A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done, its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan. As a book in which to read this plan, New York is unsurpassed. For the whole world has poured its heart into the city by the Palisades, and made it far better than it ever had any right to be.
Anchee Min’s memoir The Cooked Seed details her relocation to the US at the age of twenty-eight with scant knowledge of English and no means of financial support, and charts her subsequent struggle to craft a meaningful life for herself in a foreign country. Anchee’s story, presented in sometimes disarmingly open language, tells of a singularly strange life, yet still resonates with anyone who has ever experienced the sense of dislocation. The Cooked Seed is a brutal and challenging account of the difficulties Anchee faced, encompassing her struggle to assimilate into American culture, her profound loneliness, and her anxiety over the family left behind in China. Anchee’s battle to conquer the English language overhangs the entire memoir, and after reading about her early struggles to participate in basic conversation without the aid of a dictionary, it’s incredibly impressive to consider that this once hesitant student has since become a prolific author.
Anchee has written several novels which explore significant epochs in Chinese history, both ancient and modern (of which I’d especially recommend Wild Ginger). If Anchee’s life was a novel, however, the author would be forced to impose a greater sense of order upon her story: readers would otherwise dismiss the unrelenting cycle of torments endured by the protagonist as ‘unrealistic’. Fact again proves itself capable of being far stranger than fiction. The extreme poverty of Anchee’s early life, which shapes her view of consumption in America, is almost unimaginable. In a novel such detail would be considered excessive. I would usually hold that fiction provides a more effective tool for dealing with trauma, as it shows a wider perspective and thus allows some small modicum of sense to be made. As a memoir, The Cooked Seed is therefore more challenging: it denies cohesion and understanding, and this absence of meaning more accurately captures the confusion of Anchee’s life.
Perhaps the fact that Anchee was unsatisfied with displacing her ghosts onto fictionalised accounts of life under the Cultural Revolution reveals the necessity of non-fiction: we need to confront our pasts and call our demons by their true names.
Maybe you’re braver than I am, but watching the recent film adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was an authentic horror movie experience: it succeeded in making me squeal, jump and eventually spend a large part of its duration cowering in my seat with my eyes covered. Perhaps I was just feeling distinctly un-Gryffindorish that day, but it felt like one of the most effective horror movies I’ve encountered in a long time. Now that I’ve finally recovered from the experience, I decided to return to the source material to address a crucial question: was the film’s success the product of a skilled page-to-screen adaptation, or the natural result of a genuinely spine-chilling tale?
Susan Hill’s novel is no less visually engaging than its film counterpart, even though this immersive effect is achieved through radically different means. Hill oversees her narrative with unwavering control: she crafts a mounting sense of suspense throughout, leading to an accumulation of haunting images that are in many ways more powerful than the immediate gratification facilitated by film (not least because it forces the reader to fill in the gaps). Hill’s writing has a strong sensory effect that could never be matched by visual representation alone. The sense of smell, for example, is inflamed continually through The Woman in Black: the damp, rotting scent of Eel Marsh House lingers long after the protagonist flees the grounds. By stimulating the senses in this way, the reader is drawn into Hill’s world, which enables the novel to establish an almost painful degree of tension. The suspense is relieved only at the very last minute: the novel has an entirely different ending to the film, and I won’t spoil it for anyone planning to pick up the book, but suffice to say that it’s made abundantly clear from the outset that all is not well with Arthur’s apparently peaceful existence, and only at the very end will all your questions be answered.
So, it is possible for a book to be as effectively squeal-inducing as a horror movie? The answer, if Hill’s example is anything to go by, is a resounding yes.
Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe – and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw – as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed – must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.
Roald Dahl’s writing really has no equal: Matilda remains one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. His observations about the idiosyncrasies of parents are impressively acute, and while I don’t entirely agree with his opposition to TV, which seems like an oddly conservative position for an otherwise progressive writer, Matilda is a terrifically inspiring champion of the power of books.
4. The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy
Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series was released long before Potter and must have influenced Rowling’s writing: both are set in in ancient castles serving as magical academies. I used to listen to The Worst Witch as an audio tape when I was too young to read it myself, and as a result an appreciation for stories featuring witchcraft has been embedded into my subconscious. Proof: three entries on this Top 5 list involve magic.
3. Witch Week, Dianne Wynne Jones
Witch Week is actually the third of seven Chrestomanci books, but true to form I started in the middle of the series. This installment takes place in a universe where magic is outlawed and punishable by death, yet insists on popping out of people at somewhat inconvenient moments. Witch Week features an intelligent and complex plot, with well-captured, imperfect characters, and while I’d recommend the Chrestomanci series as a whole, Witch Week is definitely worth opening as a stand-alone read.
2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is another fantasy series which is more strictly Young Adult than a children’s series, though, like the greatest of animated films for children, it can be enjoyed at any age and appreciated on different levels. Simultaneously an attempt to undermine the questionable certainties of Paradise Lost and a courageous exploration of the nature of sin, Pullman’s novels are among the most accomplished YA series that I’ve encountered.
1. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
The #1 spot has to go to Harry Potter: even more than ten years later, it’s still a uniquely immersive experience, at once both familiar and constantly surprising. Without being by any means ‘preachy’, the series conveys a great humanistic message about love and equality through the analogy of disenfranchised magical creatures and the capacity of a pure heart to combat the dark arts.
Luckdragons are among the strangest animals in Fantastica. They bear no resemblance to ordinary dragons, which look like loathsome snakes and live in deep caves, diffusing a noxious stench and guarding some real or imaginary treasure. Such spawn of chaos are usually wicked or ill-tempered, they have batlike wings with which they can rise clumsily and noisily into the air, and they spew fire and smoke. Luckdragons are creatures of air, warmth and pure joy. Despite their great size, they are as light as a summer cloud, and consequently need no wings for flying.