I had this conversation with someone the other day about which books I haven't read from my list of favourite authors and I ended up saying about one particular book 'I haven't read that one yet, I'm saving it. I fully expect it to save my life one of these days' and that got me thinking about other books that have saved my life. Here's the list I came up with. It turns out that some of my favourite books are my favourite books not only because they're wonderfully written and the book was emotionally-impactful to me but because it helped me through some really difficult times.
I guess it's the same for most people, but high school was a nightmare for me. It was like I was split into two people. The first looked pretty normal from the outside. She had a small group of friends and talked and laughed with people and went to class and did normal things. The second me lived in a deep, dark black hole. It's pretty well documented here that I've suffered with depression for years. In high school and just before it things were at their worst and instead of talking about it, I did my best to hide it from everyone. Sometimes I'd like to shake that second girl and tell her not to be such an ass and talk to someone, ask for help. Instead, that girl turned to books.
In the end, it took two books to save me from my high school experience. The Grapes of Wrath and The Power of One. I sort of became obsessed with both books. I read both books again and again, hoping to relive that emotional connection I felt to the characters and the circumstances. Beautiful books, both of them. The first was picked up on a whim at the school library. The Power of One, I found after watching the film of the same name.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Set against the background of dust bowl Oklahoma and Californian migrant life, it tells of the Joad family, who, like thousands of others, are forced to travel West in search of the promised land. Their story is one of false hopes, thwarted desires and broken dreams, yet out of their suffering Steinbeck created a drama that is intensely human, yet majestic in its scale and moral vision; an eloquent tribute to the endurance and dignity of the human spirit.
It is sort of a depressing story, The Grapes of Wrath. I can't even remember what it was about it that drew me in so much. But I couldn't stop reading whenever I started it again. I think I was drawn to other people's problems. I liked knowing that a fictional family in the Dust Bowl years ago had it worse than me.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay - First with your head and then with your heart ... So says Hoppie Groenewald, boxing champion, to a seven-year-old boy who dreams of being the welterweight champion of the world. For the young Peekay, its a piece of advice he will carry with him throughout his life. Born in a South Africa divided by racism and hatred, this one small boy will come to lead all the tribes of Africa.
I remember the first time I read The Power of One, it was the first time I really understood what the word 'apartheid' meant. I'd seen the movie, so I thought I knew what was going to happen. But the book and the movie are so different. And boxing? Who knew I'd love a book so much? The funny thing is, we studied apartheid in middle school on two different occasions. The first, I did a special project on South Africa! And it didn't sink in. In eighth grade, we watched a series of programmes about it. I watched it, but I didn't really take it in then either. Not until I read the book and fell in love with it. It made me feel and gave me hope.
And then when I moved to England 10 years ago I found myself spiralling into another devastating depression. More family problems, the huge culture shock I went through moving to another continent. I wasn't able to work, I rarely went outside. And then a friend of N's loaned me his battered copy of A Suitable Boy and everything changed.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - Vikram Seth's novel is at its core a love story, the tale of Lata - and her mother's attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. Set in post-Independence India and involving the lives of four large families and those who orbit them, it is also a vast panoramic exploration of a whole continent at a crucial hour as a sixth of the world's population faces its first great General Election and the chance to map its own destiny.
I guess there's a bit of a theme going on. The first book swept me up into the Dust Bowl in America during the Depression, the second South Africa during apartheid, and A Suitable Boy transported me to post-independence India. I wonder if that's important or means something. A Suitable Boy is really long, and it needed to be. I got caught up in all the details. The politics, the family dynamics, the differences in religion and region. And the love story is what made me get out of bed in the morning.
And the book at the beginning? The one I'm pinning my hopes on for saving my life in the future?
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - Taking a cynical look at the horror genre, this book features Crowley and Aziraphale, two friends who attempt to prevent the prophesised Armageddon. When the Antichrist is born they divert him from his original home at the American Embassy to Tadfield, where he grows into an unkempt individual.
It's Terry Pratchett. And Neil Gaiman. Writing a book. Together. How can it not be brilliant and life-changing? I'd been trying to get hold of this book for ages, and in the end, I bought it and it's been sitting on my shelf for months. I'm waiting for the right time. No pressure or anything.
So now it's your turn. Tell me about the books that saved YOUR life.