Desert Island Reads

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald


The Great Gatsby comprises everything that excites me in a piece of literature: perfectly sculpted passages, a tragically complex hero and an author whose life rivals that of his characters in drama. Set in 1920s America, it focuses on the lives of the very rich and how destructive their extravagant immoralities can be. As the story was inspired by Fitzgerald’s romance with his wife, readers are offered a much deeper understanding of the characters’ emotions.

Perfectly sculpted passages and a tragically complex hero

It is a novel that can be read time and time again; there is always another meaning to be found in Fitzgerald’s words, which often morph into a form of poetry in the novel’s most romantic moments. Though he was heavily critical of the hedonism of the 1920s, Fitzgerald even finds a beauty in Gatsby’s parties, which are often seen as symbols of the luxury, describing the guests as being “among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” It is the beauty of the descriptions that attracts me to this novel – though the plot is exciting, a reader’s focus is on Fitzgerald’s manipulation of language, as his words form almost tangible emotions in their minds.

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, Cixin Liu


The box set of Cixin Liu’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series consists of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. The novels were originally published in Chinese, with excellent translations by fantasy authors Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen. The Three Body Problem was the first translated novel to win the coveted Hugo award for science fiction, and has since gone on to dominate the sci-fi scene in China and make a splash in the Western world (it was even included on Obama’s list of must-read books).

Reflect on the intensely human struggles at the heart of everything Liu creates

The novels loosely fit the ‘space opera’ genre characterised by the works of Isaac Asimov and other paramount science fiction authors, spanning an inconceivable time scale of cultural revolution China and the literal end of the Universe, billions of years in the future. Each novel features a unique protagonist struggling with the issues facing their time period, including a hyperrealistic virtual-reality game that is more than it seems, multiple suicides of physicists due to the conventional laws of physics seemingly being proved inconsistent, and threats posed by a race of aliens.

The sheer number of varying storylines, settings, and ideas Liu illustrates in these novels encourages multiple re-reads, making them perfect for a desert island. Let yourself be puzzled by the deeply encoded information communicated in a 20-page fairy tale by a captured human in order to save the human race, explore fantastical spaceship-cities of the future in which class struggles dictate the shape and form of worlds, and if all that is too much, reflect on the intensely human struggles at the heart of everything Liu creates. It is the surprise and interest these novels incite in me that I believe make them the perfect desert island read.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë


When thinking about which book I would hope to have with me as a castaway, I toyed with bending the rules and trying to take my complete Shakespeare collection, my Harry Potter books, or even How to Build a Raft. However, the book that kept calling to me, despite its admittedly clichéd status, was Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre. This is because every time I read it, I find new aspects of the story to ponder and react in a different way to the characters.

Jane’s voice is both intimate and powerful

I was fourteen when I read Jane Eyre for the first time and immediately I admired how poor and plain Jane was driven by her strong, and occasionally indignant, moral compass. Channelled through Brontë’s elegant prose, Jane’s voice is both intimate and powerful. The text manages to capture her passionate heart and the fierceness of her convictions, and yet also her fragility. Whilst aged fourteen I wept with Jane when poor Helen died and fell in love with the Byronic Mr Rochester, I was surprised when rereading the novel several years that my reaction to the characters had changed so much. This time around I was angry how Rochester dared to treat both Jane and Bertha and saw Brontë’s own independent spirit manifested in Jane’s response to him and her cousin St John, as well as in her decision to take control of her own destiny.

With its grand houses, desolate moors, and courageous heroine, Jane Eyre leaves a lasting impression. It raises interesting questions about Christianity, feminism and gender expectations that are ever relevant in the 21st century. I remember asking myself “what would Jane do?” when I read it all those years ago, a question which I may find myself returning to, in the face of the challenges of a desert island.

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden.


If I were to be stranded on a desert island, the novel I would choose to take with me would be The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. An unforgettable debut, it takes inspiration from Russian folktales, including those of Morozko and Vasilisa the Beautiful. It tells the story of the strong-willed and compassionate Vasya, who must save her community from peril. She must struggle against both the strange and threatening forces lurking in the woods which border her home and the expectations in her time of young women. Vasya’s independence, determination and bravery mean that she is a heroine who you immediately root for and admire. However, a great strength of the novel is that Vasya is just one member of a whole cast of unique, complex and fascinating characters.

Vasya’s independence, determination and bravery means that she is a heroine who you immediately root for and admire

Others include Vasya’s haunted and severe stepmother, Anna, and the obsessive Konstantin, who urges the people in Vasya’s community to abandon tradition, with dire results. Arden’s prose is beautifully crafted and the world she creates is enveloping and enchanting. Her descriptions are rich and atmospheric, utterly immersing you in the story. This novel wholly captures the imagination. I first read it in January 2017, when I was working in a bookstore; a fellow bookseller recommended it to me. As I was reading I had the most wonderful feeling of contentment – that feeling you get when you realise that the novel you are reading will become an all-time favourite. Since then I have reread it multiple times. The best thing – and the thing I think is true of all the greatest novels – is that each time I reread it, I find more in it to cherish. It would easily keep me entertained and inspired on a desert island.

Photograph: Chrissie via Creative Commons and Flickr

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