Here are the remaining books that made my top five list! I had to break this blog into two parts because otherwise it would have been insanely long!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It is such a hard choice, but if I was pressed, this would have to be my favourite book of all time. There are not hours in the day to go into all the reasons why this is such a brilliant novel, but here are a few.
Firstly, it has to be the message of the novel itself, which is beautiful but never overly sentimental. Atticus Finch is a hero, but he is not perfect, he is an ordinary man who listens to his conscience and stands by it when he is tested. He commits fully to the legal defence of Tom Robinson, which in a modern day court would surely be considered an easy win, since he very quickly exposes the testimony of the victim (for she is a victim of other crimes, just not this one) Mayella Ewell and her father Bob Ewell as founded on lies and prejudice. However, this is 1930s Alabama, where the word of a white citizen will always be taken against a black citizen, however incontrovertible the evidence. Atticus shows his children that being brave does not mean winning fights, but being prepared to fight them even when you are certain to lose. The moment when the black people of the town rise up for Atticus as a sign of respect at the end of the trial is one of the most powerful scenes in literature, and never fails to move me emotionally.
The allegorical title refers to not one mockingbird, but two. As Calpurnia, the black housekeeper and another incredible voice of compassion and insight in the novel, says, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, as they don’t do anything but sing their hearts out. The other mockingbird is Boo Radley, a recluse who they children unwittingly persecute at the beginning of the story. As they grow in maturity and understanding, they begin to understand this character more, and the scene where Scout finally meets Boo in person never fails to move me to tears.
It is a novel of incredible depth, and I truly believe that everyone should read this book before they die. It has so many important lessons about the dangers of prejudice, and being prepared to stand up against it, no matter what the cost.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
This novel is somewhat the odd one out in my list, since it is the only one that was not originally written in English. It is the first in a four-part series, collectively known as The Neapolitan Novels. I love reading, but there are few books that make me grieve when they come to an end, the way I did when I reached the ending of the last novel in the series.
The power of this story lies in the relationship between the two central female characters. It is wonderful to read a novel that has two such dynamic and compelling women at its centre. They are both brilliant, and indeed they both consider each other throughout the novels to be their “brilliant friend”. The narrator is Elena, studious, loyal and talented, who has a flair for writing. Her best friend is Lila, who is fierce, intelligent and beautiful. Both come from poverty, but Lila’s family refuses to fund her education. Although Lila is brighter and initially eclipses Elena at school, Elena progresses through the school years and achieves great academic success and later acclaim as a writer. One of the things that makes the story so compelling is the fact that their fortunes reverse constantly throughout the story. Where Elena has the intellectual glory that Lila has always been denied, Lila has beauty and becomes the object of male desire, achieving wealth and glamour. And crucially, Lila seems to win the heart of Nino Salvatore, the boy Elena has loved since childhood. Both see the other as the embodiment of all they want to be and have, and their relationship is what drives the novels forward.
The novels also brilliantly capture post-war Naples, and the politics of the region. Her descriptions of the suburb where Elena and Lila grow up are so evocative, you feel as if you have actually been there. You can really feel the heat and claustrophobia of this world. The neighbourhood the girls grow up in is poor, but full of internal power struggles and feuds. The later novels in the series also become more involved in national politics, moving seamlessly between these themes and the more intimate details of Elena and Lila’s lives. Once you become embroiled in their lives, you will find you do not want to leave.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
This novel is another that has been a favourite of mine for so long, it is ingrained within me. The relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is one of the most famous but also misunderstood relationships in literature, and there is more to this novel than just a romance story. It is an exploration of the pain of having to conform and not being able to acknowledge and live in alignment with your true self and your true desires.
Cathy and Heathcliff are more than just lovers, in fact their relationship is never consumated and always has a rather asexual nature throughout the novel. Cathy sees Heathcliff as her double, an extension of herself. As a child, Cathy is able to roam free around the moors, but as a young woman, she must conform to the expectations of society. She is expected to put away her lively, energetic side and her synergy with the wild Yorkshire moors, and settle into marriage. But Heathcliff represents this part of her that cannot be suppressed, and by turning away and marrying another, she is turning away from the person she really is, and living the lie that is dictated to her by Victorian society. It is this painful conflict that eventually tears her apart. Cathy is not always a particularly likeable character, but she is complex and intriguing. Likewise, Heathcliff proves himself capable of terrible acts, and yet we are compelled to follow his journey, and we often find ourselves empathising with him in spite of ourselves, as he seeks revenge for the wrongs that were done to him as a child.
The idea of doubling is a key theme throughout the novel, not just in the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, but between Cathy and her daughter and Heathcliff and Hareton to name just a few. It brings rich psychological layers to the text, and the circular structure of the novel, which is often cut down significantly in film explorations, mirrors the search of the characters for fulfilment and completion in others. There is so much in the novel to explore, which is why I also love teaching it at A Level. There are iconic scenes such as Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window, and the whole novel is coloured with brilliant imagery, unlike that of any other writer. Emily Bronte only wrote one novel in her tragically short life, but she wrote one that was to transform the lives of countless readers after she was gone, me included.
Which books would be on your list of books that changed your life?