Charles Dickens' David Copperfield
I’m not a great re-reader of novels – life feels too short and bookshops feel too full to go back to something I’ve read before – but I’ve read David Copperfield four times and enjoyed it more with each successive reading. Since my teenage years I’ve been a Dickens obsessive, feeling a particular affinity with stories of orphans left to negotiate the road from poverty and solitude to success and love. David Copperfield has everything I want from a novel of this type: a wicked stepfather, school bullies, donkeys, loyal friends, tubercular fiancées, crazy old aunts and even crazier jilted brides. It’s not easy to choose one Dickens novel for the island – could I really leave Great Expectations behind? Or Oliver Twist? – but this is my favourite novel of all time so it’s an easy pick.
Donna Tartt's The Secret History
I remember reading this when I was living in New York during the summer of 1994 and deciding immediately that I wanted to learn Latin and Greek, fall in with a group of self-obsessed, entitled, arrogant, beautiful young men and women and perhaps commit a murder just for the sheer hell of it. I didn’t do any of those things – or I haven’t yet anyway – but Tartt’s debut novel remains for me the greatest thriller ever written, and certainly the most erudite. The novel’s narrator, Richard Papen, acts as the slightly naïve moral centre of the book, innocent to what is going on around him, seduced by the glamour of his friends’ intelligence, desperate to be part of their group but ultimately destroyed by his frantic desires. It’s a chilling tale of what an outsider will do to fit in and what insiders will do to stand out.
Tobias Wolff's The Complete Short Stories
Whenever I want to remind myself of how wonderful fiction is, whenever I want to re-invigorate myself as a writer, I turn to my well-thumbed copy of Tobias Wolff’s short stories and read one or two. Wolff is not a prolific writer but his work digs deep into the heart of what it is be human, often what it is to be young and lost, sometimes what it is to love and not be loved in return, and he reaches truths in his fiction that few others can achieve. He is particularly good when writing about young people – his short novel Old School, with its recreations of Ayn Rand, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, is a masterpiece of precision and writerly aspiration told from the perspective of a schoolboy who fancies himself as a novelist – and his memoirs tell difficult stories with neither self-pity nor regret.
Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap
My favourite novel of the 21st century, so far. I read The Slap while taking part in the Melbourne Writers Festival during 2009, before it was published in the UK, and brought five copies home to give to friends. Its original structure, eight long chapters each continuing a story through a different character’s eyes, its complicated moral questions – is it ok to slap a child who isn’t your own? Or any child, for that matter? – and its exploration of Australian attitudes to immigrants alongside a depiction of what it is to have a heart in two communities, in this case the Greek-Australian community, combine to create a novel of extraordinary power, depth and fierce intelligence. The reader is forced to take sides throughout but allegiances change constantly; characters we see initially as bullies display sensitivity and unexpected consideration for their families, those who we feel are simply protecting their own often appear selfish and weak. A brilliant book.
Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels
Having never read any of these books upon publication, I read all five of St Aubyn’s novels in sequence last year and understood why they have garnered so much lavish praise. Never Mind introduces us to five-year-old Patrick, his monstrous father and selfish mother and contains scenes of brutality that linger through the books. Bad News, set 17 years later, is a study of addiction and depression that is often unbearably bleak. Some Hope is a somewhat lighter entry, set during a party at a country house and containing a hilarious depiction of Princess Margaret. Mother’s Milk returns the reader to the difficult relationship between Patrick and his mother. And finally, At Last takes place following a death and offers a sense of hope for the protagonist’s future. The books represent an extraordinary achievement in fiction and should be read one after the other to recognise recurring characters and developing themes. Am I cheating by choosing five novels? Yes. But who cares.
Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel
I’m a great fan of mysteries, ghost stories and gothic literature and all of these are brought together in Du Maurier’s wonderful page-turner. The narrator, Philip, is consumed with rage at the death of his cousin Ambrose, who has looked after him since he was a child, and believes that his late guardian’s new wife, Rachel, is responsible. Upon finally meeting her, however, he finds his anger abated as he falls under her spell. The reader is never entirely sure of Rachel’s motives – indeed, we are left with many questions at the end that remain unanswered – but we try to keep one step ahead, fearing for Philip’s safety, uncertain of his sanity. The Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor adapted it for the stage in Dublin recently with great success.
John Boyne's latest book This House is Haunted is out now, published by Doubleday.