The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I’m counting all five books here as one single, readable entity! Shockingly, I only discovered the Cazalet Chronicles last year and when I raved about them to just about everyone I knew, it turned out that they’d all read them and loved them but never told me about them, because they assumed I was already a believer. That’s because the books – set just before, then during the Second World War – are stuffed full of delicious yet mundane period detail and meander very slowly; characterisation is just as important as plot. These elements are like crack to me. Although I’ve read Slipstream and had huge problems empathising Elizabeth Jane Howard’s life choices, in the Cazalets, she has an extraordinary gift for creating female characters who can be difficult and unsympathetic but are so fully-faceted that you end up rooting for them anyway.
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
I tend to be quite anti-the-classics and those lists of turgid, worthy novels that we’re all have meant to have read by the time we’re 30, but I come back to Jane Austen time and time again, and Pride and Prejudice most of all. Her characters and her humour always feel so modern and fresh to me and Elizabeth Bennet, because of both her spirit and her sharpness, is one of my favourite literary heroines. (Fanny Price is one of my least favourite.) Whenever I’m ill enough that I’ve taken to my bed and can’t settle to anything, I can always read Pride And Prejudice. One of the items on my to-do list is to write a sequel to Pride And Prejudice with Kitty as the heroine, not least because the characters are so real to me. (And because poor Kitty really does deserve her moment in the sun.)
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
When The Secret History first came out, I really resisted reading it in that stubborn way that only a really pretentious teenager with literary aspersions can. It was too hyped. No book could be that good. And the cover was really boring. Eventually I succumbed and read it in one massive binge. I even walked along the street to go to the launderette while reading it. It was the first time I realised that a book could be funny and dark and mix popular culture with mythology and resonate with so many other people, but still feel as if it were written just for me. I’ve reread it at least ten times, though I’m long overdue a reread, and each time, it felt like a different book or some new aspect to the story would reveal itself to me, so it would definitely give me something to mull over as I waited for a rescue ship.
Diary Of A Provinicial Lady by E.M. Delafield
I should probably point out that I am the least well-equipped person to ever find herself on a desert island. I wilt if the temperature gets any hotter than perfect cardigan weather and I’m allergic to both mangoes and mosquitoes. I also have no practical skills like map reading or raft building and couldn’t even make the most rudimentary fire, so it would be quite a miserable experience for me. Which is why I would take the Diary Of A Provincial Lady series along, as they’re my go-to get happy books. I would much rather commiserate with the Provincial Lady about her travails with Cook, whether she can bear to wear her tired blue again and nasty letters about her overdraft from the bank than worry about getting eaten by pumas or whatever man-hungry beasts populate desert islands.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
My first Kate Atkinson! I was slightly dubious about the premise, but for me it worked and effortlessly knocked down all my walls of resistance. I loved her notion that fate – even death – can rest on the flimsiest or decisions, the slightest of chances: missing a train, a curve in the road. And like The Secret History, I think Life After Life, will improve again and again on rereading and that once that initial audacity has worn off, I can’t wait to trace Ursula’s different lives back like a trail of breadcrumbs. That first read was so dazzling, that I know I missed all sorts of treats so it’s definitely a book that deserves a slower, more considered reread.
Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch
Another beloved book that I recently reread after a few years away from it. It was written and set in the 1980s, and is about a girl called Reality Nirvana (Really to her friends), who’s a fashion obsessed door-whore for a club held in a church hall in downtown New York. It’s both a wonderful love letter and satirical takedown of fashionistas and hipsters before those two tribes properly existed, and no-one writes about clothes with such passion and joy as Lee Tulloch. I will never know why this book didn’t sell by the lorryload, but I think it was too ahead of its time, was too ‘clever’ to work as a romance and too ‘frivolous’ too work as a literary novel (yes, those are sarcastic quote marks,) and it had a terrible cover. It’s pretty much a rite of passage now that every new friend I make turns out to have read and loved Fabulous Nobodies and was living a lonely existence as she waited to meet someone who felt exactly the same way about the book.
Bond Street Story by Norman Collins
The only male author to make it on to my list! Norman Collins is better known for the wonderful London Belongs To Me but I’ve chosen Bond Street Story because, like The Cazalet Chronicles, it pushes all my literary buttons. First published in 1958 and set in a fancy West End department store, A Bond Street Story follows the lives of the employees and their families over several years. I love that parts of the novel take place in an area of North London I know very well but no longer exists. I love how Collins writes about normal, ordinary people and their dreams, fears and foibles and yet he gives them a dignity too. And I also love how he writes these long, long books that never feel like a hard slog or indulgent and yet he can pen the most incisive character sketch in two lines. All this and he was Controller of BBC TV, then went on to found ATV but still wrote goodness knows how many novels in the evenings and weekends.
Sarra Manning’s new novel, It Felt Like A Kiss, is out now, published by Corgi.