes the process of labour today: it is gritty, disturbing, beautiful in places, and refreshingly honest. Labour is a process that many women experience but I have rarely seen it written about. There are other connections too and I enjoyed discovering them, feeling those goosebumps one gets when little secrets are revealed in literature. And I think the most important thing to say about Kavenna is that she is an exquisite writer: she is witty, sharp, lyrical, and original. And, as said above, despite the fact that Kavenna has won various awards, including becoming one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists for this decade, many critics find original and ambitious writing a little difficult to deal with sometimes and that irritates me!

5. Going backwards 150 years or so, and things haven’t changed much. Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853), was poorly received originally and her publisher even made Bronte change various aspects before he would have it printed. The novel was seen as too passionate, too explicit in places, and not happy enough. But nothing keeps a brilliant writer down and this novel remains one of my favourite of all times.

Not Jane Eyre? No. And this surprised me too. When I really thought about it, I realised it was Villette I would like to re-read and I only re-read it a year ago. Perhaps I know Jane Eyre too well and my reasons for taking it would be nostalgic more than anything else. Villette is a better novel, a more interesting one and certainly a more changeable novel, depending on where you are in your life. And I don’t even like the main character, Lucy Snowe. (I have written about Villette elsewhere in the blog, and it is interesting that there I said, Jane Eyre always wins for me. Apparently not. See also Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s brilliant comparison of the two novels.) I have also been re-reading the lives of the Brontës, told by Lynne Reid Banks in Dark Quartet and Path to the Silent Country. Easy, although painful, reads, compared to more formal biographies. I am a true Brontë geek and I was almost tempted to include Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and yet I didn’t want to cut out some of my other novels. Interestingly I didn’t even consider Wuthering Heights. I love it, I hate it. Perhaps that’s why.

6. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859) is wonderful: full of everything you want including belly-ache laughs and suspense. Women lose out in the end but perhaps that is more a reflection of the time it was written in rather than on the views of the author himself. Collins was what we might describe as a proto-thriller writer; indeed he is actually known for writing the first Detective Novel – The Moonstone, which I also love. I went for The Woman in White because it is funnier. The story is told by various characters in the novel which is also one of the reasons I enjoy it so much: we get to hear quite a few different versions of the same story from different perspectives. And the story itself? Well, let’s say it involves a naïve art instructor who falls in love with one of his students, an apparent mad woman who dresses in white who our naïve art instructor meets in the middle of the night by chance, an evil member of the Italian aristocracy and a patient loving woman who one loves but slightly wants to kick at the same time, for being so nice and so passive and putting up with the difficulties of being a woman in the mid-nineteenth century.

7. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2) is probably one of the greatest novels ever written and as well as being a thoughtful novel, beautifully written, with fantastic characters and interesting ideas, it is also a novel I have read and re-read many times. When I first read it, I identified with the idealistic Dorothea but as I have grown older I smile at her idealism and wish she could have chosen her husband rather better. This novel has everything: humour, plot, history, observations on the often overlooked but important minutae of every day life, rich and believable characters. If you haven’t read it, you should!

Another random picture of some of my books and oh no I have just seen The Poisonwood Bible which I should have included in this list...Going to have to make some changes.

8. From the provinces of England to the Midwest of the US for my next novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1992). This is not a novel to be read lightly because, like several other of my favourite novels, it deals with some difficult ideas. Based on the story of King Lear, the novel depicts life on a farm in Iowa, ruled by the patriarch Larry who has three daughters. Smiley has modernised Shakespeare’s play in this novel, deliberately alluding to characters, themes, even imagery from the play and she has done it brilliantly. But it is more than just a clever sleight of hand, indeed I never felt the play intruded into the narrative. Occasionally I stepped back and marvelled at the links but they only served to intensify the experience of both the novel and the play. And anyway I like modern re-workings of Shakespeare: Atwood’s most recent novel, Hagseed, is a fantastic retelling of The Tempest but I suspect that, like Smiley’s novel, it works just as well even if you don’t know the plays. A Thousand Acres took me to some dark places while reading it – to explain them would be to ruin the story – but it hasn’t stopped me rereading it on a number of occasions and choosing to teach it for A Level coursework. A beautiful novel.

9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). This is a late addition because I had completely forgotten about it until I saw it in the photo I just put up. It replaces a very sentimental choice of mine: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife which I included because despite its many flaws including an absurd idea and a clunky writing style, I have read it many times and sobbed for hours many times... Still Kingsolver is the better and more brilliant choice. This novel was given to me through the window of a train in Aswan by a fellow tour leader promising that I wouldn't sleep until I had finished it. I remember staying up all night in Luxor to indeed finish it and it was one of the few books I was given while travelling that I actually brought back to England with me, because it was so special. Set in the Congo in the 1950s it is a sort of growing novel told by four sisters, who arrive with their missionary parents ready to convert the locals. The writing is stunning and hovers on magical realism in place; I have read it three times now and I think I am ready for a fourth.

10. My final novel is by Daphne du Maurier. I simply love du Maurier and whenever I am ill, fed up, bored, at a loss for something to read, feeling a little nostalgic about the old days, whatever and whenever they might be, I turn to her writing. I love Rebecca, of course, but my favourite has to be the very sentimental The King’s General (1946) set in Cornwall in the English Civil War. It is a love story about two flawed people who are never quite able to be together, as is the theme of much of du Maurier’s writing (and I have just finished an article for Slightly Foxed on her rather strange sci-fi-ish novel called The House on the Strand which has the same theme. If you read The King's General, you will cry.

Nearly made-its. Oh I am so tempted to do this list but I have just deleted four books from it, because really, when do you stop? I am also going to be forced to do a top ten children's novels because there were two children's novels I would have included in the above list otherwise. And then maybe memoirs? And then poems? And then plays?

Final random photo of books but I mustn't look too closely in case I see another novel I should have included...

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