This week’s Top Ten topic relates to books that are unique. Impossible to come up with a list of 10 I thought given Christopher Booker’s premise that there are just seven basic plots in fiction:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Even adding in the permutations of setting, period, narrative voice and structure it would be hard, bearing in mind the millions of books in print in the world, to identify something truly unique in the sense of being one of a kind. You have to dig deep to find that spark of truly unique thought that makes one novel unlike every other novel out there – how many novels are breakthrough texts in the vein of Joyce’s Ulysses? Even when an author finds an approach that’s different, it won’t stay that way for long – bestselling novels and even complex ones can easily be imitated after all (just look at all the ‘me-too’ versions of Fifty Shades and The Twilight Series).
It got a bit easier when I started to think about the word ‘unique’ as being distinctive, remarkable, notable and extraordinary. I ignored experimental novels like Will Self’s Umbrella with its 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames and four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break. I appreciate authors trying to break free of constraints but often they turn out to have more fun than I do as a reader. I opted instead for novels that were individual in style, approach, narrative structure or voice.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Catton paid homage to the great traditions of 19th-century narratives with this 2013 Booker Prize winning novel even to the extent of including, like Dickens and George Eliot, a precis at the top of each chapter. Not even Dickens, known for his intricate plots, ever came up with a structure where each chapter shortens in length as the book progresses (chapter 1 seems to be 300 pages long) and where each character is ascribed a personality typical of an astrological sign.
How to be Both by Ali Smith: As superb as the writing was in this 2014 novel, what made it stand out was that two versions were published. Depending on which copy you picked up at random, readers either began with the story of a troubled teenager or with an Italian fresco painter. The two connected and twisted around each other but the reading experience was different according to the starting point.
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou: This is a stream of consciousness novel that breaks free of its associations with psychological introspection as in the hands of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In Mabanckou’s novel set in the Congo, words, images and literary allusions freewheel with barely a pause or a full stop in a teasing satire about political figures and Congolese men. It’s a novel that designed to amuse and entertain rather than encourage deep thoughts.
Dom Casmurro by Joachim Maria Mated de Assis: A classic of Brazilian literature this is a novel that completely messes up the idea of a linear narrative structure. Purporting to be an autobiography written by a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, the chapters are not connected in any organised fashion so you have to pick up the clues of the story piecemeal. It sounds incoherent but it’s a blast in comparison to Finnegan’s Wake.
Harvest by Jim Crace: Creative writing classes advise you to be specific in order to make the narrative sound authentic. Crace confounds that advice with a novel that gives few clues about its setting or time period. Yes we can pick up signals that it’s dated before a time when common grazing land was enclosed by private landowners. But are we in the twelfth century or the thirteenth? Astute readers who know their plants will spot that this is set somewhere in England but are we in the south or the west or the east? The very timelessness and lack of location give this story of a rupture in man’s relationship with the land, a universal quality.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel: An object lesson in how to tell a shaggy dog story convincingly – and win a Booker Prize for the effort. It tests our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, offering us an alternative version of truth.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: Anyone who has read – or attempted to read – Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy will know how frustrating/perplexing an experience it can be when a novelist keeps breaking up the flow of text with seemingly disconnected digressions. The abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow and the multiple digressions and contradictions make reading Midnight’s Children a heady experience,
The Many by Wyl Menmuir: It surprises me that this novella didn’t get more critical acclaim. It deals with a highly topical subject – environmental degradation – without coming across as rather preachy or Doomsday. The most significant aspect for me however was that it contains so many unresolved, unanswered questions. It’s effectively a mystery novel where the reader feels constantly they’re on unsettled ground.
Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime by Mark Haddon: It’s the identity of the narrator that distinguishes this book. Child/young person narrators are common features but until Haddon came along I don’t recall one who was also autistic. Christopher is a budding maths genius who understands numbers better than he understands people. When his neighbour’s dog is killed he applies his logical skills to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. This is a book littered with diagrams and figures. Reading it is an education – you’ll learn how to find prime numbers, the reason the Milky Way looks like a line in the night sky and the mathematical reason for the change in population density in a school frog pond.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: I saved this one to last because it’s distinctive in more than one way. First it introduced a new genre in the form of the sensation novel when it began serialisation in 1859, inspiring a number of imitators like Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Secondly, few novels have quite as many narrators as this one – nearly all the principal characters get their turn at telling the story giving the effect we are hearing witness statements and presentation of evidence in a court of law. And finally this is a novel that gave rise to a slew of merchandising tie ups. Back in the 1870s you could buy Woman in White perfume, dress in Woman in White cloaks and bonnets and dance a Woman in White waltz or quadrille. For all its t-shirts, wizard wands and theme parks, Harry Potter went as far as a dance tie in….