Monday, 7 September 2015

The Seven Novels that Entirely Changed Me

A Turkish police officer carries Aylan Kurdi
who drowned in a failed attempt to
sail to the Greek island of Kos.
Photograph: Reuters

A photograph on the front page of newspapers, showing a tiny child lying in the surf. Imagery is the most immediate ways to make a shift, to change hearts, minds, lives. After seeing the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the rhetoric transformed. People thought again. Governments finally got their fingers out. It is quite remarkable how a visual image can capture and express deep emotion and tell vast stories to make a difference to lives. 
Seven Books that Entirely Change Me
But although imagery can be life-changing, it’s long been my belief that novels are like that too. If a writer wants to make a statement that will change people’s minds, they are better writing a story, not an article; a novel, not a treatise.
Below, I’ve chosen seven novels that completely changed me in some way – my thinking, my approach to life, or my perception of the world.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962. During the seventies, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was hitting headlines, I read most of his works. Some, like The Gulag Archipelago, are long and involved, and written to make people aware of what was going on in the USSR. But one of his smaller novels hit me the hardest. Denisovich is an account of life in a forced labour camp, and therefore of Stalinist repression. The book graphically illustrates what was happening behind the iron curtain – why people were thrown into camps and what happened to them there. Probably more than his longer non-fiction accounts, this was the book that forced the West to stop ignoring violent breaches of human rights behind the “iron-curtain.” Strangely, though, what struck me about it was its optimism, its emphasis on hope. I most clearly remember the scenes when, for instance, Ivan managed to gain a cigarette and inhaled the sweet smoke deep into his lungs. It seemed to sum up how humans will always seek something to cling to and make the most of the tiniest moments of joy.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). I read this directly after Satanic Verses. At that time I was writing short stories and thinking of how I could write a novel for children. Rushdie's books made me realize anything was possible. Okay, I cannot reach Rushdie’s dazzling heights of invention and literary prose, but I loved how he used his own personal experiences, while pushing the novel form to extremes. Rushdie was born in 1947, a year before the transition to independence in India, and used that moment in time to create a dazzling, game-changing novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence. “Let your mind go,” Rushdie seemed to be saying directly to me, “and you can write the things you want to say in the way you want to say them.”
Candide by François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, was published in 1759 during the European 'enlightenment’ and at the time was banned as blasphemous, and politically seditious – Candide pokes a lot of fun at the establishment of the day. Voltaire was a sharp witty man, and (the two don’t often seem to go together) a philosopher, who strongly opposed certain Enlightenment ideas about social class. Candide is a naive young man who grows up in a baron’s castle. His tutor Pangloss teaches him that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide is discovered kissing the baron’s daughter, his secret love, and is expelled from his home. He wanders the world with Pangloss, surviving the most awful disasters and tortures, while Pangloss continues to describe life as ‘the best of all possible worlds”. Shortly after reading this novella, I saw the film Oh, Lucky Man, staring Malcolm McDowell, a sprawling musical intended as an allegory on life in the 20th century. I could not help linking the two stories. I still to this day believe that the screenplay takes its inspiration from Candide.
"Marley's Ghost",
original illustration by John Leech
 from A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol. Did you know that when Dickens wrote this little novella in 1843 as part of his ‘Christmas Series’, it changed all our Christmases? Traditional practices were going out of fashion at the time, and the book revived them. Groaning boards of turkey and iced cake, presents, dancing and mistletoe were all saved for our enjoyment…or not! At the same time it was a clear comment on  early Victorian society, as when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children saying; “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

For me, the book was a tradition in itself. Every year, as my children grew, I’d read it, over four or five nights, ending the story with Scrooge’s transformation on Xmas Eve. Heady days!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I’ve chosen this book from the series because its publication in 2002 was the moment things changed in the children’s book market. Children had always been ready love nr newly-pressed books, but these books, including the first three of JK's series, were usually about 200 pages long. Goblet weighed in at more than 600 pages and kids gobbled it up. Publishers finally realized that children loved to read and could read enormous books, as long as the words on the page moved and excited them. 

Rowling has her critics, but she is the master of 3 important areas of writing; she can extend plotting, theme and structure to allow seven long books to reach their own climax yet take you on to a final, gripping finale where all important threads are tied. She can handle a vast cast of characters, in which the least has a personality potentially as big as the protagonist. And she makes you laugh. 

The Alchemist. I read this a long time ago, loving it to bits and lending to everyone as something they must read. This book is an epic allegory about finding and pursuing your purpose in life and  has millions of readers across the world for a reason – it’s inspiring and motivating. Published in 1988 by Paulo Coelho, it was apparently written in 2 weeks, because the writer had ‘found it in his soul’. It follows the journey of Santiago, a shepherd boy, who journeys to Egypt to seek a promised treasure. As he moves across the desert and through the market places, he meets a series of people, who, to me, represented all humanity. Its basic plot, with its remarkable ‘twist in the tale’ is ages old, though, apparently first seen in The Thousand and One Nights

Recently, I read it aloud to my husband who enjoyed it as much as I had. But a strange thing happened as I read it again. Perhaps I’d grown older and more cynical, but I saw nothing but flaws – simplistic, artless writing and prosaic plotting. Don’t let that put you off reading it. At the right moment in your life, it is a tremendous book that can mean everything. 
Lord of the Rings by professor  J R R Tolkien, published between 1954  and 55. I’ve read this book several times, often just turning to the songs printed within it and singing them. I’ve also loved the BBC Radio 4 serialization, which took most of those songs and put them to music, and the wonderful trilogy from Peter Jackson. 
At the time of  first reading as a girl, the book excited my young imagination. I use to believe it had changed the writing landscape – no fantasy novel had ever been written before this and no writer would ever create something so wonderful again. That 1st belief hold true, I think – there isn’t a writer alive today unaware of its impact, but probably not the 2nd and 3rd. Of course it wasn’t the first fantasy novel, and although for many years it was the best, Land of Ice and Fire may now have claim to a similar crown.
Published in 1956
with its iconic cover
by Edward Balden
The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch. This was her second book, but it was my first introduction to my number-one writing hero, which made me long to also write about love and power and goodness and beauty and what makes up a human being. Suddenly, at the age of twenty, I wanted to say great things, like Murdoch, who, being a professor of philosophy, has a far greater claim to be able to write such things than I will ever have. However, if we can’t be inspired by the great exemplars, what hope is there? 
Once I’d put down Enchanter, I went in search of all her other books, and then lay in constant wait for her to write the next, which she did, for years, every 18 or so months. Only her very last book, written while in the grip of Alzheimer’s, is not among my very favourite reads to this day. Enchanter isn’t her best book, for me that is The Sea The Sea, but it was the first I read. I loved Iris Murdoch from that moment on, and reading her made me think more deeply, write more avidly and dream great dreams.