The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
I admire Rhys, in general, for her prose and the platinum quality of her sentences. I have learnt how to write directly from Rhys by studying her every sentence. But this book is a masterpiece on many levels. It’s the quintessential post-colonial fictional work which ‘writes back’ to empire. Also, it’s a New World work of feminism, a work which critiques the notion of the high feminist European norm and speaks out for the subaltern woman, the ‘mad’ creole woman chained like an animal in the attic of a rich white man’s stately home, a figure grossly overlooked and misunderstood by her author.
WSS is a classic, also an overt address to another canonical work, another brilliant piece of fiction Jane Eyre. Being a ‘prequel it is a thoroughly most-modern work. WSS is demanding and bold. It sticks two fingers up to the likes of men like Mr Rochester. It is brilliant in its conception, structure - and humanity. It is a work of fiction which has reason for being in the world. It is an important book for the people of the Caribbean. Also – it’s a damn good story, with or without Jane Eyre.
The Grapes of Wrath by John SteinbeckAnother important book, a controversial classic, both revolutionary and populist. Steinbeck was obsessed with the enforced migration, westwards, of the tenant farmers in the Oklahoman Dust Bowl in 1930s America. These working people, who’d lived on the dry soil for years, were being driven off with the advent of machinery. They trudged in their hundreds to the Promised Land of California. Steinbeck made two other attempts to write this book – both failed. Finally, he sat down and wrote this masterpiece in 100 days – chronicled in Working Days, his diary of the writing of this book. His wife Carol gave him the title of the book, from a poem by Julia Ward Howe. The book tells the story of the Joad family, who lose their farm and travel west in search of work, picking grapes. On the way the family is beset with death, hunger, floods, murder, pregnancy and starvation.
Steinbeck opens the book with a five page description of a dust cloud about to descend on the Oklahoma valley. He continues to use these poetic non-narrative chapters through out the book in a jump-cut technique. One of these chapters just describes a turtle trying to cross a road. He didn’t care if this slowed down the plot. He wanted to write what he wanted. The last page of this book is take-your-breath-away brilliance. This is the most uncompromising book I have ever read. It has inspired me to be bold and to not give a damn about what others may think.
The Plague by Albert CamusI read this during an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease her in the UK in 2002 and found the similarities quite chilling. Camus wanted to write about the French Resistance in the Second World War, the idea being that it’s not until every family was effected, until every single family had lost someone, that the Resistance gathered strength. We humans tend to galvanise only when things get very bad – we’re lazy, not prone to helping others until we ourselves are threatened. Or something like that.
In this novel, set in a barren town in Northern Algiers, it’s not until every family has a death due to a plague caused by rats that the town’s inhabitants collectivise. A novel of ideas, no less; a comment on the nature of humanity. This book is also written with a poet’s attention to language. A great book. Not gothic, not anything that one would associate with the horror genre – yet it’s a book about the bubonic plague. Grim and dark and complex.
Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyThis is a gothic classic. Hauntingly sad. A story written by a genius (it was conceived when Mary Shelley was just eighteen) about the nature of genius. One mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, tries to make a human being – and botches the job – the result is a hideous monstrous half-human who he shuns. But the monster, having a human heart, craves companionship.
When Dr Frankenstein denies him a female companion, the monster vows to wreak his revenge. This is a book about the nature of creativity and the nature of loneliness. Shelley’s monster has become the archetypal social outcast and the scenes of his huge frame, pulled on the ice by a sleigh of dogs, as he chases after his maker, have always stayed with me.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonThere is a scene in this book, when a slave, Paul D, is made to wear an iron bridle while working in the yard. While he is forced to endure this torture, he notices a cockerel look at him with pity in its eyes. Probably one of the most unforgettable scenes in modern fiction. I saw Toni Morrison read recently, at quite a small gathering for the BBC here in London. She also spoke about the scene where Sethe kills her baby, how she intended for the readers to almost trip up on this scene. We do and when we are upon it, it feels like we are in it.
But there are other scenes in this book, like when Sethe gives birth in the river, the boat ‘waddling’ under her. There are scenes here and story telling of the finest quality. This is another book I have learnt from. Morrison is the Queen of the Scene.
Monique Roffey was born in Trinidad in 1965 and educated in the UK. The paperback editon of her first novel, Sun Dog (Scribner) came out in paperback in May 2003. Her second novel, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle will be published by Simon and Schuster (UK) in July 2009