A note from the Books editors: This year, we’re starting a series of editors’ choices of books they enjoy. Twice a month, members of the editorial board will recommend some of their favourite reads. Spanning novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, we hope this series inspires you to pick up something new.
When I reflect on the books which have had a defining influence on me, I am always drawn to the ones which uniquely and honestly examine women’s experiences. As a Literature student, I’ve often found male writers who diminish their female characters’ voices, making them two-dimensional playthings for men, not autonomous in their own right.
The books I have chosen are nostalgic, often full of rich, dreamlike prose, definitely a style some might call self-indulgent, but one which is a favourite of mine. To see women taking up their rightful spaces in literature is liberating, so I hope you will enjoy these picks as much as I have!
Fireworks by Angela Carter
Angela Carter’s 1974 collection of short stories has held a place in my heart ever since I read it a few years ago. Carter is a favourite writer of mine not just because of her flawless prose, but because of her complex female characters and handling of taboo topics. Many of the stories in this collection are based on Carter’s time spent living in Japan; they are colourful, seductive, and surprising. A central theme is the exploration of the role of gender in society, and Carter does not shy away from gothic and subversive imagery to tackle this. A particular favourite of mine is ‘A souvenir of Japan’, which details a doomed relationship amongst the background of city life and a firework display. Even when intertwined with fantasy elements, the stories manage to capture the experience of being human in a very real, honest way, and I notice something new each time I read them.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Published in 1948, this novel tells the tale of an eccentric family living in a crumbling castle, told from the perspective of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. It is funny, raw, and truly beautiful. I read this over a period of 2 days when I was off school sick at 13 years old, and it has stuck in my mind ever since as one of the most comforting books I have read, and one of the most readable. The themes of change and time are central to the plot; the descriptions of the poverty the family lives in are in sharp contrast to the past grandeur of the castle now decaying and left in ruins. Throughout the novel, we see Cassandra evolve into adulthood and hone her literary ambitions, whilst romances and family drama take place around her. But whilst the scenic English countryside provides an idyllic backdrop for the story, the brutally honest tone of the novel is what makes it stand out for me. As a writer myself, struggling to find my place and identity at 13, I felt akin to Cassandra in a way I haven’t with any other protagonist of a novel since.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
During lockdown last summer, I longed desperately for some kind of escapism, and I certainly found that in Rebecca, the gothic romance featuring a young newly-married woman who is figuratively haunted by the sparkling ghost of her husband’s dead wife. This novel is deceivingly dark – any notions of a novel focussed on love and marriage are dashed within the first few chapters. I love how Du Maurier manages to find the tricky balance between a thrilling detective novel and an easy beach read, something she also manages to live up to in her other novels. It is a plot ultimately focused on the unnamed protagonist’s jealousy of Rebecca, her husband’s previous wife, who died in a mysterious boating accident on the Cornish coast. But as the novel progresses, we learn there was a web of secrecy, sex, and betrayal at the true heart of this ‘idyllic’ past marriage. Rebecca also creates the beautiful scenery of country house Manderley, interwoven seamlessly with nightmares, memory, and elements of the supernatural. If you’re looking for a gripping book to get you back into the swing of reading before exams hit, definitely give Rebecca a try.
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