Flatlay photograph of a white sheet background with a hot drink on a plate on left, books: The Famished Road, Middlemarch, Wizard of the Crow, Stalingrad.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

George Eliot’s remarkable tale set in a fictional Midlands village is widely regarded as the pinnacle of English literature. Intense, comedic and multi-stranded, Middlemarch contains characters we can all relate to, from the heroine Dorothea to the silver-tongued Mrs Cadwaller. Each struggling to reconcile their destinies in provincial life, Eliot uses their stories to comment on issues at the time of class, marriage, women’s status, science and religion. On the suffering of others, she writes, ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ Loved by authors like Virginia Woolf (who called it ‘the magnificent book’), Middlemarch is the classic book to tick off your list.

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (2006)

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, an exiled Kenyan novelist, playwright, poet and literary critic, is a landmark of postcolonial African literature. Originally written in the Gikuyu language, it was translated by the author himself. This epic is an amalgamation of fantasy, farce and social commentary. To honour the Ruler’s birthday, the Free Republic of Aburiria set out to build a tower; a modern wonder of the world that will reach the gates of Heaven. But behind this pillar of unity a battle for control of the Aburirian people rages. Among the contenders: the eponymous Wizard, an avatar of folklore and wisdom; the corrupt Christian Ministry; and the nefarious Global Bank.

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman (1952) 

It was a pivotal moment in history when the Soviets unexpectedly triumphed against Hitler’s advancing troops in Stalingrad in 1942, one that changed the outcome of World War II for the Allies. This is the centrepiece of Grossman’s breathtaking novel Stalingrad, a recount of what unfolded and how the Red Army held control. But it’s also a story of the unwavering human spirit and how people can be transformed by war, both on and off the battlefield. Though it is today referred to as the War and Peace for WW2, Grossman’s work was virtually unknown before 2006 until a new English translation put it on the map. Stalingrad is now available in audiobook, making for a perfect listen if you want to learn more about the final days of WW2.

 

The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

Since its publication and winning the Booker Prize in 1991, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road has become a classic. Known for Okri’s brilliant narrative technique and fresh vision, this is an essential work of world literature. The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition exists between life and death. He is born into a world of poverty, ignorance and injustice, but Azaro awakens with a smile on his face. Despite belonging to a spirit world made of enchantment, where there is no suffering, Azaro chooses to stay in the land of the living: to feel it, endure it, know it and love it. The tension between the land of the living, with its violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits propels this latter-day Lazarus’s story.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1865)

Speaking of War and Peace, there’s no better time to finally read this epic work from the godfather of Russian literature – all 1,225 pages of it. Set in St Petersburg and Moscow, War and Peace follows the salacious lives of the Russian upper-class against the backdrop of the developing Napoleonic War. This renowned tale features some of the most fascinating characters in literature, from the young, morally confused Count Bezhukov to the fortune-hungry Helene, each searching for a sense of purpose in times of crisis – something we can all relate to right now. It might also be one of the heaviest books on your bookshelf, so consider it not just a lockdown workout for your mind but your arms too.

 

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (2004)

Philip Roth’s tale of an alternative America where tyranny reigns is eerily prophetic. The year is 1940 when celebrity aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is elected President of the United States, a man who, after ‘negotiations’ with Hitler and the Nazis, embarks on a terrifying new anti-Semitic government with the slogan ‘America First.’ Told from the standpoint of a young boy growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Newark, the election proves to be just the beginning of a series of events that threaten to derail America as we know it. Heralded as one of Roth’s best works, The Plot Against America is a sombre look at how rhetoric can trump reason – doesn’t seem so farfetched nowadays, does it?

 

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978) 

There are few authors that have penned a flawed protagonist with as deft a touch as Iris Murdoch. In her Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, The Sea, she demonstrates how a desire to be good can make us bad, relevant as ever as we navigate a new normal. After retiring from London, self-obsessed playwright Charles Arrowby moves to an isolated house by the sea to write his memoirs. His plan is to pen his many great romances, but the memoir is led off course by a series of strange circumstances and an unexpected visitor from his past. As Charles grows obsessive and convinced of his own romantic ideals, Murdoch shows us how jealousy and greed can drive even our best intentions. The Sea, The Sea is now available in ebook.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994)

Understandably, there are days right now where you’ll want to switch off and escape reality. And how better to do that than with a Murakami book? Mysterious and exquisitely written, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is pure escapism. Toru Okada lives a normal life in suburban Tokyo until one day his cat goes missing. This triggers a bizarre series of encounters with ever-stranger characters, including a malevolent politician and a psychic prostitute – each with a story to tell. If you want to dive further into the magical world of Murakami but don’t know where to start, read our guide here.

The Iliad by Homer (8th century BC)

One of the oldest recorded works in Western literature, Homer’s epic poem charts the final years of the Trojan War and the epic battle between King Agamemnon and Achilles. That part of most of us know, but The Iliad is far from just a war story. It’s a reflection on how menis (fury) can drive heroes like Achilles to make mistakes, and how its people navigate tragedy, love, kinship and the acceptance of fate in a world of unpitying gods. As we face our own times of uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19, we can always turn to classics like The Iliad for important teachings.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)

Anne Brontë’s most enduring novel is a powerful novel of sin, expectation, love and oppression. When the mysterious and beautiful young widow Helen Graham becomes the new tenant at the dilapidated moorland mansion Wildfell Hall rumours immediately begin to swirl around her. As her neighbour Gilbert Markham comes to discover, Helen has painful secrets buried in her past that even his love for her cannot easily overcome. This historical romance will immerse you in1840s Yorkshire by sharing a story of one woman’s struggle for independence.

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