This post has been amended to include the little dots on top of the last letter of Emily Brontë’s surname – thanks to Erin of Bubbles and Beebots for telling me how to do this!
Two bloggers have recently asked me the question ‘what is your favourite book?‘ Funnily enough I’d just been thinking about this very question, and planning do some more book blogging, so the fact that two people have now asked me the question means that a blog post about my favourite book is clearly meant to be! So here it is…
To be honest though, I don’t have a favourite. Well, not just one. How could I? Sometimes you need funny, sometimes uplifting, sometimes sad. So here’s my top four, in no particular order:
Song of Solomon: Toni Morrison
I read this in my first term at university. It took me several failed attempts to get into it, and most other people, including the course tutor, said the same. It’s a story about a dysfunctional family struggling to reconcile their prosperity with the legacy of slavery which still surrounds their community. The narrative switches continually between the perspective of the different characters, so we come to understand the story gradually, a piece at a time. It’s difficult to read, but once you’ve accepted the shifts in perspective, it’s utterly enthralling, and the ending, when the lead character finally grasps the truth of his family’s history at a moment when his own life is in great danger, is literally uplifting.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: JK Rowling
Ok, massive swing from high brow to populist there, and I know serious readers will be turning their noses up at the mention of JK in the same breath as Toni Morrison. But I love this book, which abandons the formula which all the earlier books follow (Dursleys being horrid at the end of the holidays, then Hogwarts express, start of term banquet, etc etc), and from the start, plunges the three main characters into a wandering existence with the constant threat of danger. JK Rowling doesn’t shy away from killing off some pretty important characters, for no other reason than to bring home the horror and violence that Voldemort’s unleashed on them all, and I still can’t read Dobby’s death scene without crying my eyes out.
My very favourite part is near the end, when Harry blows his cover to deliver only his second ever Unforgivable Curse, to the Death Eater who has just insulted Professor McGonagall. Harry’s relationship with McGonagall throughout the entire story has been distant and unemotional but Harry’s risking everything to defend her just sums up his deep respect and loyalty – as does his explanation “He spat at you”. From a writer’s point of view, this is the best example I’ve ever seen of ‘show, don’t tell’.
Next up, Bridget Jones, the Edge of Reason: Helen Fielding
Another populist one here, from the Queen of Chick Lit. Except it’s so much more than that. Most books in this genre are populated by shallow one-dimensional characters. The girls just want to get the guy, the guy just wants sex without commitment. But The Edge of Reason sees characters making mistakes and learning from them, like when Bridget realises that women’s magazines, self help books and drunk girlfriends have led to her completely misjudging Mark, and again when we realise that Vile Richard isn’t actually vile, just someone who resents the disapproval of Jude’s hostile group of girlfriends. What’s more, Helen Fielding manages to pull off a subtle but brilliant homage to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Vg.
And finally, Wuthering Heights: Emily Brontë
This was going to be Jane Eyre which has always been my favourite, but I re-read Wuthering Heights for the first time in years recently, and Emily has pipped Charlotte to the post.
What struck me on my recent reading was the post-watershed level of violence and cruelty – Hindley pushing a knife between Nellie’s teeth in a drunken rage, an insane Catherine ripping pillows apart with her teeth, Heathcliff terrorising his dying son and kidnapping Cathy Linton when her father is dying, to name but a few scenes which stuck in my memory. “Heathcliff and Cathy” have become a modern day shorthand for passionate childhood sweethearts, but Wuthering Heights to my mind is not a love story – there’s nothing romantic about Catherine and Heathcliff’s love. They’re both hideously selfish characters, and their love brings nothing but pain to themselves and those around them.
It’s not an enjoyable read – in fact it left me feeling decidedly shaken and panicky at certain points. But how incredible that a retiring and deeply religious Victorian spinster could write with the kind of savage intensity which wouldn’t be out of place in a modern day crime thriller. I can’t help thinking that the Brontë sisters were born in the wrong time – when their only option was to either be governesses or to stay home and watch their alcoholic brother fritter away the opportunities denied to them. What could Emily have been with better health and the right to a university education?
So that’s my Top Four novels – and I’ve just noticed, they’re all by women! Perhaps I’d better think of my four favourite novels by male writers, just to redress the balance!