As part of the Master’s in Contemporary Literature I’ve been studying this year, I’ve been reading a lot more. Obviously. If I wasn’t, then there would be something seriously wrong with this set-up.
What I’ve loved more than anything, is the chance to really scrutinise and engage with modern texts. My undergraduate degree was in Classical Studies and English Literature at an old-school, red-brick university – enlightening and fascinating for sure, but also stuck in the past (way, way in the past in some cases). One of my lecturers even had the audacity to state that anything written after 1960 could not be considered literature. But then, he was a knob, so what can you do?
Picking up books that have been written in my lifetime and discussing their literary worth has been such an invigorating experience. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking old = good, new = dross, and because of that we can miss some truly exquisite literature that’s sitting right at our fingertips.
Take it from me, you don’t have to trawl through an epic Dickens novel or transliterate a Shakespeare play to read some really good fiction. Although, of course, there’s still a place for Charlie and Will on your bookshelf.
Of course, there’s also a lot of stuff I didn’t like. But that’s part of the fun. If a text makes you angry or miserable, it’s still making you feel something and leaving a mark on you as a reader. I’m glad I read all of the texts on this degree (well, all but one) but I’m not going to wax lyrical about each and every one – some of them can only be appreciated by a literature student and some will push you to the brink of suicide (I’m not even exaggerating. I’ve read some seriously bleak stuff in the last 10 months).
But there were a few that I would recommend to anyone who likes a good book. Of the 17 texts I’ve demolished so far, here are my top three, in no particular order.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran-Foer
This beautiful story, of a boy coming to terms with the loss of his father, is honest, touching and incredibly powerful. Told through a triple narrative, comprising the voice of 10-year-old Oskar, the diary of an old man, and the experiences of Oskar’s grandmother, we see the journey of a family coping with grief in the frame of a national disaster. Thomas Schell, Oskar’s father, died in 9/11 and as the nation grieves, the Schell family are trying to come to terms with their own personal loss.
I often find multiple narratives jarring and disruptive. Just as I’ve got into the flow of one narrator, I find myself shoved off onto another one, starting the relationship from scratch. But in this instance, the structure of the text is one of the features that embeds it in the Trauma Fiction genre. The stilted storytelling echoes the disjointed manner in which trauma memories intrude on a victim’s life. We cannot simply be told the story step by step, because it is too painful to tell so plainly. Instead we must discover scraps along the way and piece the whole together from the separate parts.
This book made me cry. So many times. The threading together of early 2000s New York with war-time Germany, and in particular the Dresden bombings, demonstrates the way in which horror haunts humanity through the ages. Safran-Foer presents us with disparate protagonists who have all and are all dealing with awful things. His writing is sensitive, powerful and bold, and I can’t wait to read his other books, especially his new novel, due out in September.
Read this if: you are in the mood for a good cry.
Tales of Innocence and Experience, Eva Figes
Another of my set Trauma Fiction texts, this novel follows a grandmother as she tries to work out how best to share her traumatic past with her small granddaughter. A German-Jew who lost her family to the Holocaust, the grandmother treads a fine line between sharing her story with her granddaughter and passing the trauma onto her.
This story is told intertwined with fairy tales. Deftly and expertly handled, the truth mingles with folklore until the reader feels imbued with the reality of what happened, without having to read the bald facts. As much as this is a story about the Holocaust, it is just as much about preserving history, remembering our race’s mistakes and learning from them to work towards a more positive future.
But when you look again, this is a book about a woman and her granddaughter. The scenes of tenderness between them are wonderful and it is their relationship, their representation as a pair that I was so touched by. The two of them ground the lofty aspirations of the novel and reinsert them into the human experience. It is their love and bond that exemplifies the goodness in humanity, despite the horrors we have committed. The granddaughter in this text is about the age I was when I lost my nana, so maybe that’s why I was so drawn to it and convinced by it, but besides that fact, this is still a beautiful novel.
Read this if: you miss your grandmother.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell
In this powerful, intelligent novel, Maggie O’Farrell shines a light on the lack of impunity with which women have been treated in recent history. Following the lives of Esme Lennox and Iris Lockhart as the two are thrust together, we discover how little control women had over their lives in the early twentieth century and how far society still has to go in order to give women any real agency in their own lives.
This novel is quite tricky to summarise without giving away some of the juiciest bits, so I’m going to be quite vague in that area. What I will tell you, is that the mystery and intrigue in this book (part of what earned it a place on my Contemporary Gothic module) is riveting. When I worked out one particular plot point I literally buried my face in the pages and made inarticulate noises of revelation, understanding and satisfaction (a kind of unghsfpuah noise). You will be gripped, you will be shocked, you will totally get it.
O’Farrell has a delicious way with words. Complicated concepts and tricky feelings are expressed so eloquently in this novel – she manages to hone right in on the crux of messy things and make them seem clean and easy to understand. She’s an idol of contemporary storytelling and I’m so thankful writers like her exist, bridging the gulf between pulp and literature so expertly.
Read this if: you want an excellently written riveting romp.
But don’t just take my word for it, and don’t for a minute think these are the only books worth reading. There’s so much fantastic fiction out there, go forth and read!