Well, it was only after I agreed to write this piece that I noticed the common thread running through these books, and why they cumulatively affected me so much. These are stories about stories: stories that irrevocably change our lives, stories that make sense only when heard together, stories about the past that change our whole future and stories that are bizarre, beautiful and terrifying.
I love reading and telling stories because stories are like life: objectively real, subjectively experienced and full of wonder and mystery; and these books, with their focus on Story itself and its role in our lives, brought that life poignantly to the foreground.
Except Decline and Fall, which was just plain hilarious.
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
In this detective novel, set in an elite New England college (which frankly, is a bit too close to Cambridge for comfort), we learn the identities of the murderers on page one, leading us to wonder not whodunit but whydunit (sorry): what could bring a group of four Classicists to murder their friend in broad daylight? Tartt chillingly captures the transformation of her narrator and his fellow students as they travel down the chilling Grecian rabbit-hole, aided by their charming and sinister DoS.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
A novel of stories within stories, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle juxtaposes the mundaneness of suburban Japanese life with ghostly memories from the wars of the twentieth century as protagonist Toru Okada tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s (and cat’s) disappearance. Throughout the book, he meets a succession of strangers, more than a few of which are incorrigible storytellers. Murakami’s narrative resonates into a compelling whole as one travels through his different layers of story, but the ending only somewhat resolves Okada’s journey, and one particularly gruesome sub-story will ensure that I’ll never travel in occupied Mongolia again!
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Redeeming Cromwell from his widespread historical reputation as Henry VIII’s dog of war is not an easy task, although the popularity of Game of Thrones will have done much to help readers sympathise with such a Machiavellian as Mantel’s Cromwell. While she paints a vivid picture of both man and times, her novel is too caught up in Cromwell’s own worldview to shed much light on characters who oppose him, who she tends to demonise. At its best, Wolf Hall is still an absolutely gripping read, and the comparison with George R.R. Martin could favourably extend to Mantel’s masterful characterisation and political intrigue, made all the more compelling by the (albeit flawed) historicity of her subject matter.
Charming Billy – Alice McDermott
I got it at Christmas, and hadn’t got round to reading it until a long car’s journey to Scotland on a family holiday provided both motive and opportunity. The lovable Billy, McDermott’s protagonist, falls in love with a visiting Irish girl, Eva, on a perfect Long Island summer, but her deception and a lie told by Billy’s cousin Dennis leads Billy to an alcoholic’s slow death. McDermott use the setting of Catholic Irish in Queens, New York to examine how much our lives are altered by how we remember them and tell stories about them: Billy is charming in spite of his flaws, but his life is seduced, charmed from him by Dennis’ lie. Without sentimentalising her characters, McDermott breaks your heart many times before you reach the final page.
Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
After being sent down from the fictional Scone College, Oxford for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during the annual dinner of the Bollinger (think Bullingdon) club, Paul Pennyfeather is launched headlong into a series of events that includes being falsely imprisoned, nearly marrying a brothel manager and, worst of all, teaching at LLanabba Castle, a poorly-run public school. Waugh’s black satire of British society in the ‘20s and, more specifically, his own experiences at Oxford and teaching in Cardiff, is consistently hilarious and provided much light relief from the soul-searching postmodernity of the previous four books I’d read. Someone should make it into a comic opera or, at the very least, a Broadway musical.