The other day I was thinking about a plan we had to sell our house and live on a narrowboat. It was a great idea, a big part of me would love to do it, and downsizing wouldn’t be a major problem; when it comes to possessions I’m not that attached. Except...well of course there is the book collection and with something in the region of 800+ books (I’m still cataloguing) clearly any move to a narrowboat would result in a severe slimming down of the collection. Either that or we’d need 2 boats – one for us and one for the books.
So it got me to thinking, if I really had to distil my collection down to the absolute favourites, the books from which I could not bear to be parted. And I’ve racked my brains, and weighed and measured and examined the pros and cons and listened to the innermost workings of my heart and here, with some trepidation, is my list of the top 5 books I couldn’t bear to live without.
In no particular order (goodness, selection was hard enough. Ordering? Impossible):
Grendel by John GardnerGrendel was recommended to me by a particularly literary friend. Not being familiar with the Beowulf story, the name was not immediately known to me but, in the end, it didn’t need to be. Grendel is a lushly written re-imagining of the Beowulf story, told from the perspective of the monster which Beowulf kills to cement his hero status. Here we find the ‘villain’ coming to terms with his role, his ugliness, his hatedness, his realisation of the power of words in spinning a role for us all. That in order for there to be heroes, there must first be villains. I wouldn’t like to give away too much about this one, but I think it’s close to the most perfect book ever written. Beautiful and diamond sharp. Poetic. Magical.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela CarterI discovered the work of Angela Carter by accident. I was studying English Literature at Sixth Form College and one day we had a trainee teacher and she got us to study an extract of a story about a female vampire. It was gothic and atmospheric. Dense and richly written. A few weeks later I tracked it down in a short story collection by Carter and there followed a life-long love affair with the faded decadence of Angela Carter’s writing. And in particular The Magic Toyshop. Perhaps I was just the right age to pick up this short, coming of age story of the pampered Melanie, brought to poverty by the death of her parents and sent to live with an unknown uncle, the sinister Philip, and his Magic Toyshop. And Philip’s wife, Aunt Maggie and Francie and the dirty, degraded, sullen and somehow most marvellous of all, Finn.
As with all of Carter’s work, there’s a sinister undertone, an enveloping sensuousness, almost like a discovered velvet chair, dust laden, languishing past its prime in a second hand shop. Beauty beneath the degradation. A stunning tale of a girl’s growing up, first love and, perhaps, a first connection with the realities, pain and joy, of human life.
Lost Paradise by Cees NooteboomAnother chance find, and another real beauty. Aside from the prologue and epilogue (which to this day I still don’t quite understand) this is a shot of ecstatic self-discovery told through two disparate but linked tales. The first tale follows a German-Brazilian girl who, prone to fits of black moods, drives one day into a rough part of town and ends up being gang raped. Following the attack she and a friend decide to go to Australia, a place they had both longed to visit, and whilst she is there she has an affair with an aboriginal man, becomes an angel and discovers how to live with herself in peace.
The second tale is that of a man, a journalist who writes book reviews, who is suffering from a mid-life slump. His girlfriend sends him to a private sanatorium to recover himself and, whilst there, he revisits in his mind his own trip to Australia and the source of his discontentment.
The first time I read Lost Paradise I found myself in a state of near ecstasy that lasted three days. Then I read it again. And again. A sparsely written but amazingly effective little book that will stay with me for all time.
Cloud Atlas by David MitchellOr did I mean The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Or Ghostwritten? Or Number9Dream? Oh, with Mr Mitchell it’s so hard to choose but if limited to one, to only one, it would have to be this, the sweeping, time travelling, interlinked story Cloud Atlas. With a dizzying range of styles and a skill which is almost inhuman and therefore cruel, Cloud Atlas is the book that convinces me, always, that I’m never going to be a writer. Because who can measure up to that? It’s an historical drama, a detective thriller, science fiction, futuristic dystopia, post apocalyptic western and gosh-darned clever all the way through. Whatever you like to read, this book has got it.
The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan CooperIs it cheating to choose 5 books as one item? Oh well, consider me a cheat then. I first read Greenwitch as a teenager and then, in no particular order, The Grey King (still my favourite, if I had to pick one), The Dark is Rising, Under Sea Under Stone, Silver on the Tree. It’s a story for young adults, but great for adult readers nonetheless. Drawing on Arthurian legend and British folklore (or primarily English and Welsh anyway) it also carries all the hallmarks of a good fantasy novel and a classic childhood adventure story. There’s mystery, magic, lots of darkness, sinister forces, heroic children, adventure and running like a current through it all this timeless wisdom that makes it more than a mere child’s book. I re-read The Dark is Rising a couple of Christmases ago and resolved to read it ever year. Don’t be put off by that dreadful movie adaptation (The Seeker – honestly, I nearly cried), it doesn’t come close to doing anything resembling ‘justice’ (though shooting whoever made it might...only kidding). A great, entertaining read for readers of all ages.
So, what would you choose?