Desert Island Books
It’s impossible to choose what you’d take to a desert island – where do you start? I’ve picked a starter-pack of ten terrific books, but the moment I jotted them down I wanted completely different novels. One day I must sort out all my books into ‘read’ and ‘yet to read’.
It’s out in a new edition, so now there’s no excuse…Hackney-raised Baron was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. His epic novel of Edwardian Jewish gangs, ‘King Dido’, is a tale that outlines, with infinite care, the link between poverty and crime. Baron is the master of likeable anti-heroes, and the final pages are utterly heartbreaking, and carry tragic resonance. ‘King Dido’ is one of the greatest and least read novels about London ever written. Baron’s war trilogy is brilliant but I wouldn’t want to reread it.
Why? Because despite the grimness of this totalitarian dystopia it eventually transcends its status as a Dire Warning and has a way of making you feel grateful to be alive. The key moment for me is when Winston hears the prole singing as she hangs out clothes and realises he can never be so unburdened. It’s a book I return to regularly.
The Unfortunate Captain Despard
Jay’s non-fiction books illuminate forgotten corners of British history in beautifully crystal prose, and he somehow manages to make each of his subjects play out like thrillers. Here the scene is the war on terror, 1798. Captain Despardfought beside Nelson, married a black woman, freed the slaves of Belize and was the last man to be hanged, drawn and quartered, in a climax that shows why the British revolution never happened. It’s superbly erudite and often jaw-dropping proof that fact is stranger than fiction.
Alone In Berlin
When life gets bad, at what point do you decide to strike back? A middle-aged Berlin couple go along with Hitler’s outrages until they decide to take affirmative action. Without even discussing the matter with each other they start writing inflammatory postcards and leaving them around the city, but the police soon give chase. A true story that feels like breathless fiction. Avoid the dull movie version.
Our Mutual Friend
My obvious choice for Dickens would be ‘Bleak House’ but this is an astoundingly rich novel about a city founded, quite literally, on filth and corruption. It starts with a suspicious death on the Thames and rattles through the whole of London society with strong women in the lead roles, but what wrongfooted me most was the comedy. I defy you not to laugh at the ghastly dinner party held for the Veneerings, which proves that when it comes to greed very little has changed in the world.
My ultimate desert island book. It’s impossible to recommend this without the first volume, ‘Titus Groan’, a staggering achievement that some feel claustrophobic and exhausting, but give it a chance; it’s rewarding and may stay with you forever, as it has with me. A vast crumbling castle built on arcane rituals, an upstart kitchen boy determined to bring it down, a beautiful but vulnerable girl, a strange, inverted reworking of ‘Hamlet’ and a feat of imagination rarely, if ever, equalled. My father, who never countenanced such books, adored it. Neil Gaiman is involved in a new TV version.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady
Delafield’s take on life is dry and very English. Her best books are autobiographical; This chronicles her daily life as she tries to run a family and handle the housekeeping while maintaining a smidgen of dignity. Written in deceptively relaxed shorthand, it’s a Pooterish charmer that shows how easily Delafield could communicate unspoken feelings of embarrassment and annoyance. She celebrates life with grace, endurance and quiet optimism.
The Crystal World
Ballard wrote four early novels in which our planet is menaced, and they proved prescient; climate change, heat and floods featured in them 40 years before they happened, but this is a change of pace. The African jungle starts to crystallize, trees encrusting with huge jewels, crocodiles in glittering skins waddling downriver. The world may be doomed, but in an unexpectedly beautiful way. Ideas from it were clearly used in the film ‘Annihilation’.
A High Wind In Jamaica
Some British children living in Jamaica survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. It’s an adventure about children, but certainly not aimed at them. Because in a turnabout, it’s the pirates who have to worry…what starts as merely masterful storytelling becomes something dreamlike and haunting; a cusp-of-adulthood novel like no other, it’s not a book you easily forget.
The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun
Well, I had to have one crime novel. Was there ever a better title to sum up the world of the noir thriller? The narrative delivers all the key genre elements in a plot of audacious simplicity. A beautiful young woman impulsively drives off in her boss’s white Thunderbird, heading for the South of France, but locals react as if she had made the same journey the night before. Then she finds a dead body in the boot…this has a brilliant wrong-footing twist that plays fair and is even alluded to in the title!