5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Chabon’s novel captures a pivotal moment in history and reveals how cultural icons come into existence. It tells the story of Joe Kavalier, who escapes from Nazi-occupied Prague to seek shelter with his relatives in New York. Working with his cousin Sammy, Joe creates an anti-fascist superhero called The Escapist. The novel lacks a comforting conclusion; in addition to providing a well-researched account of the fledgling comic book industry, it is a powerful and moving narrative of the characters’ journeys into adulthood.
4. The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells
This Victorian sci-fi novel engages with contemporary debates about the relationship between evolution and ethics, the possibility of order in a potentially godless universe, and the morality of the scientific process. Significantly, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) was founded shortly after the novel’s publication. I would argue that Doctor Moreau remains relevant today: it asks us to question what makes us human. Is it the ability to reason, to stand on two legs, or is it our awareness of our own mortality? The novel questions the very existence of a boundary between humanity and animals.
3. Factory Girls, Leslie Chang
A spectacular study of the migration of rural workers to urban factories in modern China, Chang’s study has a strikingly humane focus. Chang developed close relationships with several workers, enabling her to present an intimate and personable account of life in the factories. It’s certainly an important topic, as China’s 130 million migrant workers represent the largest migration in human history.
2. The Tiger in the Well, Philip Pullman
The third Sally Lockhart novel deals, like Doctor Moreau, with prominent Victorian concerns, such as marriage and child custody laws, as well as enduring issues, like poverty and immigration. The novel’s most challenging aspect emerges close to its conclusion, when the heroine reaches a realisation about herself. *spoiler alert* Sally discovers that her actions, and her wilful blindness to particular aspects of London life, have contributed to the social evils she has encountered.
‘Sally felt something stirring in her heart for these poor, anonymous people. They were only anonymous because of her own ignorance; they each had a life inside them, just as she did.’
1. The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White
This fantasy epic has such a distinctly modern feel that I still can’t quite believe it was published in 1938. Esoteric yet accessible, The Sword in the Stone can be enjoyed on many levels: as a reworking of Arthurian myth, as an encyclopaedic account of feudal life, or as a wonderfully fantastical tale of knights, quests and talking serpents. The novel has a stunningly imaginative system of magic: as the wizard Merlyn experiences time backwards (which doesn’t appear to inconvenience him too much, although he does grumble that ‘all one’s tenses get muddled up, for one thing’), his magical incantations are simply requests to the gods spoken backwards.