Five books

Gavin Chait on five books with inspiring storytelling

Beneath and imposing upon that first empty page are all the books written before, and all the anticipation and terror of the writer staring at a blank space and waiting to bleed. Finding an original way to tell a story - the sense of which you have probably heard in some form before - can be a tad intimidating.

These are amongst the stories, and ways of telling them, that I found influential, challenging and inspirational while writing my first novel, Lament for the Fallen. They gave me hope.


If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino

Nothing can prepare you for reading this. 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!"'

Told in the second person: you the reader. With every alternative chapter the beginning of a new novel.

And it works. It's an astonishing, blazing tale of a conspiracy to destroy literature that you the reader need to solve. Calvino fills it with the nature of storytelling, how each reduces to a common set of principles and yet, despite the predictability, every story is unique and having one ripped from your hands unfinished is tragic. It is mind-altering and so vividly, overwhelmingly creative you can do nothing but laugh and let it carry you away.


King Rat by James Clavell

When wars end, returning combatants write memoirs. Sometimes as a form of catharsis, sometimes as their documentation of events. Clavell's King Rat, recollecting his time as a prisoner of war in Changi, a Japanese concentration camp, is very different, with lyrics drenched in melancholy: 'And he bled in the starch of the sun.' Changi lives and breathes but its tormenting captors are almost absent. This is a story of the prisoners, of the pettiness and meanness of some, of the generosity of others, of life as cruelty, and of gratitude for surviving. I can't think of a finer anti-war story or of a more powerful way of telling it.


Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Every country has its tragedies along with writers attempting to reduce the infinity of that pain to a scale which does not overwhelm the reader. Paton's novel is lyrical and beautiful. Think of the opening 'There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.'

Before Apartheid, and the tragedy that so wasted so many lives, Paton did his best to humanise the protagonists, to take away the rush of 'othering' that makes violence so easy. A simple story of a murder, and of the two families joined forever by that murder; one a wealthy white farmer, the other a poor black priest. A beautifully told story with its politics naked and vulnerable before the reader.

If I've leaned on a writing style, it is Paton's. I love the compassion he has for his characters, the way dialogue flows into narrative like melody, and that he never hid from his character's pain or the message he wanted to deliver.


Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Being a post-modernist writer should lead to despair; after all, one is writing in the fullness of knowledge that every story has been told. Eco always seemed to be laughing about it, and then disorienting you - as reader - by deconstructing the narratie while taking you on philosophical digressions as to the nature of symbolism and myth-making.

Foucault's Pendulum is the book that he joked created Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. It's filled with all the occult theories you care to name as three colleauges at a vanity press invent an arcane conspiracy to mock their clients. Unfortunately, The Plan is taken so seriously by the conspirators that it results in their demise. Even when Eco, through the voice of one of the characters, calmly says that this is all a story, there is no need to fear, I found it one of the most deeply terrifying novels I've ever read.


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Satan comes to Moscow to throw a party and, by tradition, the hostess is a woman selected from the population of that city, and her name must be Margarita. And throughout, characters relate, dream or experience a story first written by the mysterious Master, of the Jewish prophet Yeshua Ha-Nozri taken before Pontius Pilate and sentenced to die.

Everything about the novel is improbable, including the unlikeliness of its survival. Published thirty years after Bulgakov's death during a thaw in the violence of the Soviet Union, it is everything that a controlling police state is not: compassionate, vulnerable, personal, wildly creative, and deeply funny.

It is also everything I love in literature. From the message that 'books don't burn', to the way in which a story can have its fundamental structure dismembered and handed to different characters to present as they may, to the faith it keeps with its political and social message, to the reverance it has for the words and the story and the characters in it.

I can do no more than aspire to write anything anywhere near as good.


Find out more about the author

Lament for the Fallen

Gavin Chait

A strange craft falls from the stars and crashes into the jungle near an isolated West African community. Inside, the locals discover the broken body of a man unlike any they have seen before – a man who is perhaps something more than human.

His name is Samara and he speaks with terror of a place called Tartarus – an orbiting prison where hope doesn’t exist.

As Samara begins to heal, he also transforms the lives his rescuers. But in so doing, he attracts the attention of a warlord whose gunmen now threaten the very existence of the villagers themselves – and the one, slim chance Samara has of finding his way home.

And all the while, in the darkness above, waits the simmering fury at the heart of Tartarus . . .

Related features