The #9albums meme on Twitter made me think about how this might impact on the books which mean the most to me (and which have followed me for a long time, so no recent titles will appear here). Dates are for the edition I have to hand, not necessarily original date of publication.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Puffin, 1973.
This story, of a group of rabbits finding a new home, is a bona fide classic, which was later made into a rather scary animated film. Fiver has psychic powers and can sense bad vibes in the warren in which he and his brother Hazel live, but as he is the runt of the litter and not that powerful in the pecking order, the Chief Rabbit doesn’t listen to him with, as we see later, horrendous consequences. I try to re-read this book each year and never get bored with it. The rabbits are given distinct personalities and even their own religion, as the Black Rabbit is their demon of death, and El-ahrairah is almost their Christ figure, or at least comparable to that of Aslan in …
The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis. Fontana Lion, c.1980.
Across seven books (The Magician’s Nephew, in which a young boy and girl find themselves witnessing the birth of Narnia; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, in which four children become kings and queens and see the death and resurrection of Aslan the Lion; The Horse and His Boy, set within the reign of the Pevensie children with a Prince and Pauper theme; Prince Caspian, which deals with a usurper and a rightful king; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which a valiant mouse joins a crew to find a number of lost Lords; The Silver Chair, in which a prince is enchanted; and The Last Battle, which deals with the end of Narnia as a world), CS Lewis’ fantasy series is an endlessly fascinating piece of fiction with prose which generally vivid visually stunning images, and a strong storyline in which talking animals and mythical creatures live alongside swordsmen, warm-hearted dwarfs, and a London cabbie who becomes the equivalent of the Biblical Adam.
The Houses-in-Between, by Howard Spring. Reprint Society, 1954.
This sprawling saga follows Sarah Undridge, who tells the story in first person, and her family, friends and acquaintances through many years. It starts in the Victorian age and ends with the Second World War, and the characters and situations crackle with life, across time, class, and legitimacy. This book has been comfort food for me for many years, and remains my favourite of Spring’s novels.
Flush, by Virginia Woolf. Penguin, 1977.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a little dog. A cocker spaniel, to be exact. And Virginia Woolf was his biographer. This is slight on first glance, but absolutely delightful, and very perceptive on all manner of external forces which impacted on the poet and her pet.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Faber and Faber, 1989.
Plath’s fictionalised account of her own teenage years is a tour de force of confessional writing, and in her character of ‘Esther’ we can follow her dreams, ideals, depressions, sexual awakening, suicide attempts, shock therapy, and more. This book may have influenced Susanna Kaysen’s own work drawing on her own life and experiences, ‘Girl, Interrupted’, which is in itself an excellent book. But Plath, being essentially a poet with a great eye for detail and sense of the power of the written word, wrote the stronger of the two novels, and even though it was published more than fifty years ago, it remains a gut-punching read today, while also retaining flashes of black humour which are very refreshing.
Silences, by Tillie Olsen. Virago, 1994.
From a time when I myself was a writer, and discovering a wide variety of female voices, from the Brontës and Austen through to Ruth Fainlight, Jackie Kay, and my historical fiction writer of choice, Jean Plaidy. Olsen’s book focuses on the invisibility of the woman writer in the context of wider politic views such as race, class, and ultimately gender. It is a highly feminist book which is very readable and even now, very perceptive and relevant.