Dinner at a friend’s house last night resulted in (amongst other things) the question, ‘What is your top 10 list of fiction?’ I struggled in the immediate moments post question, ‘Just what were my top 10?’ I resorted to the good old ‘I need time to think’ ploy and duly woke up this morning and rattled off my top 10. Sleep is very good for the brain, severely under-rated, and 9 hours after my head hit the pillow I was fresh and thinking clearly.
So here it is, my fiction top 10 (in no particular order). I have cheated a little (or have I?) by including an anthology and a ‘complete works’. One of the criteria for making the top 10 is that these are works that I can revisit time and time again.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I like the characterisation and the thwarted love story. But more than that I like the portrayal of the America of the 1920s – bootlegging, excess, the jazz age – and ultimately the corruption of the American Dream. You can read it with all its nuances or purely as a love story – it does its work on more than one level.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Excellent! Since when did all those with a motive all carry out the murder? Original, suspenseful and, as always with Christie, good characterisation. I did own all Christie’s works but sold them when I moved to Spain (couldn’t afford yet another storage container, it broke my heart). I like a good murder mystery that you can rip through in an afternoon and there are none better than Christie.
Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy
I was introduced to Thomas Hardy’s written work through ‘The Return of the Native’ for my A level English Lit. Surprisingly it did not put me off but that may have been because I had seen Tess and Madding Crowd as TV adaptations when younger and liked the stories. I admire the way in which Hardy portrays his heroines with compassion, highlighting the Victorian hypocrisy of sexual mores. Hardy is also sympathetic to the rural way of life and how it is transformed by the on-going industrialisation. Particularly in ‘Tess’ it is the effect of the new social elite with their money from industry on the ‘old families’ and Hardy’s assertion that to be of old stock is far from desirable that strikes a chord. Little wonder his works caused a stir in his lifetime.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Gothic; Horror; a commentary on the pursuit of knowledge, social acceptance of non-conformity, birth and death, sublime nature and much more besides. I have never been so glad that I was able to read the book and to dismiss all previously seen appalling filmic interpretations from my mind. This book has more levels to it than can ever be expressed in film. From the moment the creature was ‘born’ I felt empathy and sympathy for it. To my mind Victor Frankenstein is one of the greatest literary villains ever created. I LOVE this book.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
More Gothic. More passionate love. The dark moors of Yorkshire, coldness and cruelty mixed with the fiery passion makes this a book that stirs your very soul. I first read it when I was a teenager full of angst, permanently clothed in black and with unrequited love meeting me on every street corner. The book still strikes a chord in me (I have a gothic, romantic soul no matter what colour my clothes are) and I can feel the intensity of Cathy and Heathcliff’s passion.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
What can you say about Wilde that has not already been said? The wit, the acute observation of society and some of the most memorable lines in literature; be it plays, short stories or ‘Dorian Gray’ there is skill in these writings. Apart from ‘The Happy Prince’, which makes me cry every time, the works of Wilde put a smile on my face. His is laugh out loud humour that will get you funny looks on the train – but who cares, it is superb.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
Yes, more horror with a touch of Gothic. I read this work as part of my A level English Lit dissertation which I titled, ‘Psychological Horror as a Literary Genre’. I wish I still had that paper; it had the makings of a bloody good piece of literary analysis. That aside, this story gripped me. I could not make up my mind as to where the horror emanated from for ages; it kept me on my toes and who is to say that my interpretation is correct. It is the story’s very ambiguity that makes it such a cracking read.
The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, Edgar Allan Poe
Mm, my English Lit A level has a lot to answer for. These stories were also part of my dissertation, particularly ‘House of Usher’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Poe combined the gothic horror literature, such as the House of Usher and ‘Ligeia,’ with the detective fiction genre in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ These are two of my favourite genres as can be quite clearly seen from my list but Poe stands above the rabble. I think that Poe’s work as a literary critic was invaluable in helping him create the characterisation, plots and to use the language most appropriate for each of the genres in which he wrote. You can tell that he took time to make sure that the words and imagery he used conjured up the desired effect.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
‘Ah those Russians’ to quote Boney M. Only one of them made it into the top 10 but what a book. Murder, philosophical arguments as to the ability, and even right, to commit murder, wrapped up in the story of an impoverished, conflicted student. Little wonder as a student I was drawn to it. Even better that as a slightly maturer being I am able to revisit and delve more deeply into the philosophical arguments within it. Every reading makes me consider the arguments differently; it is like reading a new book each time.
The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
This is a departure from the other nine in the list; I’ve only just noticed now I’ve come to write about it. Interpretations of the same event, I had to read the book again to see what clues I had missed in the first reading. I still enjoyed it on the second reading, and the third. It’s the carnivorous island that haunts me. If a book remains within your mind (in a positive sense) for some time after reading then it definitely has something. I’m still not entirely sure what that something is with Pi, but it has it.