A different kind of list this time: yesterday I spotted a Kate Keen* post about a Facebook meme which asks you to name ten books that have touched you. I usually avoid those things like the plague, because I can never narrow my influences down to ten or five or twelve or whatever the chosen magic number is. But this specification is an interesting one; it implies a book that generated a strong emotional reaction when you read it, which is not the same thing as being the most loved, most challenging, or most influential (although they may be that too). It’s asking not about the books that made you think, but the books that made you feel.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are ten (actually eleven) that did it for me. Numbers 1-4 are from my childhood and adolescence; the others got me as a grown-up.
1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
I suspect this is going to top many, many lists. It’s the immersion, which makes the reader care deeply about what’s at stake; and the sense of fellowship with the characters that begins at the very beginning of Fellowship. My mother gave it to me when I was nine, and what it did to my head and my heart is, I am quite certain, the reason I’m a writer today.
2. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Has there ever been a bright, bookish, slightly odd and outsider little girl anywhere in the world who didn’t identify with Jane? She made me cross, she made me cry, she made me believe that things would get better. And that if they didn’t you could bloody well make them better. Or move on.
3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe / Roots – Alex Haley
I should be able to choose between these two, but I can’t. I read them both when I was around 10-13 years old** and they made the reality of what slavery had actually meant accessible to me in a way no history lesson ever did, before or since. They made me sick to my stomach, they gave me nightmares, and I’m glad of it. If we could build that level of revulsion into the mind of every kid, we’d clear ourselves of violence and bigotry in a generation.
4. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
Well overdue for a reread, this one, but I still remember the emotional highs and lows of reading it for the first time. Dickens doesn’t just tell us about social inequality and the class system here, he makes us feel every vile moment of it. Through it all runs a complex web of love, friendship, family and sacrifice. Overwrought and melodramatic at times, but completely captivating.
5. Black Man – Richard Morgan
What?! I hear you say. An ultra-violent grimdark tech-noir thriller? Yes, absolutely. This is a novel about what it is to live within the constraints of an altered physicality and psychology; to never know if the things you want, the things you do, and the things you fear are really you, or what’s been done to you. It’s about damaged people who know they’re damaged trying endlessly to negotiate that line. And it makes us live through the death of a character we’ve come to admire and respect. Gut-wrenching.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Anger, horror, anger, contempt, anger, sorrow, anger, fear, anger. Did I mention anger? Atwood’s current MaddAddam trilogy is intellectually engaging and artistically accomplished, but it doesn’t do anything for me on an emotional level. Handmaid left me so furious I couldn’t speak.
7. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
I avoided this for years – unappealing cover, unappealing title – until I discovered that it was, actually, about time travel. I thought I wasn’t particularly enjoying it until about two thirds of the way through – kept feeling like I should chuck it in and not read any more – until the moment I found myself in floods of tears. And then I couldn’t stop reading, and could barely stop crying. That was when I understood the source of my reluctance: it drags you into the emotional lives of the characters whether you like it or not, into the heart of their incredible, doomed, love story, and makes you live it with them. Gorgeous and heartbreaking.
8. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
I wrote about Lolita last year; less a review of the novel than of my reaction to it. It’s another book that will break your heart, for completely different reasons. The narrator’s capacity for self-deception, for reframing the horrific and focusing on the banal, has the effect of completely dehumanising the young girl he claims to love. What’s shocking is how seductively he does it.
9. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James
James’s second novel left me profoundly shaken. It’s the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation, told in the colloquial language of the enslaved; unlike Beecher Stowe and Haley, told from the inside. The litany of atrocities suffered from birth to death, the way their lives brutalised both the abusers and the abused, what it took to endure and what it cost to survive, are simply part and parcel of the existence of people who feel as real and visceral as any people you know. It’s a stunningly good book that should be widely known and read, but I warn you now – it will hurt you.
10. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough
I read Sarah’s beautifully written, achingly sad novella a couple of weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind – but I think it would have made this list anyway. The account of a woman’s vigil at the bedside of her dying father, it’s about family and love and loss, what brings people together and what tears them apart. It’s about facing the inconceivable. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel how true it is – it took me back to the death of my own mother seven and a half years ago. And yet, strangely, it doesn’t leave you devastated. It ends with a sense of renewal and wonder; a hint at the possibility of magic.
And that is my list. Over to you – what’s on yours?
* Kate is on Twitter as @ladymoonray
** Because those were the halcyon days before the invention of YA fiction, and the rise of the corollary notion that because there is now a category deemed ‘appropriate’ for young readers, other books must perforce be ‘not appropriate’ – but that’s a rant for another time. (And is not, by the way, a criticism of YA books or writers, many of which/whom are wonderful; what I have a problem with is the creation of a barrier to other books.)