I thought I’d do something different for a change (mainly because, much as I’ve been enjoying reading all these twenty-first century novels, I do miss talking about Dickens). So today you can have a rundown of my top twenty-three favourite books. I did try to get it down to twenty, but this proved difficult. Today I’ll do number twenty-three to eleven, and next week I’ll give my top ten. I promise that out of twenty-three books, only twelve of them were published in the nineteenth century, and only four of them are Dickens novels. And yes, that did seem like less before I wrote it down.
But anyway, let’s begin:
23. Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh (1930)
As I dedicated a whole module of my undergrad to Evelyn Waugh, I feel he ought to make it into my favourites somewhere. I’m divided on him as a writer on the whole; the language of Brideshead Revisited is a bit rich for my taste, and I couldn’t get into Scoop really – but I absolutely love Vile Bodies. I like the sparseness of the language and the sheer oddity of the plot and characters. It follows a sort of love story between Adam and Nina, a couple on the outskirts of the London high society scene, flitting in and out of the strange parties of the Bright Young Things. I love the obsessive desperation with which these characters live out their lives. And, you know, the 1920s are cool.
22. The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling (2012)
I almost forgot this one, but it definitely belongs here somewhere. With Harry Potter being so significant to my childhood/teenagerdom/university life, it’s nice to have J. K. Rowling here somewhere. Besides, The Casual Vacancy is a truly great book. It was so thoroughly lovely to read it and realise that Rowling is not only great at creating worlds, but is just a brilliant writer. The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant social criticism, in some ways the sort of book Dickens or Trollope (or maybe Hardy…) might have written if they were alive today. Of all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years, it’s probably made me re-evaluate the world the most.
21. What a Carve Up!, by Jonathan Coe (1994)
Now this is a very strange book, and one I stand in great awe of. The form of it is incredible. I can’t precisely explain it apart from by saying that it combines a first person narrative of Michael Owen, the social hermit and biographer of the Winshaw family, the third person narratives of each member of said Winshaw family, and then, in the second half of the novel, a wonderful horror film pastiche. It’s a book to go to with an open mind, firstly because it’s strange and fragmented (in the best ways) and secondly because it’s an incredibly angry book. For that reason I think I probably marvel at it more than I love it, if that makes sense – and yet it still had to make it on to my favourites list somehow, simply because it is so clever and original. It’s an amazing social critique as well as a sort of cluedo game in novel form, a bizarre and brilliant mystery and keeps you gripped to every page.
20. Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen (1814)
Because Jane Austen is pretty awesome. Mansfield Park always seemed a bit underrated to me, and in fact the first time I read it I didn’t like it at all and thought it was boring (yes I am now ashamed; sorry Jane Austen). However, after studying it at uni it became one of my favourites. I think what I like about it is that how rich in historical and cultural context it is. It’s historically fascinating, if a bit less timeless than Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. And while Fanny Price isn’t quite as feisty as Emma Woodhouse, she is interesting, if in a quiet way, and even if she isn’t sure of herself, she’s very sure of her own morality. Plus this is the book that features Henry Crawford, and that’s no bad thing.
19. The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens (1840-1)
It was only a matter of time before I got onto Dickens. Now The Old Curiosity Shop is by no means by favourite Dickens novel on the whole, but it earns its place here because it contains one of my absolute favourite characters in Dickens and in general, the wondrous and hilarious (and unfortunately named) Dick Swiveller. He just has such glorious character progression and is such a thoroughly lovable character.. As I do sometimes find in Dickens, for me it’s not the main plot of The Old Curiosity Shop but the subplot that I love. Nell and her grandfather pale in comparison with Dick, The Marchioness, Kit and the bizarre Brass siblings. Ah, good old Dickens and his massive array of eccentric characters.
18. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962)
I think I do like my novels to be in weird forms. Lessing’s The Golden Notebook comes in the form of four notebooks, all written and kept by Anna Wulf, a writer living in London in the 1950s. In the Black Notebook she records her writing career and her past in Rhodesia; in the Red Notebook she writes about her experiences in the communist party; the Blue is her diary, and in the Yellow Anna gives a fictionalised account of a previous love affair of hers. These notebooks are interweaved with a third person narrative, seemingly a novel called Free Women. I love this strange and original structure for a novel. And it serves its purpose wonderfully, for it brilliantly captures Anna’s struggle to organise herself through the way she writes.
17. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013)
I only read this novel this summer, but it’s a truly amazing one. I think I love it so much partly because the writing’s just superb, partly because of the inter-war and WWII historical setting, and partly just because the idea is so thoroughly good. It tells the story of Ursula, a woman who begins her life over every time she dies, with some vague sense in her mind of the life that went before. It’s just a truly brilliant brilliant novel. Full review here.
16. Never Let Me Go, Kauzo Ishiguro (2005)
I love this novel for the sheer humanity in it. And of course it’s genius to have a novel exploring what it means to be human from the perspective of people who have been dehumanised – in this case clones bred for their organs. But I think my favourite thing about Never Let Me Go is that it’s so subtle. If you simply explain what it’s about – ie, clones – that just doesn’t come anywhere near what it’s about really. At the centre of it it’s more just a novel about human people coping, living and loving under awful circumstances. And the characters are brilliant. And it’s brilliant. And I’ve used the word ‘brilliant’ too many times in this blog post…
15. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
It was actually Jane Eyre that got me into nineteenth century literature to begin with. When I was thirteen, I watched the 2006 TV adaptation with my mum one Sunday night, and was so gripped by the first episode that I couldn’t wait until next week to see what happened and so decided to read the book. From then on I discovered, Gaskell, Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Trollope and all those other favourites of mine. So Jane Eyre has a lot to answer for. It is also a truly lovely and great novel. What I particularly like is Jane and Rochester’s relationship. They talk to each other like real people. They tease one another. It’s lovely.
“Am I hideous, Jane?”
“Very, sir: you always were, you know.”
What a book.
14. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (1981)
I think my favourite thing about Midnight’s Children (besides my general enjoyment of semi-historical magical realism and the fascinating cast of characters), is simply the language. Midnight’s Children is just so wonderfully brilliantly written. Every sentence seems perfect without ever been overwritten. Every sentence – even every chapter title – is crafted with such attention and effort that you just can’t help but love it.
13. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens (1855-7)
And we’re back to Dickens. I did warn you. It would take me hours and hours to explain why I love Dickens (some people have suffered through that in the past…), but I think the main reasons I love his novels so much is because they have, to me, the perfect balance between humour and emotion, between making you laugh, smile or cry. I also love novels that have tons of characters. And I love that over the course of Dickens’s fourteen novels you can watch him progress as a writer. As for Little Dorrit particularly, I think it ranks as my third favourite Dickens novel because I love the characters so much; this novel contains the gems of Edmund Sparkler, Fredrick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Jeremiah Flintwich and the lovely Daniel Doyce. I also love the relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit. They’re one of the first couples in Dickens that are friends before anything else, and one of the few couples you can imagine actually existing and being happy beyond the pages of the novel.
12. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (1895)
And another of my Victorian favourites. What I love about Hardy is not so much his narrative style as his dialogue and characters. Jude and Sue are just so real, and it’s such a raw, passionate, awful and brilliant book. I reckon it’s one of the books that makes me cry most – and another one of those novels that I’ve liked even more through studying it. I recommend it to everyone, although it does come with a warning: this is Hardy; expect some happiness, snatched from despair, and a great deal of misery.
11. if nobody speaks of remarkable things, by Jon McGregor (2002)
Next week: my top ten favourites...