David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I had a triple heart bypass in February 2019. I would love to say that recuperation was one long afternoon of box sets and fat novels I’d been meaning to read for years. In truth, I was exhausted in mind and body and spent a great deal of time playing iPhone Scrabble and staring at the wall. Thankfully, I have always enjoyed listening to audiobooks, and one of the first I downloaded post-op was Martin Jarvis’s rendition of David Copperfield which, I’m embarrassed to confess, I’d not read before.
You know this already, but it is one of the most genuinely charming novels in the English language. It also contains the most populous gallery of unforgettable characters ever found between covers – Uriah Heep, the Murdstones, Mr. Micawber, Betsey Trotwood (‘Donkeys!’), Tommy Traddles, Rosa Dartle… There is broad comedy, of course, and this being Dickens, everything goes a little awry whenever anything approaching the subject of sexual relations hovers into view, but what I had not expected was the depth of psychological observation – about grief, about hypocrisy, about moral weakness, about coercion and abuse.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
I picked this up having hugely enjoyed Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright’s TV drama based on Lister’s account – some of it written in a secret code – of her life as a Yorkshire landowner, international traveller and surprisingly unbuttoned lesbian in the first half of the 19th century (Lister famously married her partner Ann Walker in 1834). The Anne Lister of the diaries is, predictably, not the Suranne Jones of the TV drama. Nor is the drama of her life driven, as it is on screen, by the fear of exposure.
Affection between women was considered so unremarkable that close friends might share a bed without it causing a scandal; what made Anne Lister feel like an outsider was her mannish presentation, her discomfort in her own body, her size, her clumsiness. She was a terrible snob, too, but one with little confidence about her own place on the social ladder. These things make her less glamorous than her fictional counterpart, but they also make her more human and more sympathetic. I finished the book feeling a peculiar sadness that I would never get to meet her in real life.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I picked this up again the day after I heard that Toni Morrison had died. Her first novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio during the Great Depression who believes that white girls with blue eyes are the epitome of beauty and that she, in consequence, is ugly. She is abused by her drunk and damaged father and, less directly but as deeply, by the racism and poverty of the society into which she was born.
I had remembered the politics, if I can use that clunky shorthand. What I had forgotten was the brilliance of the construction. There are chapters in different idioms, there are chapters describing the same events from different points of view, the time scheme jumps all over the place and the whole thing is knitted together with references to Dick and Jane, the idealised white protagonists of a series of early reading books. And yet it remains gripping and propulsive. An extraordinary novel in every way.
Building Stories by Chris Ware
Inside the world of graphic novels, Chris Ware is a towering presence. He deserves equal recognition in the wider literary world. He is one of the finest novelists alive, period, one whose work is so inventive, so layered, so different from everything else that it pretty much constitutes a genre in and of itself. As a result, it is almost impossible to describe, beyond placing a copy in a reader’s hands, because these are not just [SR1] books but objects that need to be seen, felt and lived with – particularly Building Stories, which consists of a very large and very beautiful box of cloth-bound books, paper booklets, newspaper-style sheets, pamphlets, diagrams and fold-out boards, all sumptuously and variously illustrated. They tell the story of an unnamed woman in Chicago and the building in which she lives. There is no guide, so you can read them in the order you choose. It could have been tricksy and self-indulgent, but it’s deeply moving and profoundly insightful about what it means to be human.
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
This is another book I read as a result of having watched a TV series that drew upon it for material, in this case HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl. The book is an oral history of the disaster crafted from more than 500 interviews Svetlana Alexievich conducted over a decade with people involved in or affected by the disaster at every level, from politicians to farmers. She performs the extraordinary feat of making all of her subjects seem individual, real and present, yet weaves them into a seamless whole. It will not make the book sound more appealing (though I swept through it) but it made me realise that the disaster was much worse than I had previously understood, and that it will remain so for long after we are all dead and gone.