1) Atonement by Ian McEwan
The book is about love between Cecilia Tallis, an upper class young woman who goes to Cambridge University and Robbie Turner, the housekeepers son who is a few years older than Cecilia. The novel starts with the preparations for a summer dinner party, set against the increasing attraction of Robbie and Cecilia. Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, walks in on Robbie and Cecilia making love in the in the library before the dinner party begins and casts Robbie as the villain and Cecilia as the innocent. Briony later sees her cousin Lola being raped by an unknown man. She assumes this man is Robbie and because of her lie, is wrongly accused and sent to prison. The book then charts the devastating consequences of Briony’s childhood lie to Cecilia, Robbie, as well as to Briony herself.
Robbie is a realistic and likeable main character, through his eyes you see the horrors of war and the horrors of lost love, but also the intensity and youthfulness of passion, of the raw and ragged and not-necessarily politically correct aspects of love and the book is carried by his realism and the truthfulness of the love between himself and Cecilia.
A haunting book and, surprisingly a haunting film too. A book that is based on the not said things and asks how easily a life can be destroyed by lies.
2) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
I always have the feeling of not quite understanding McEwan’s writing. A sense that I have trying to grasp at something that is just out of my reach. The topic is stark, real and blunt and I like his descriptions of the every day detail that bring the story to life.
On Chesil Beach is about how one action can change a whole life. The book begins with a couple on their wedding night and ends with both of the now estranged couple thinking back to that night with maturity and hindsight about what could have been done differently.
A book full of painful nostalgia, lost things and unrest which had me screaming out for action to be taken, even though, in every day life, it is often the things that we don’t do that we regret the most.
3) Engleby by Sebastian Faulks
Engleby is a book about a talented, but morose working class student called Mike Engleby who wins a scholarship to a prestigious university and falls in love with a pretty girl called Jennifer. Jennifer disappears half-way through her final year after a party and Mike’s part in this is unraveled throughout the book.
The unreliable narration by Engleby in this book is ahead of its time, compared to more recent examples such as the dubious narrator, Amy of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, and I think, Faulks does it better. There is something compelling but also mysterious about Engelby that draws you into his world, a little like betting on an outsider chance at a horse race. Somehow you want him to be better than he is, but it is only at the end you realise who he was all along. Plus, watch out for one of the more poignant cyclical metaphors of all time….
4) Butchers Crossing by John Williams
A nostalgic and powerful story that mirrors the journey of our lives. The book is set in the American West and tells the story of four men who set out on a buffalo hunting expedition for their hides. The men set out from Butcher’s Crossing, a small town on the edge of the American West and are thoroughly tested through physical exhaustion, lack of water, a blizzard and human loss, and return to Butcher’s Crossing changed men.
The real poetry in telling this story, is the hollow feeling you get when the men realise that the buffalo hide industry has been destroyed via the market being flooded and their hard won gains are worth virtually nothing. This harsh reality affects the men differently and raises the question- how would I deal with the loss of all I had worked for?
The story also quietly mocks religion, as one character, Charley, a one-handed alcoholic is obsessed with the bible and when one of the characters dies in a tragic accident, takes it upon himself to pass judgement on him through the bible. This black and white approach to right and wrong at such a point in the book is truly shocking (especially given Charley’s own weaknesses) and shows that life is a lot more complicated than anyone can predict.
I honestly haven’t read such a book like this in a long while and have been recommending it to everyone that I meet. A rare book and one that doesn’t come along often.
5) Snowdrops by A.D Miller
‘I miss Masha, I miss Moscow’. Haunting final lines from the novel about a man who is working in Russia as a lawyer and finds himself swept along dangerous territoryby the company of two very pretty Russian girls Masha, with whom he is romantically involved, and Katya. The story is almost Russian in its delivery; there is little wasted words and fluffy descriptions, but the sense of bleakness, of human fragility and oncoming, inevitable tragedy come through strongly.
The ending of the novel has stayed with me. It speaks of the transient nature of people and the ever present ‘what if’ of the past. By this point, Nicholas is living back in England and is married, but still longs for the intensity and aliveness he felt back in the presence of Masha and Katya in Russia, even though he knows the experience wasn’t really real. I think we can all appreciate that feeling, of wanting something back, that was never quite yours, or never quite real, yet pining for it nevertheless.