I was down in my local, Greystones Village Bookshop, last week to ask about the dozen copies of my books I left with them before Covid. Seems all have been sold. This hardly makes me a remarkable writer however. Book sales are booming. More than 13 million print books were purchased in Ireland in 2021, the 7th year in a row of growing sales. Indeed, Dubray books recently opened another two shops in Dublin.
As menacing events, strident opinions and shocking facts are pinged incessantly at us, is it any wonder people are returning to books and the solace of human stories. Like mythology, novels helps us to make sense of our lives and emotions and to explain who we are to ourselves.
Walking back from the Village Bookshop, I mulled this over and wondered what half dozen novels I’d suggest to readers (aged from mid-teens to 100) to draw them back into our imaginative worlds. In choosing them I applied three criteria:
- No politics or history: Ostensibly none could include politics, economics or great historical events
- No technology: No mention of technologies beyond telephones (usually a plot device anyway).
- Self-contained worlds: Each novel should spirit the reader away, to inhabit another world where heightened senses see and feel everything as if for the first time. (On reviewing my selection, strangely I found that love, or lost love – of all kinds – were at the heart of each story.)
Here are the chosen six
- Le Grand Meaules (1913), Alain Fornier
Chronology neatly places this at the top of the list but it would probably have been here anyway. The only novel of Alain Fornier, a young French writer killed at the start of World War One, it brings alive Francois’ young life following the arrival of the older boy, Meaules, as a pupil into the small village school run by Francois’ teacher father. Meaules yearns to find again the elusive chateau where he once experienced a magical carnival hosted by a beautiful young girl, Yvonne, who lived there with her widowed father. The search dominates the novel. Tantalising beauty always seems just beyond reach. This is a really special book.
2. The Go-between (1953), LP Hartley
This novel inspired Ian McEwan to become a writer on reading it aged 14. He freely acknowledged it as the background to his novel, Atonement. It centres on a single summer of glorious sunshine in 1900 when 13 year old Leo is invited to spend the holidays with his more affluent and not especially close school friend. What Leo is drawn into and how he acts as go-between in relationships is only truly understood in later years on reading his diary from that youthful summer and reflecting upon the chain of events and their human consequences which he unknowingly enabled.
3. Arturo’s Island (1957), Elsa Morante
A close Italian friend once gave me Elsa Morante’s La Storia, a novel revolving around the lives of a half-Jewish single-mother, her two sons (and their dog) in Rome during the Second World War. Meaning both “story” and “history” in Italian, it languished on my shelves for twenty years until I read it last summer. My friend certainly knows me and how I tick. She chose well. This brought me to stumble upon l’isola di Arturo, or Arturo’s island. (Tim Parks, who has lived, written and translated in Italy for many years included it among his 5 favourite Italian books.).
The novel describes Arturo’s bohemian and utterly free existence as a boy on a small island off the bay of Naples sometime (it seems) in the 1930s. After his mother’s early death, his strikingly beautiful and most unusual father disappears off the island for long unexplained periods leaving Arturo in the casual care of minders. That is until one day, when Arturo is 14, his father returns to the island with his new 16-year-old Neapolitan bride. As his life is hermetically sealed on the island, Arturo’s every sensation is freshly experienced untainted by the instruction and conditioning of others. An otherworldly but fascinating book.
4. The stories of Eva Luna (1991), Isabel Allende
This book of short stories enjoyed huge success when published. Much less “rambling” a magic-realist than Gabriel Marquez in for example One Hundred Years of Solitude and certainly less esoteric than the otherwise fascinating Jorge Luis Borges, these stories sweep you up into other worlds. Very sensual (and at times sexual) though never frivolous, the stories recount loves, events and emotions with a freshness and vividness you sense the characters may themselves be experiencing.
5. The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
Not all these books leave a smile on your face or have you reaching back into youthful memory. Some, including this, can scare the wits out of you. I don’t mean Hollywood horror stuff, I mean stripping everything back to viscerally-felt experience. It’s a similar impact as when reading Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade. As a reader you think “it’s stark, microscopic and terrifying but I could feel and see things this way” even if things are utterly different to anything you’ve encountered before.
And despite all the awfulness, at the core of this novel is a love, a desperate love, between a father and his child.
6. Out stealing horses (2007) Per Petterson
The most recently published of these half dozen self-contained, other-world novels of imagination, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson is meditative and unexpected, hinging upon the memories and experiences of an old Norwegian man in his final years. It won the Dublin Literary Award. Their award description is worth the read.
This list hopefully sends you back to the shelves and to dive deeply again into the treasure chest of human stories. Exercising the imagination is as important as exercising the heart. So this summer why not turn off the pings and turn over the pages instead!