In no particular order, five books that have had a lasting impact on me.
Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir – Mark Doty
A memoir of complete integrity. The first book to ever make me cry. Heaven’s Coast is a heart-wrenching account of Doty’s partner’s battle with AIDS. From diagnosis to death, Doty describes his lover’s body as its own malevolent landscape – its journey as turbulent as the tide. With a force of descriptive power, Doty tells us about a life of rare communication, beauty and absolute synonymy with another. In reading this, you realise the true sacrifice of love; its unrelenting power to consume and, eventually, heal you.
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Set in the 1960s, this novel is an important statement about India’s post-colonial history; its age-old caste-system and its divisive ‘love laws’ that govern ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much.’ The narrators are fraternal twins, entangled and connected body and soul, but divided by familial tension. Roy’s prose is deeply touching, inscrutably honest, but delicate. Too painful in parts to bear. Told through the eyes of childlike curiosity and wonder, Roy creates sensuous, ethereal images that are rooted in the beauty of nature – the ‘small things’ of the world that the adults of the novel have forgotten. Sharply inflected by devastating moments of suffering, this novel inescapably touches you at your very core.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
An odd choice, I hear you say, but this book is remarkable. The book begins: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul’ and is spoken through the voice of Humbert Humbert – a middle-aged professor who becomes sexually involved with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. You may wince, but this novel will play on your sense of morality. While you hate Humbert for his descriptive fantasies of molestation, you may catch yourself sympathising with him. You may condemn the ostensible sexual precociousness of the spoilt Lolita, while recognising fragments of her childlike innocence. This book forces you to leave all thoughts and feelings in balance. I charge you to come up with a conclusive interpretation of this novel. Go on, try it.
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – my favourite line of this beautiful book infused with the whispers of memory. In a rather unusual literary account of the events of the Holocaust, Michaels uses the experiences of two narrators – Jakob Beer, a Polish Holocaust survivor, and Ben, the son of two Holocaust survivors – to describe how trauma seeps its way through generations, permeating through every crack of the past. Jakob and Ben become submerged in history, unable to move on from the suffering endured by their forefathers. This novel is an enlightening, poetic and heartfelt exploration of themes of trauma, grief and loss, told through the authoritative lens of memory.
Why be happy when you can be normal? – Jeanette Winterson
It is a resounding cliché to refer to this book as unabashedly ‘honest’, but that’s exactly what it is. An honest portrayal of a life spent wondering who you are and where you come from, finding your feet only to find that the ground beneath you has been whisked away, loved and in love but unable to fully cope with it. Winterson does not shy away from any detail of her life, and it is for this reason that I entirely respect her as an author, and as a person. Her prose is hurried and turbulent, written with the urgency of one desperately trying to make her reader understand. She does not call for you to psychoanalyse her, she does this aptly enough herself. If you want your heart wrenched out of your chest, I would seriously give this a read.