In a new series of articles, we’re asking writers to nominate five books that had a major impact on them when they first read them, and to tell us why.
Recently on one of the social media platforms, I was challenged to nominate seven books – one for each day of the week – that had a major impact on me when I first read them. The word “challenge” is not to be taken lightly. There are so many wonderful books out there from the very old to the newly published and each day as my choice was posted, I wondered if perhaps another equally-loved book should have taken its place. But the line had to be drawn somewhere, the bullet had to be bitten.
I’ve written about the evocative works of the Brontë sisters and their vivid descriptions of the bleakly beautiful Yorkshire moors in a previous article, so they’re not included here. Nor is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a skilful storyteller with an extraordinary gift for imagery. Who could ever forget the image of bitter Miss Havisham in her tatty yellowing wedding dress with the putrescent wedding feast mouldering on the table beside her?
Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet… I could go on. So many books must be put aside because TBS Editor-in-Chief Mathew Mackie has specified that this is strictly a five-book challenge. Here goes.
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
If you think Frankenstein is all about a monster bearing a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff who goes about terrorising all and sundry, then you’re very much mistaken. Mary Shelley’s book is so much more than a horror story.
Inspired by scientific theories about “states of life and death” including the notion of reanimating a corpse, she explores human ingenuity, the dichotomy between birth and creation, good and evil, God and science. She examines the pursuit of knowledge at all costs, the concept of revenge, the power of nature, what it means to be human. And all this written – with some gorgeous descriptive passages – at the age of just 18. It’s an exceptional achievement and my admiration hasn’t dimmed after all those years since my first reading. Mary herself was a fascinating woman, overshadowed in her own lifetime by her famous parents and notorious husband, and it’s nice that in this 200th year since Frankenstein was published, she’s getting a bit of focused attention.
Eleni (1983) by Nicholas Gage
Just oh my god. This is the true story of a son’s tribute to the mother who died when he was a small boy. Set during World War II and more significantly, the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), Gage describes how in 1948 his mother saved her children from communist rebels and was imprisoned, tortured and executed for doing so. The biography gives an overview of what was going on in Greece at the time, while also documenting his decades-later search for the men who were responsible for her death. I was travelling in Greece in 1984 when I read it and was so moved I was compelled to visit Eleni’s tiny village of Lia, near the Albanian border. Some of the book’s details have faded over time, but its overall impact has stayed with me to this day.
Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov
It shocked readers when it was published 60 odd years ago and it shocks readers still. Humbert Humbert marries a woman because he’s sexually obsessed with her 12-year-old daughter. He’s charming, educated, eloquent – an effective disguise for his repugnant, despicable personality. Only a master writer can inspire in readers a level of sympathy for an essentially bad person. Told in the first person, the writing is brilliant, with loads of literary allusions, clever wordplay and some incredible descriptions. I opened the book at random and read:
A row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough, seemed at first sight to forbid access; but then, by magic, a formidable convertible, resplendent, rubious in the lighted rain, came into motion – was energetically backed out by a broad-shouldered driver – and we gratefully slipped into the gap it had left.
And that’s just about parking. The language is what stunned me. The book is beautifully crafted, a masterpiece.
Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Is anyone above the law? That’s one of the questions Dostoevsky asks in this remarkable book, which still packs a punch even though it’s more than 150 years since it was published. Raskolnikov murders a woman because his personal philosophy suggests it’s in society’s interests to rid the world of a pawnbroker. But when the woman’s sister walks in and he kills her too, all that rationalising is thrown out the window. The characterisations are astonishing, the psychological insights profound. Dostoevsky writes about empathy, the friction between people of varying socio-economic and educational backgrounds. There’s politics, social commentary, punishment, redemption and philosophy. I re-read it every decade or so and each time take away something new.
Leviathan (1992) by Paul Auster
If a book has Paul Auster’s name on it, I’m pretty damned certain I’ll love it. Everything he’s written from The New York Trilogy to his latest brilliant and hugely ambitions 4321 is just so good. Leviathan opens with a bungled terrorist attack: the perpetrator, Sachs, tries to blow up the Statue of Liberty and succeeds only in blowing up himself. Who he was and why he did it become evident as the story, told by the bomber’s friend Peter, unfolds. Interpersonal relationships, the role of chance, what is knowable, how one person’s life connects with another’s and the relationship between order and chaos – these are the some of the issues Auster makes us think about. He tells a fascinating story peopled with fascinating characters. And impact? Yes, in spades.
That’s it for me. Every reader has a unique relationship with a writer, so what is deeply affecting for one person may leave another cold. But it’s also true to say that reading another person’s views on a book often inspires us to read that book and perhaps begin our own personal love affair with a new author.
Look out for more takes on the Five-Book Challenge; they’re coming soon.