It was my birthday on Saturday, so I thought it would be kind of cool to devote this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf to some of the books that were published the year I was born. Saturday’s show featured some of my favourite books that came out in 1978 (yeah… I know… I’ve given away my age there). You can catch the show again on the player below, but as promised here’s a rundown of the books I talked about on air.
M.M. Kaye’s epic novel is set in nineteenth-century India, and it tells the story of Ashton Pelham-Martyn (Ash), a young English boy who is orphaned and entrusted into the care of his Hindu nanny Sita. However, with the Sepoy Rebellion putting the young boy in peril, Sita decides to disguise him and pass him off as Ashok, a native Indian child. For years, Sita and Ash live in Gulkote, serving in the palace of Lalji, the crown prince. It’s here that Ash meets the lonely Princess Anjuli, and begins a friendship that will one day blossom into love. When Sita reveals the truth about Ash’s parentage, the boy must return to England and learn to be a proper ‘sahib’ – will he ever return to keep his promise to Anjuli?
As I said on the show, this book isn’t my usual genre of choice, but I thought it deserved a mention on the show. It was recommended to me by the same person who got us all hooked on The Thorn Birds (which I featured on my ‘guilty pleasures’ show) when I was at university.
I’m rather fond of John Irving’s novels – though, again, they’re not really my usual type of novel. I’m not sure if it’s the chattiness of them, or the way they follow characters through years and years of their lives, but there’s something about them that I really enjoy. The World According to Garp is one of Irving’s best-known novels, particularly since it was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close in 1982.
The book chronicles the life of T.S. Garp, a man with no father (his mother did something rather bad to a brain damaged soldier – a ‘technical sergeant’ – in order to get pregnant without the assistance of a man) and with a penchant for amateur wrestling and fiction writing. Garp marries Helen, but their relationship is troubled by infidelity and tragedy. Alongside this, we also travel the bumpy road of Garp’s writing career (as in some of Irving’s other works, there are some embedded stories-within-the-story that are a real joy to read). When Garp’s mother Jenny writes her autobiography and becomes a feminist icon, the cast of Garp’s life expands to include a variety of larger-than-life (though tragic and sympathetic) characters.
The World According to Garp is a great place to start with Irving’s work. If you enjoy his writing style, I’d also recommend A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year and Until I Find You (though The Cider House Rules and The Hotel New Hampshire are also good choices).
What can I say about this next selection? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t need much of an introduction. Briggs’s classic is so well-known, not least because of the 1982 cartoon adaptation that is shown on TV every Christmas.
Illustrated entirely with pencil crayons and containing no words, The Snowman was intended to be an antidote to the ‘muck, slime and words’ of Briggs’s previous work, Fungus the Bogeyman. Although the adaptation transposes the adventure to Christmas Eve (and includes a trip to see Father Christmas), the book isn’t so specific about its setting. Also, though the cartoon named the little boy as ‘James’, he is anonymous in Briggs’s work. In a way, the lack of specifics only makes the book seem more universal – making the ending even more poignant.
I talk about detective fiction a lot on the show, but it tends to be more Golden Age crime than modern stuff. So it’s really cool to include a book by the woman who (in my opinion) inherited the title of ‘Queen of Crime’ from Agatha Christie. A Sleeping Life is the tenth Inspector Wexford novel by Rendell, and features a nice little puzzle (where the detectives must work out who the victim is, as much as who the culprit is) that wouldn’t be out of place in a Golden Age novel.
Rhoda Comfrey is found dead in a country lane after visiting her dying father. However, when Wexford and Burden begin to investigate, they can find no trace of the woman in London, despite the fact that she has supposedly lived there for twenty years. A fancy wallet found with the victim leads them to the victim’s second cousin, a writer named Grenville West, but Ms Comfrey remains strangely elusive.
In many ways, Wexford and Burden are the descendants of older literary detectives (Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings), but I do enjoy the ways in which Rendell has updated her detective. Perhaps the most interesting alteration to the template is that Wexford is a father – not to a son and heir, like Margery Allingham’s Campion, but to daughters. Wexford’s daughter Sylvia features quite prominently in A Sleeping Life, allowing Rendell to play with questions of marriage and ‘women’s lib’ in ways that are interesting – if a little dated now.
Of course, I had to include a vampire on the list somewhere. 1978 saw the publication of the first of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain novels. Her aristocratic, cultured, seductive and charming vampire begins his adventures in 1743 in the Parisian court of Louis XV. At turns a horror novel and a romance, Hotel Transylvania sees our vampiric hero attempting to save the lovely – but naive – Madelaine de Montalia from a bunch of despicable Satanists.
There are quite a lot of books in the Saint-Germain series, set in different time periods. Also in the series are Blood Games (set in Rome, 60-70AD), Tempting Fate (set in Rome and England, in 1917-1928), Come Twilight (which takes place across the 7th-12th centuries in Spain) and Night Blooming (set in the court of Charlemagne). While you can read the novels in the order they were published, or you can follow the historical chronology of Saint-Germain’s (after)life, the titles work as standalone books, so you really can read them in any order. I’d recommend starting with Hotel Transylvania though, as it’s a great introduction to the immortal Saint-Germain.
On past shows, I’ve been a little bit scathing (perhaps unfairly) of literary fiction. On the whole, I’d describe myself as being more of a genre fan. However, there is a big exception to this – I’m rather partial to the work of Iris Murdoch. So it was nice to end the show with the 1978 Booker Prize Winner The Sea, the Sea.
The novel is narrated by Charles Arrowby, an arrogant and unlikeable playwright who has moved to a remote house on the edge of the North Sea in order to write his memoirs. In fact, the novel is written in the form of Arrowby’s journal, giving us a thoroughly self-centred, introspective and unreliable narrator. Despite supposedly getting away from the world, Arrowby manages to choose a retreat right next to the home of his teenage love, Hartley. Increasingly obsessed by the memory of their relationship, Arrowby becomes convinced that Hartley needs to be rescued from an unhappy and abusive marriage. But what is it exactly that Arrowby is idealizing?
Some critics are keen to divide Murdoch’s books into ‘early’ and ‘later’, with the latter category coming in for harsher criticism. I don’t see the divide so clearly myself, and I have favourites from among her earlier books (The Sandcastle and A Severed Head) but also from among her later output (The Philosopher’s Pupil).
And that brought me to the end of my birthday edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf. To hear more about these books and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show here: