So many things have changed in my life over time, but the one constant has always been my love of reading. To me, there is no greater joy in the world than opening the pages of a book and discovering new people and new places, and immersing myself in another world. Although the days of losing whole afternoons or evenings to a wonderful book are long gone, reading is still a fundamental part of my life and books are a part of my identity. I originally planned to do this all in one blog post, but I have found that even with restraint and editing, I still have far too much to say about each of my five choices, so I will need to split it up into separate blog posts or it will be an insanely long read. Here are my first two choices.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I must confess that given how widely I read as a teenager, and how much I loved stories about women in particular, I was quite late to the party on this one. In fact it was not until my first year of university, when I failed to get a friend’s reference to the novel in a birthday card, that I realised I was missing out on something special. It certainly is not an easy read, but it is one that will stay with you long after you close the book, and its ideas and are even more relevant now than there were in the 1980s.
Our narrator, Offred, lives in a dystopian future, where America is now known as Gilead and run by an authoritarian religious state, determined to reverse the population decline by returning women to the home and their domestic duties.The handmaids are women who the state has deemed “gender traitors”, and this includes Offred, whose second marriage is not recognised by the state and is therefore an unwed mother. These women are separated from their own children and after brutal training at the Red Centre, overseen by the monstrous Aunt Lydia, where physical and mental punishments are used to subdue and convert them, they are forced to bear children for infertile couples amongst the ruling elite of Gilead. If they fail to conceive, they will be declared an “unwoman” and sent to the colonies, a toxic wasteland which will slowly kill them.
Yes, it is as disturbing as it sounds, but it is also an immensely powerful novel that is compelling from start to finish. Atwood captures the claustrophobia of this world perfectly, and she uses Offred’s narrative voice to explore the psychological trauma of having to appear to conform in order to survive. Offred’s present narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to her life with her husband and daughter.. However much the state of Gilead has tried to suppress Offred, she uses her memories of love in order to keep going and to carry out small acts of resistance. Gilead has made the acts of reading and writing illegal for women, but by telling us her story, Offred refuses to be silenced. The novel reminds us of the importance of female storytelling, and at the same time reminds us how easily the female voice can be stripped away.
Little Women by Louisa M.Alcott
This novel may seem quite a bit lighter than my first choice, but arguably actually just as important an exploration of female storytelling. When I am really down and need comfort, this is always the novel I turn to. The four main characters feel like old friends, and they are all brilliantly brought to life by Alcott. Each has their own hopes and dreams, and brings a different quality to family life. Furthermore, the scenes sparkle with unforgettable energy, whether it is Amy burning Jo’s novel or the girls taking their breakfast to the poor neighbours on Christmas morning. It is a novel that is deeply embedded in my childhood, but I continue to see new ideas in it throughout adulthood.
Little Women is often dismissed as a quaint story depicting stereotypical views of women, but there is actually a feminist voice at the heart of it, angry at the way the heroines are forced to abandon hopes and dreams to conform to nineteenth-century expectations of women.Jo, who is normally considered to be a semi-autobiographical portrait of Louisa M. Alcott, is desperate to be a writer, and equally adamant that a life of marriage and child-bearing is not for her. Despite her talents and some small success, she finds that life still guides into marriage and she surrenders her ambitions. Her sister Amy similarly has dreams of becoming a painter, but she ultimately knows that she does not have any realistic chance of building a living from it, and she also turns to marriage to survive. Beth welcomes the safety and security of her domestic life, but her story is cut tragically short. Only the eldest sister Meg appears to reach any sense of fulfilment in her life. Yes, she too marries, but she is able to choose her husband based on his worth and their compatibility, and she actively turns away from the expectations of Aunt March that she will restore the family wealth by playing the marriage market.
The story is naturally split into two halves, and they each have a different tone and feel, reflecting the transition of the girls from childhood into maturity. The first half of the story focuses entirely on their home in Concord, Massachusetts, whilst the second half branches out into other settings including New York and Europe. This is where both Jo and Amy recognise that whilst they were free to express themselves back home, in the wider world they must accept their limitations. The charming scenes of the first half of the novel, from their home theatrical performances to Jo’s ill-fated and hilarious attempt to make dinner for the family, are underpinned by a sense of injustice and frustration in the second half. It is a novel that divides opinion, but the fact that directors keep coming back to it and time and time is a testimony to the way that it speaks to each new generation of Little Women.
Want to know which other three novels make my list? Stay tuned…