In surely one of the most captivating opening scenes in British literature, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, takes us to the vaulted hall of a remote Scottish castle. Here, in a crumpled heap on the flagstones, beneath a tall stained-glass window, lies sixteen-year-old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, and covered in blood. Unloved and misunderstood in life, she has met a ‘murderous death.’ Moonlight filtering through the stained-glass picks out the legend Moriens sed Invictus; dying but unconquered. In Barker’s glorious and darkly funny portrayal of an outsider heroine’s short and intense life, the truth of this proves undeniable.
The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.
Steel yourself for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, one of the bleakest novels I’ve read in a long time, but also one of the most memorable. First published in 1968, this African modern classic explores the rise of disillusionment and corruption in post-independence Ghana, through the weary eyes of an anonymous railway clerk. His noble refusal to become a sell-out invites dismay and derision from his materialistic nearest and dearest, in this acerbic tale of ennui and moral decay.
A gem from the excellent Penguin European Writers series, A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is a magnificently moody read. Set in 1940’s Stockholm, it tells the tale of Bengt, a young man broken by the premature death of his mother. Discovering that his father had a secret lover throughout, the devastated Bengt plots vengeance, and in Dagerman’s astute portrayal of Bengt’s slide into existential crisis, we watch as he becomes embroiled in a demented affair with that very same mistress. Laced with sly humour, this novel of grief, loss and love is a provocative treat.
A treat for those with a penchant for camp gothic drama, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell is the cult classic that spawned the legendary 1962 film. It chronicles the descent into madness of faded childhood vaudeville star, Baby Jane Hudson. Holed up in a crumbling mansion with her infinitely more famous actress sister, Blanche, the dysfunctional siblings’ tale is one of envy, unaddressed daddy issues, and monstrous villainy. Cinephiles will love how Farrell conjures the scenes that inspired the movie, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford inevitably become the sisters in the reader’s mind’s eye.
The New York Review of Books Classics series is a marvellous creation, an eclectic mix of fabulously-jacketed titles, invariably accompanied by compelling intros. A recent serendipitous dip into the collection blessed us with A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien, the story of a young boy in 1950’s Hollywood, his movie star parents and their sordid and absurd descent into has-been territory. Irresistibly described as ‘completely bananas’, we find out what happens after the glitter fades, in a bizarre coming-of-age novel that combines hilarity with a dash of vinegar.
Reading Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of those magical experiences in which you find yourself transported to a completely different time and place. In this case, to a 17th century Japan in the midst of its battle to eradicate Christianity. We follow two young, committed Jesuit priests on their clandestine journey from Portugal to an island off the coast of Japan. Their mission: to keep the Catholic faith alive and to find out what happened to a predecessor who is rumoured to have apostatised. Justly considered a Japanese classic, Silence raises questions around religious colonialism, clash of cultures, freedom of religion and the very core of faith itself while being an absolutely gripping read.
Film fans will remember fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut from a few years ago based on A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. As aesthetically pleasing that film was, nothing compares to the real thing: the book itself. The story of recently bereaved George, a 58-year-old Santa Monica based Englishman, struggling to fill the gaping hole left by the sudden death of his gay partner Jim, is absolutely exquisite. Written in 1964 and hailed as the first truly gay novel, this beautifully written, tightly conceived novel about re-discovering happiness is a joy to read.
Set in wintry wartime England, A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin is a reflective tale of lost innocence and disappointment. The titular girl is twenty-something librarian, Katherine Lind, a refugee living in an unnamed provincial town, where the harsh winter is threatening to become a state of mind. Memories of her first visit to England, a girlhood interlude with her penpal, Robin Fennel, contrast bitterly with her current lonely situation, but when fate causes Robin to resurface, memory and expectation play their usual sly tricks.
Pottering about in her nicely linoleumed kitchen one day, Dorothy Caliban is startled to be confronted by a green sea-monster named Larry. Half-man, half-frog, he is an escapee from a nearby research institute, on the run and wanted for murder. He is also curiously attractive, and a welcome diversion for the sad and fragile housewife. Billed as an amphibious cult classic, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is a clever and captivating read. Seemingly the decidedly uncommon tale of an inter-species love affair, but actually a delicious skewering of the American patriarchy.