I find, like certain films, holidays, songs; there are some books that will never leave me; like those smells that reminds you of your childhood. These books I have read again-and -again, and I have often found it hard to pin down exactly what it is that keeps me coming back because I wouldn’t consider them my favorite books of all time. I hope, by writing them down, I’ll be able to unpack the mystery behind my love for these books.
- The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (2005) – Eva Rice
I absolutely adore this book. Set in the 1950s, this novel acts like a coming-of-age story about 18-year-old Penelope, a hopeless-romantic whose fantasies about American singer, Johnny Ray, keep her sane during the bleak penniless days of post-war England. Despite the fragility of her situation; her forlorn mother and the loss of her father, Penelope remains positive, hoping one day to meet the man of dreams. It is thus, by pure chance, that one day, whilst waiting for the bus, she bumps into the glamorous Charlotte Ferris. It is through this lucky encounter that Penelope is whisked into a word of hope, romance and riches like she has never seen before.
This novel is not chick-lit, despite its outward appearance. No. This novel deals with the guilt that proceeds the end of rationing; it deals with class wars and the anxieties of growing up and meeting expectations. It is also beautifully written and gives a fantastical element to the rock n’ roll fifties, in the sense that you want nothing, but to be transported into the pages.
2. I Capture the Castle (1948) – Dodie Smith
For those of you who remember the 2003 film starring Bill Nighy, do you remember how utterly enchanting it was? The romanticised image of the English countryside and its ruined old castle? Well, its original novel is even more gorgeous.
I often band The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets and I Capture the Castle into the same sort of category. They’re both set after the war and share the same captivating prose that makes England seem like somewhere out of a fairytale. However, this is somewhat darker than the The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets; it emphasises the financial pressure’s dumped on families following the war and depicts some darker, seedier characters that you are just begging to be cast away somewhere.
This novel is told through a diary-keeper called Cassandra, who is ever critical of her family; her gorgeous older sister, her introverted father, her annoying little brother and her naked step-mother. As ever, with most teenage girls of this period, she dreams of marrying a rich, older gentleman and wants nothing more than to be swept off her feet.
As luck might have it, two American’s stumble in on her whilst she is having a bath, and thus entails a love triangle that involves parties, record players and sibling rivalry. Again, this is not chic-lit, I promise. Perhaps it would be in a modern setting, but Dodie Smith’s luscious descriptions of the English countryside and the depiction of the aftermath of war makes this a truly worth while read.
3. Seven Years in Tibet (1952) – Heinrich Harrer
This one is a bit of a mystery to me in the sense that I barely remember anything about it, other than it has always stuck somewhere in the back of my mind. This is an autobiographical piece and was my first encounter with travel writing. It retells Heinich Harrer’s time in Tibet during the Second World War and I remember it partly for its beautiful descriptions of the Tibetan scenery and its culinary flavors. The other part I remember particularly because of the frequent encounters with Yaks, an animal I had never heard of before and one I proceeded to write a year-six research project on. This novel has been made into two films and is perhaps on-par with Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days. So if you are ever interested in learning about Tibetan culture and the Dalai Lama; this should be your go-to book.