The BBC’s Big Read best-loved books were not all a waste of trees – here are a scattering of gems that slipped through the net, according to Hattie French
Two weeks ago I poured scorn upon the results of the BBC’s Big Read poll to find Britain’s best-loved book. To redress the balance, this week a look at some of the books which, in my view, deserve their place on the list.
I’m well aware that, in the pantheon of English literature, the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and their ilk are regarded as deities who look down upon the rest of us from unassailable heights of cultural superiority. For the purpose of this list, however, they have been branded bores and pushed off their pedestals by authors who can resolve a sentence in under half a page.
With this in mind, I would be frankly disappointed if no one reading felt inclined to disagree with my choice of books. But my point is this: what follows is my selection of favourites. Feel free to make your own list and send it in to us. And if anyone feels like defending Jane Austen, I’d be happy to point out where you’re going wrong.
Du Maurier #14
Anyway, back to business. Casting my eye down the top twenty, I can see only one or two books which would make my personal list. One is Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, number 14 on the list. If you’ve read this you’ll know what a fantastic evocation of brooding menace it is; but if you haven’t read it, there’s better, easier, and shorter du Mauriers out there to get started on. Frenchman’s Creek, for example, is a swashbuckling adventure complete with pirates, rubies, muscleheaded husbands and bored, glamorous, bodiced ladies, and also features about ten times the action of Rebecca in about two-thirds of the length.
De Bernières #19
Spare a thought for Louis de Bernieres, whose best-known work, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, sneaks into the top twenty at number 19. As you’ve probably already read this book, I shall pass over it lightly and remark that de Bernieres’ South American trilogy, full of cats, peasants, guerillas, ghosts, conquistadores and much much more, makes Captain Corelli look like a staid wartime romance. Even the titles are enchanting: The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.
After these two, it’s a long drop to the next book that I’d really count among my favourites – all the way down to number 76, andDonna Tartt’s The Secret History. Another dark, atmospheric novel, all about the persistance of the dead, but instead of the grim-faced housekeepers and evasive husbands of Rebecca, we have a group of Classics students who take their enthusiasm for their subject – and their teacher – a bit too far. In fact they start with animal sacrifice and go on from there.
As a classicist myself, I’ve always found this book hugely endearing. It’s one of those books which will leave you begging for a sequel, but don’t be tempted by Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, which is a very different kind of book and universally acknowledged to be a disappointment. Writing a 600-page mystery about a murder is one thing. Neglecting to solve the crime, after leading your readers through this brick, is just cruel.
SciFi – Huxley #87…
Two classics from science fiction now: at number 87, it’s the brilliant Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Almost eighty years old, this book has hardly dated at all, partly because it’s set in a very different world of eugenics, legalised drug use, and a regimented class system which is almost insectile in nature, and partly because the strength of Huxley’s writing and the force of his central character sweeps you through this short book like a gale. Its only flaw is that it’s so underdeveloped.
…and Wyndham #120
John Wyndham is sorely underrated at 120, for The Day of the Triffids. This work has suffered somewhat from long association with amusing walking plants. And yes, they walk. But they hunt humans, they’re everywhere, and a plague of blindness has rendered you helpless to resist their lethal stings. Not so amusing now, are they?
Then there’s The Kraken Wakes, which is if anything even better. This time, the sea is your enemy, or more specifically the huge tentacle-trailing monsters which emerge from the depths to fish for people. If you see what I mean. Anyway, it’s not pretty. But the writing? Spectacular. Anything by Wyndham is likely to be the same – magnificent, eventful epics about planet-rocking changes in climate and technology. And, of course, walking plants, man-eating spiders, and, last but not least, the freakish yellow-eyed children who telepathically control an entire village in The Midwich Cuckoos.
Finally tonight, an old favourite of mine, and by sheer coincidence this book is all about top-five lists. At number 143 High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby, is also perhaps the only book featured here where the film version actually approaches the quality of the novel. Jack Black‘s character in particular made me weep with laughter, and then he completely stole the show by covering Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On for the final scene, and doing it perfectly.
But enough about the film. The book is endlessly entertaining and the characters are effortlessly familiar. Although some of his later novels are rather hit and miss, I’m always hard pushed to choose between High Fidelity and About a Boy. Although not when it comes to the film versions. Books are better!