2666 by Robert Bolaño
Described by one critic as ‘the Total Novel’, worthy of standing alongside Cervantes, Melville, and Proust, 2666 is audacious both in its structure and its ambition. Bolano’s sentences can feel plain or flat, sometimes even journalistic. How is it, then, that the experience of reading him feels so atmospheric, so mesmerising, so absolutely visionary? At 893 pages, it’s a long book – but it wasn’t long enough for me.
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg
Initially, Ginzburg’s memoir is driven by the routines, rituals and catch-phrases her family used to use while she was growing up – the lexicon of the title – but what makes it unforgettable is the absolute lack of self-indulgence and self-pity that she displays in the telling of her difficult and sometimes tragic story. In this book, more perhaps than any other, you feel the power of what has been left out.
Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano
I first discovered Modiano in the Eastbourne Public Library when I was seventeen, and I’ve been reading him ever since. Modiano’s novels are often set in the hazardous, shadowy Paris of the Occupation and involve a quest for someone who has disappeared. In his slender masterpiece, Honeymoon, which begins in the bar of a Milan hotel on a hot August afternoon, he captures a world of uncertain identities and hidden agendas, his writing so spare and elliptical that the words seem only lightly attached to the page.
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
One of the great novels of the nineteenth century, Effi Briest is a subtle yet heartrending portrait of a young woman who is a delight to everybody close to her, but whose life is destroyed by a rigidly rule-bound and patriarchal society. Fontane’s rich, deft, and ironic style lulls us into a false sense of security, leaving us completely unprepared for the emotional devastation of Effie’s downfall.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Set in the tiny, isolated community of Fingerbone in the far north-west of America, this is the tale of two sisters who grow up in the care of their disturbed aunt Sylvie. Though Housekeeping is, at one level, an investigation of madness, and although its themes are loneliness, abandonment, and that infinitely human attempt, especially where children are involved, to make sense of the world in which they find themselves, the writing is so beautiful and so wise that the book manages to be both heartbreaking and life-affirming.