‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark

I had the misfortune of reading this book already knowing its ending. I came across a discussion of it a few years ago while I was researching my PhD, and it sounded so strange and discomfiting that it has always lingered in the back of my mind. I’m really pleased that I’ve finally had the chance to read it.

The Driver’s Seat is a short novella, coming in at just over a hundred pages, but the volume’s physical lightness has no bearing on the weight of its impact; this is powerful stuff. For me, reading it late at night and in one sitting, the text possessed a dreamlike quality, increased by Spark’s hypnotic, repetitive prose, and by the fact that the name of the city in which events described take place is never revealed. I enjoyed it immensely, but am certain my enjoyment would have been even greater had I not known the ending going in, so I will say no more here. I will only add that I am left with a number of questions unanswered, and suspect that this unusual crime novel will continue to linger in my mind for some time to come.

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Muriel Spark

‘White is for Witching’, by Helen Oyeyemi

Miranda Silver is very unhappy. She is also very unwell: she suffers from pica, so is repulsed by food and prefers instead to eat chalk and plastic and metal. Since the death of her mother Lily, she is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a grasp on reality. Perhaps she just needs to get out of the house, of the big, old, haunted house, passed down to her mother by her grandmother… But the house won’t let her go.

I was blown away by this novel. It somehow manages to be both playful and brooding, and it has a mythic, mystic, fairytale flavour to it which I loved. Oyeyemi’s prose is stunning, as is her ability to weave magic with psychology with cultural commentary with metafiction, resulting in a startling exploration of dynastical femininity, of race and racism, of storytelling, of love, and of belonging. I honestly couldn’t recommend it more, and am very excited to read more of Oyeyemi’s work.

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Helen Oyeyemi

‘Wildfire at Midnight’ by Mary Stewart

When fashion model Gianetta Drury visits the Isle of Skye for a relaxing holiday, she does not expect to discover her ex-husband, Nicholas, staying at her hotel. Even less does she expect to find herself thrust into the middle of a murder investigation, but that is exactly what happens; she arrives to discover that a teenage girl is found dead on the side of the mountain, apparently killed as part of some kind of sacrificial ritual. The police know that the murderer is staying at Gianetta’s hotel. Everyone is a suspect…

I always think of Wildfire at Midnight as the most ‘traditional’ of Stewart’s suspense novels; it is the one which most closely adheres to the generic conventions of detective fiction. For one thing, the police are involved (a surprisingly rare feature in Stewart’s work) and the fact that novel takes place in an unimpregnable setting, with a clearly defined cast of suspects, reminds me of the sort of country-house murder investigations Hercule Piorot is always involving himself with. I love the setting of the Isle of Skye – its dramatic mountains and atrocious weather lend the novel a real atmosphere of danger, and the scene in which the murderer’s identity is finally revealed (don’t worry, no spoilers here!) is deliciously frightening.

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Mary Stewart

‘The Husband’s Secret’ by Liane Moriarty

Cecilia accidentally stumbles across a letter addressed to her from her husband, with the instruction that it only be opened on the event of his death… Rachel is devastated to learn that her son and daughter-in-law are leaving Sydney for New York, taking her adored grandson Jacob with them… Tess is shocked when her husband Will and her beloved cousin and best-friend Felicity reveal that they have fallen in love… Little do these women know that over the course of one Easter weekend, their stories will intertwine in a way they could never have imagined…

When I started reading this novel, I was expecting a fast-paced, domestic thriller, with twists, turns, and psychological intrigue. However, although the events described within the The Husband’s Secret all revolve around one central criminal act, it reads less as murder mystery, more as Aga saga. Once I’d readjusted my expectations, I enjoyed it, and found myself thoroughly engrossed by the three female narrators. I also enjoyed the setting of contemporary suburban Sydney, one with which I was previously entirely unfamiliar (although I could relate to the Irish Catholic-ness of it all). There is an odd recurring motif of the Berlin wall, which felt rather shoehorned in and was more or less lost on me, and early references to television programme ‘The Biggest Loser’ felt rather out-of-place too. That aside, I would cheerily recommend this to anyone in the mood to be mildly diverted.

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Liane Moriarty

‘The Monk’ by Matthew Lewis

If you are one of those people who think that so-called ‘classic literature’ is boring, then The Monk is the book that will change your mind. Extraordinarily controversial when it was originally published in 1796, this sensational account of moral decline and depravity has lost none of its power to shock and appal.

It’s bonkers, this book. A kaleidoscopic, schizophrenic, rollercoaster-ride of a novel, with twists and turns, and sex and death, and angels and demons, and mad monks and bloody nuns. There’s also incest, rape, and a dead baby, so it is profoundly not for the faint hearted. Those of you who know me, or who follow this blog regularly and have picked up on my general leaning towards the gothic, will be unsurprised to hear that I absolutely loved it. It is completely gripping, full of surprises, and – another favourite theme of mine – reflects intelligently (and somewhat subtextually) upon the nature of story-telling. The novel is filled with different kinds of story; long sections in which characters relate episodes from their past lives to each other, references to myth and legend, whole songs and poems transcribed into the text. The novel demonstrates the interrelatedness of stories; how one inevitably leads to another, and how all stories – and by extension all people – are inherently connected. If you’re a fellow fan of the gothic, and you haven’t read this yet, please do so immediately.

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Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis

‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey

Inspector Alan Grant, recurring star of Josephine Tey’s classic detective novels, has broken his leg. Confined to a hospital bed, with nothing to amuse him but the books brought to him by his friends, his attention is caught by a reproduction of a painting from the National Portrait Gallery. The painting is of Richard III, famous for allegedly murdering his two young nephews – ‘The Princes in the Tower’ – to secure his own ascension to the English throne. Grant, however, does not believe that the face he sees is that of a killer, and embarks on a mission to prove the innocence of the dead king…

When you think about it, The Daughter of Time is a strikingly unusual work of crime fiction, being as it is one in which the detective spends the entire novel confined to a bed, and does nothing but read books. It doesn’t sound like the most enthralling of premises, I’ll grant you, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It certainly says something about Tey’s abilities as a writer that she is able to make such an apparently prosaic set-up so entertaining and interesting. What emerges from the novel is an intelligent and thought-provoking rumination on the natures of history, truth, text, and story-telling, and on the points at which these concepts intersect. I particularly liked Grant’s coining of the term ‘Tonypandy’ to describe the process by which history is so often written by the winners, for example. If you read a lot of crime fiction, I would certainly recommend you try out this unusual classic of the genre, and if you are interested in ideas about philosophy, history, and the power of the written word, you too might find something to enjoy.

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Josephine Tey

Bibliotherapy

As a child, I was scared a lot. When I was seven we moved to a big, old house near a military airfield, and I would regularly convince myself that the planes I heard flying overhead at night were alien spaceships, that the scuffling birds in the sloped walls of my attic bedroom were the ghosts of previous inhabitants. I remember one completely sleepless night in the late nineties (I would have been between 8 and 10) after I learned from a boy in the school playground that some philosopher had predicted the world would end that day. I thought that if I stayed awake I could stop it happening. Another time, after about a week of refusing to walk past my bedroom window, I worked myself up into full blown, sobbing hysterics explaining to my mum that the pinkish shape in the window across the street was surely a ghost-boy, or a scary old man, watching over me (it turned out to be a lampshade). As such an anxious little girl, it was vital that I develop a strategy to help control my fearful imagination, and, luckily, I did: books. The ones that worked best were the ones that took place in imaginary universes completely removed from my own: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is the first I remember really loving so much that it hurt to finish it, and the Harry Potter books were a god-send. I spent countless nights hiding inside them, safe from the ghosts and ghouls in the world outside.

Since then, I’ve always thought of books as my escape route. I like to line my walls with them, carry them around with me, so that I know I’ve always got somewhere to go when things get bad, or scary, or just plain boring. Although they take up a lot of space within it, my little south London flat is a whole lot bigger for all of the books it contains: thanks to Daphne du Maurier it’s as long as the Cornish coast; thanks to Jean Rhys it’s as wide as the Sargasso Sea. My books help me feel safe and secure because (paradoxically) they have the power to take me somewhere else; it is this transportive, transformative power of books which I have always recognised and loved. Unsurprising, then, that when I first heard about the notion of ‘bibliotherapy’ I was instantly intrigued. In their book ‘The Novel Cure’, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin attempt to provide a book to cure any ailment, be it psychological, physiological, or situational. For example, they suggest Charlotte Bronte’s Villette as a treatment for high blood-pressure, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle as a cure for writer’s block, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a remedy for toothache. If you’d like to learn more about their work, do check out their excellent website here. Inspired by their theory, I thought I’d share some of my own tried and tested bibliotheraputic solutions:

Frightened/ Anxious/ Scared:

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcottt 

Everything is ordered, everyone has their role, and Marmee is always there to make it better.

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman 

The lead character, Lyra, is bold, brave, fearless, and kind. Learn from her.

Harry Potter (all of them) by J. K. Rowling

These books have always felt like a bog warm hug to me. They remind us that friendship, love, and kindness will always overcome cruelty and small-mindedness (something we all need to try and remember, especially now).

Sad/Alone/Overwhelmed:

Serious Concerns, by Wendy Cope 

Cope’s heartfelt and funny verses always cheer me up.

Elegance, by Kathleen Tessaro

This novel tracks its protagonist’s use of fashion and style to recover and recreate herself after the breakdown of her marriage. It is heart-warming and hope-giving. 

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

Flora Poste’s no-nonsense, ordered approach to life is the perfect antidote to modern-day overwhelm. Plus the novel is completely hilarious.

 

Uninspired/Bored/In a Rut:

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

I’ve always found Woolf’s feminist call-to-arms for women writers extremely rousing and inspiring.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

 Jane’s strength of character and determination are enough to give everyone some get-up-and-go.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

This memoir entertained me, and helped me realise that I could make my life better, one tiny change at a time.

‘Carrie’ by Stephen King

16-year-old Carrie White is not like other girls. Her homemade, old-fashioned clothes are odd and unflattering, her acne-ridden face is dissociated and dismal, and no wonder: at school, she is the butt of every joke, and at home, she must contend with her abusive, tyrannical, religiously fanatical ‘Momma’. But when Carrie gets her first period, albeit in cruel, embarrassing, and very public circumstances, everything begins to change…

Although it’s been on my TBR for some years now, all I knew about Carrie was that it featured a teenage girl with latent telekinetic abilities that manifested when she was on her period. (None of that is a spoiler, by the way; this is all information you get in the book’s first few pages.) The whole conceit felt so female to me, that I was interested to see how Stephen King would handle it (it might be worth noting that the first of his works I have read). There were moments when King’s maleness bleed uncomfortably into his narration (the entirely unnecessary references to the size of gym teacher Miss Desjardin’s breasts, for example) but for the most part I think he provides a fine insight into the female teenage psyche. That is not to say that the novel seeks to investigate the inner psychological workings of its characters, far from it: rather, it possesses a fable-like, ‘universal’ quality, which is emphasised by King’s mode of narration – a mix of traditional third-person omniscient, and extracts from fictional court transcripts, newspaper reports, and academic studies of Carrie’s story. This narrative technique also means that the plot jumps between the past and present tense, lending it an uncomfortable sense of inevitability. The novel struck me as a sort of demented reimagining of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic Matilda; a graphically violent Cinderella story gone horribly wrong. If you’re a fan of the gothic or of horror, you should certainly give it a try.

 

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Stephen King

‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is, of course, du Maurier’s most famous novel, and there is a reason for that: it is glorious. I remember once hearing  that the three books every young woman should read before she turns thirty are Jane Eyre, Gone With the Wind, and Rebecca.  I’ve never read Gone With the Wind (although I still have about nine months before I turn thirty so watch this space…), but I can add my hearty concurrence when it comes to the other two novels. I think it is also probably fair to say that if you love Jane Eyre you will likely feel the same way about Rebecca, and vice versa – indeed, as has been documented in many an academic study, the two novels are intimately and intertextually related. The young Mrs de Winter is struggling to adjust to life with her new husband in his grand country home, Manderley. Will she ever live up to the standards set by his deceased first wife, the glamorous, captivating and seemingly perfect Rebecca?

Like its eponymous character, Rebecca is intoxicating and exhilarating. It possesses a haunting, visceral quality which lingers in the mind like heavy perfume in the evening air. The novel famously opens with a dark and atmospheric dream sequence, and, despite its setting moving from hot and gaudy Monte Carlo to cultivated rose garden to rugged Cornish coast, continues consistently, I think, in a similar vein. But this is far more than mere surface sensation; I must have read it four or five times now, and on each occasion have found something new to notice and to ponder on. Most recently it was the trace scent of roses all throughout the novel. Look out for it – I’d love to hear what you think.

 

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Daphne du Maurier

 

‘Black Narcissus’ by Rumer Godden

Set in a crumbling palace high in the mountains, Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus has been hailed as a modern gothic classic. The Sisters of Mary – a group of young Irish Catholic nuns – travel to the Himalayas to convert ‘The House of Women’ – formerly home to the General’s harem – into a convent. The novel is darkly atmospheric, and an underlying tension and eroticism can be felt throughout.

I did enjoy this novel. But thing is, I can’t help thinking I might have enjoyed the film more. I realise that this is a controversial thing to say in the company of book lovers, but the thing is, contrary to popular assumption (and to popular tote bag slogans), I have always been of the opinion that the book is not always better. Just look at Jurassic Park. I should probably confess at this point that I haven’t actually seen the 1947 film adaptation of Black Narcissus; I just happen to know that it is hailed as a masterpiece of modern cinema and, well, I didn’t really get ‘masterpiece’ from the book. There’s a strong possibility, of course, that I simply built the whole thing up too high in my head from the off; I mean, it’s a gothic tale of nuns, sex, and death! What could go wrong?! I did feel that it was very atmospheric, very erotic, and it certainly appealed to my gothic sensibilities. And yet… there was something missing for me. I’d be really very interested to hear your thoughts on this one, so do please weigh in!

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Rumer Godden