I am often asked for my reading recommendations. Here, I thought I would share with you some of the novels that demanded I read them a second time. The truest of friends, they have stuck with me through the years. Some I have read many times over.
I think that a great novel has to transport you somewhere else. My first choice is The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. From the very first page, you are there, in the deep south. The book’s setting, an island nestling among the marshes, in central to the novel. It is a childhood haven, but it becomes the scene of this sprawling book’s most horrific scenes. ‘My wound is geography, it is also my anchorage…’ You will find it is a difficult, rich and rewarding read. Don’t be put off by the film which focused on everything that is romantic in the book, detouring neatly round the more shocking elements of the storyline, leaving very two-dimensional characters.
I have never been to New England but I know its landscape through my favourite author, John Irving. It would be difficult to include only one of his novels in a shortlist. I am torn between Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both are life-changing. I particularly love John Irving’s use of themes and challenging
viewpoints. Forced to choose I will plump for Owen Meany, a boy who speaks in capitals, because he was my introduction to Irving. This book comes with a warning. The ending is devastating. Do not be tempted to read it on a train.
Many of the books in my selection are by contemporary American authors. I don’t know what it is that appeals about them since I feel very British and have a love of the British countryside. Never an Austen fan, for me it was always Thomas Hardy. I find myself coming back time and time again to Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It stays relevant and contains the most perfectly flawed heroine; innocent, naïve, wronged. And, ultimately, deadly. I catch glimpses of the England Hardy describes when I am out walking over the bracken and the moors, but I sense it too under the surface of tarmac paths that follow the routes people have always trodden. (The paperback is available for only £1.99, so if you don’t own it, you really should take the opportunity to buy it.)
I want to make a special case for The Unicorn Road as I feel that Martin Davies deserves a huge readership. Although picked up by Richard and Judy, few people seem to have heard of him. I quote the novel’s opening line as an example of how to hook readers in. ‘To lose a small boy in a world so wide is an easy thing.’ We know what we are getting. This is a father’s quest to find his missing son, set in a time when travel was dangerous and long. It is an adventure novel, but it also a love story. In the Conjourer’s Bird, Davies showed us that he was capable of writing about romantic love. It this book, we never see father and son together and yet the depth of feeling is palpable.
The book I recommend to people who tell me they don’t like fiction is The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak. The author tackles extremely sensitive subject matter with originality and simplicity, which is perfection. I like authors who write about complex subject matter in simple language. I don’t want to have to interrupt my reading to look up words in a dictionary.I got to the very end before I learned that Zuzak is the author of several award-winning children’s books. It explained much about his writing style and his deep understanding of his main characters. I suffered a moment’s panic when I heard that a film being made. Fingers crossed that it does this wonderful book justice.
A novel is nothing without a few deeply flawed but sympathetically written characters. E. Annie Proulx wrote the most extraordinary main character in Quoyle in The Shipping News (an example of a book that should never have been made into a film) but her use of language is so full of warmth and humour and sadness that we cannot help but love him.
As an author, I am constantly being told that there are certain rules that I must follow, and one of those rules relates to chronology. One of my favourite novel of recent years sticks two fingers up at rules. I have read A Visit from the Goon Squad from front to back and from back to front and it makes perfect sense both ways. Jennifer Egan manages to explain the human condition so perfectly; how it is possible to do something without knowing the reasons why you are doing it; and she remains completely non-judgemental. In moments of darkness, she always manages to find something beautiful. Wonderful, wonderful stuff!
Another book that has taught me a huge amount about the craft of writing is The Thousand Autmuns of Jacob de Zoet (Terry Wogan’s book of choice). What I particularly love about the writing is that, rather than have huge segments of prose, David Mitchell punctuates what characters are saying with sensuous but economic descriptions. A snapshot rather than an oil painting. I played with this technique in These Fragile Things.
I am sorry to say that I didn’t get on with Cloud Atlas. Perhaps it was because I was a long way from home and needed something to ground me.
Which brings me to Wonder Boys.
I love Chabon, so I felt on principle that I should persevere with The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay? I have now abandoned it three times and feel that this must be a failure on my part. But Wonder Boys! It is a book about a dried-up writer who discovers a genius among his creative writing pupils. Chabon’s observational skills are second to none. There are so many truths in here, so many situations that I related to. But there plenty to satisfy those who love a comic adventure too. Just read it!
I often apply to go to recordings of BBC’s Bookclub. One book I would not have discovered otherwise is What I Loved. It is a novel that I honestly believe I would have overlooked when browsing in a bookshop because the title and cover don’t shout out ‘Read me!’ But this unassuming book is crammed full of suprises. Difficult to define, it begins with a slow-moving and beautifully observed depiction of relationship between an art historian, an artist and their two families. Intelligent souls but, in their loft apartments, they are disconnected from the outside world. What happens to their teenage sons takes them into uncharted territory. The pace increases as the novel progresses and it becomes something quite unexpected. The reader absorbs the characters’ sense of disorientation and panic. What feels like unreality is in fact the real world, and it is truly shocking.
With so many other amazing contenders, it is SO difficult to narrow the list down. I am appalled to see I have missed Maggie O’Farrell off. Consistently brilliant and one of my favourite authors, do look her up if you haven’t discovered her yet. Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, David Nicholls, I apologise.