Here’s a stunningly unoriginal concept: Desert Island Discs, except that instead of eight recordings, you can choose eight books to accompany you. (Mine would of course be packed alongside a very large parasol and a keg of Factor 50 sunscreen – judging by the permanently blue hue of my skin, I was not designed for desert islands.)
My picks are liable to change with the weather, but I have chosen eight books which I always seem to return to, no matter how long I’ve been away, or however many other books I might fall for in the interim:
Watership Down by Richard Adams: A choice which I suspect will surprise absolutely nobody. Watership Down is such a cleverly crafted story with so many subtle layers – from innovative rabbit linguistics to the ‘story-within-a-story’ construct of El-Ahrairah’s parables. I always quote Watership Down whenever anyone derides children’s fiction as lacking in depth or meaning – there surely cannot be many books out there as rich in meaning, imagination and sheer heart as Watership Down.
The City and The City by China Mieville: Yes, China Mieville is often too self-indulgently clever for his own good, and he needs to let go of the thesaurus, but my god, can he tell a story. The City and The City is part police procedural, part weird fiction, set in a fictional European city which shares much of its material space with another neighbouring city. The bizarre twist is that it is illegal (and shockingly immoral) for citizens of either city to acknowledge or ‘see’ anything of its neighbour. It’s a story that absolutely has to be experienced to fully comprehend its sublime madness.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: An uncanny series of similarities between the characters of The Robber Bride and my own group of friends means I am weirdly bound to this book; it feels as though it takes place in an alternative universe in which distant possibilities have played out. It is probably a testament to Atwood’s ability to craft three-dimensional characters that I identify so strongly with them, and with the story.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson: Another oft-quoted book, and my most frequent pick for ‘favourite book of all time’. As with Richard Adams, there is nothing patronising about Jansson’s writing; she credits children with the intelligence and the emotional capacity to comprehend subjects as deep as loneliness and anxiety. Jansson’s peaceful summer valley is transformed into a cold, wintery realm which is in turns frighteningly inhospitable and eerily beautiful. And I think I would need that retreat into the cold if I were on a desert island – hot weather and I are uneasy companions.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: I sometimes joke that Rebecca is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, but I think that’s actually a fairly accurate summary of the book. Rebecca is the greatest horror story never to be shelved as horror; the unease blossoms so organically as the story progresses that by the time you realise how profoundly uncomfortable you are, you are almost at the end. A masterpiece of prolonged, wire-taut tension.
Laika by Nick Abadzis: A recent discovery, this graphic novel dramatises the true story of Laika, the Soviet space dog, and is a beautiful and entirely appropriate tribute to this most unwitting of heroes. The inevitability of Laika’s fate makes for a heartbreaking read, and though it is fiction, the notion that someone – anyone – might have cared about her is both desperately sad and a small ray of sunshine in a tragic story.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey: I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction at the best of times, and this is a wonderful, intelligent take on the end of the world. It also takes on another beloved trope of mine: sympathetic monsters. Melanie, the titular ‘girl’ (and a literal ‘girl’, not a woman for once!) serves as our eyes as we make our way through a Britain ravaged by a strange and terrifying fungal infection, and we are forced to consider the nature of monstrosity, as well as the very prescient question of whether or not the world will continue after we are gone – and whether it might just be better off without us.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King: Another ‘girl’ (and another literal ‘girl’ to boot!) I could have picked any number of Stephen King books for the final slot – I might have picked apocalyptic epic The Stand, which, despite my ‘revolving door’ of favourite King books never fails to wind up in the top 3. I might have cheated and opted for the Dark Tower series. Instead, I’ve chosen one of his shorter works. For most of the book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon leaves us stranded (thematically appropriate!) in the woods with a single character: a nine year old girl. Her struggle to survive and to reach safety is a simple enough narrative, but things become far more complicated (and far stranger) when, overcome with exhaustion, she begins to hallucinate; we are never truly sure whether the nightmarish visions that follow her are supernatural or simply imaginary, but the answer scarcely matters.
What are your “Desert Island Books”? Let me know!