This is a blog post I may return to again and again: there are lots of books I wish I had written and today I will discuss three of them. By ‘books I wish I had written,’ I don’t mean simply that I enjoyed the book or even that I admire the narrative style and the characters. Of course, these things are true but what I really mean is that the subject matter is so engaging that I wish I had thought of it first and the impact of the novel is so powerful that has changed something within me either while I was reading it or, afterwards, I was somehow affected and altered in how I saw the world.
The first book is Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, which I read while I was working in Israel. It is, without doubt, the most frightening book I have read and it was so gripping that I used to crawl under the duvet with a torch at night and read it into the early hours and shiver with fear. It deals with slavery and with ‘haints’ or ghosts, two subjects which resonate with me strongly. The main character, Sethe, is vulnerable as a mother and the story emanates from decisions she has made about her children when she is faced with threats against their lives. Morrison is not afraid to challenge the reader with either her storyline or her language, and when Beloved returns, we ask ourselves if the character is a sad consequence of Sethe’s actions or whether there is something demonic and dangerous about her. The way Beloved comes back to the house and how she is first discovered, and how she changes subsequently, and the effect on the others in the house, is breathtaking.
The mother-daughter relationship and the psychological implications of slavery and oppression are themes which will always fascinate me. However, it is Morrison’s gift with words and the credible and tangible horror which she develops render the book memorable. I couldn’t put it down although I was shaking as I read it. ‘Beloved’ is a superb example of how a novel opens with a gripping scene and keeps the reader in a tight grasp of tension throughout.
The second book is ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ by John Irving. This book was as funny as Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is terrifying and I read it while recovering from a sporting injury. I was lying in bed having torn a muscle in my back and the book made me laugh so hard that I cried with the pain but I still couldn’t stop reading. The ‘Jesus child’ scene where Owen appears as the baby Jesus in a Nativity play is uproarious and I will never forget it.
The story is narrated by John and he is Owen’s friend, so he is best placed to comment upon Owen’s development and his belief that he has a connection with God. As The Ghost of a Christmas Yet to Come in a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Owen claims to see his full name and the date of his death on Scrooge’s grave stone.
Despite its criticisms of organised religion, the book is very spiritual and it is cleverly constructed, interweaving three different stories of past John, present John, and Owen’s life. It is about war, friendship, religion and loss and Irving’s ‘repetitive plot’ motif makes for a rigorous ordered plot which actually did make a hard-boiled reader like me both laugh out loud and cry. Sublime.
Another book I admire greatly is Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ which I will watch as a film soon, but the book was impressive by itself for its concept, its protagonist, its clever style and its fast-paced empathic storyline. It is a story about a five year old boy, Jack, the narrator, who has known nothing but captivity as he has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a room. His captor, Old Nick, gives them food and basic necessities. Jack’s mother was kidnapped when she was nineteen and Jack is the result of his mother’s rape by Old Nick.
Jack knows nothing outside his life in the room and his mother tries to keep them both healthy and alive by a series of mental and physical exercises and daily routine. Then she plans an escape and the rest of the storyline deals with the trauma which follows. Donoghue’s idea came to her after reading about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case in 2008. The early scenes between Jack and his mother, and the reader’s slow realisation of the horror of their situation, makes gripping reading.
The 2015 film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is currently stunning audiences, but the book is a wonderful example of using an unusual narrator and, as life in the room and the subsequent action are seen through the eyes of Jack, a unique tale unfolds. Donohue is clever in her ability to show us nothing more than the child would know or perceive, allowing us to fill in the spaces, the practical details and then we supply the awe and emotion which must follow. A triumph of an idea, superbly written.
There will be three more books to follow; already I can think of another three, plus three, plus three, superb works of fiction which I wish I had written. Please do let me have any feedback.