It’s coming to the end of another year of reading books old, new and middle-aged. As the year of my graduation from university, it has been a diverse one, including everything from the books I read for my dissertation to the ones I read over summer months on the beach. But I have found it surprisingly easy to pick my top five, and here they are…
#5 – Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds
Many of you will know Tamara Drewe as that film where Gemma Arterton wears really short shorts, but it was originally a graphic novel published as a serial in The Guardian between 2005 and 2006. Based on Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, this book deals with the relationship between, and the representation of, the country and the city, as it recounts the changes that occur in the village of Ewedown upon the arrival of Tamara Drewe, a rather glamorous journalist from the city.
Though originating from the country, Tamara’s appearance produces a whirlwind of small-town gossip and conflicts arising from her city ways, and induces major consequences in the lives of bored teenage girls and married men alike. What is brilliant about this book, aside from the amusing and consistent characterisation and the satisfyingly awkward situations, is its form. The balance of illustrations and block text is unlike any other graphic novel I have read. The illustrations seemingly embrace the nostalgic and idealistic representation of the countryside that Simmonds is criticising, and this seemingly ‘nice’ form is astonishingly undercut by the events of the climax and conclusion.
#4 – The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s one and (sadly) only novel has made my top five for many reasons. The weaknesses of the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, are so honestly revealed that one cannot help but connect with her. Most likely due to the similarities between Esther and Plath herself – though she may have denied it – Esther’s descent into psychological illness and a suicidal nature is portrayed so thoroughly and vividly that it is understandable. We are brought to understand a condition that is often inconceivable to a mentally sound mind, and not from an objective position, but from the sufferer’s own position.
The other beauty of this book is its language, particularly its metaphors. Plath’s prose flows smoothly, allowing a quick reading pace, whilst not being void of linguistic interest. In other words, her artful manipulation of language does not make it an effort to read. Her metaphors alone made me smile; they provided exact descriptions that I could immediately understand, without ever having heard the phrase before.
#3 – The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Having heard so many people say this book was better than the film I just had to read it. The film was definitely good, but as always, the book triumphed. Part of me loved this book because it was so unlike anything else I tend to read. In a complex and meandering way, it tells the story of a man and a woman who meet again and again throughout their lives, but they don’t know where or when or what their age difference will be.
Henry’s time travelling means that they struggle to control their own relationship and bring their lives into sync, perhaps reflecting upon how this is true of many normal relationships. By dividing up the first person narration between Henry and Clare, the two protagonists, Niffenegger gives the reader a privileged perspective and encourages our compassion equally for both characters.
Despite its unbelievable premise, this book is surprisingly believable. It has the qualities of a classic love story, but completely refreshed and unique. I was engrossed in the tragic plot as well as in the enjoyment of deciphering the puzzle-like passage of time and trying to work out what happens next from the brief glimpses of the future.
#2 – Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This book is the literary equivalent of Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way! Each character is brilliantly unique and complete; the humour is top of the range British home-grown stuff; and the various strands of the plot fit together like a dream. Having read works by both Pratchett and Gaiman, I particularly loved seeing how these two great minds worked with one another, fed one another, and compromised with one another. Good Omens blends the witty and well-worded humour of Pratchett – including his many amusing footnotes and parentheses – with the bizarre apocalyptic themes and characters Gaiman is known for.
I frequently had to suppress laughing fits whilst reading this book in public; it’s just that good. And the brilliant humour does not come at the expense of the plot, which will keep you engrossed for all the 500+ pages. I rarely re-read books anymore, but Good Omens definitely deserves the honour of a re-read.
#1 – Maus – Art Spiegelman
Maus is the biography of Art Speigelman’s father, Vladek, and is without a doubt the best representation of Holocaust experiences I have ever encountered. The narrative depicts Vladek’s struggle to survive and protect his family, the effort with which he hides himself in attics and sheds, and his awful experiences in concentration camps; but all of this focuses on the relationships between the many persecuted people and those with compassion, than on Vladek alone.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this book – as suggested by the quantity of academic works that dissect it – is how the characters are represented. All are human bodied, but with the head of an animal; Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Poles are pigs, and so on. Maus is also recognised as a strong case for the serious consideration of the graphic/comic form, and Spiegelman’s use of this form is inextricable from the story itself. The artwork does not only help us begin to imagine what the Holocaust may have been like, but it self-reflexively prompts questions about representation itself and the practice of biography and storytelling.
This graphic novel was tragic, enlightening, thought-provoking and refreshingly original – easily the best book I’ve read this year!