Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – to be shown inside the mind of an emotionally detached, psychopathic, cruel character was unpleasant, especially as he remained in that state for about the first 400 pages. The Russian names of the characters were difficult to keep in context, especially as many of them had the same initials: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov, Razumikhin, Zossimov, Zamyotov…
Killing Fields, Living Fields by Don Cormack – an exquisitely crafted true story that tears your heart apart. I put off reading this book as I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally, but it was so beautifully written and compelling that I didn’t regret it. Uncomfortable, yes, but although it describes a nation traumatised beyond belief, it is also an incredibly hope-filled account of the Cambodian Church, ‘the church that would not die.’
Quoted by the author from The Times, April 22, 1976
1984 by George Orwell – ugly and chilling is how I’d describe this book. It was quite prophetic considering that Orwell wrote it in 1949 and I think it’s one of those ‘must reads.’ The terms Big Brother, Newspeak, Doublethink…all came from this book. An eye opening, awful, but important novel about the evils of totalitarianism that has as much to say now as it did when it was first published. It’s available free online.
For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke – a classic on convict life in Australia based on real events. Brutal.
Innocent Blood by P.D. James – I read somewhere that this was the novel that launched the author’s career but I don’t think it is as well written as some of her earlier books. I was intrigued by the idea of the exploration of identity – the main character, Philippa Palfrey, is adopted and she has built up a fantasy surrounding her biological family. What she discovers is nothing like what she imagined. I thought James lost the plot and went too far, especially regarding Philippa’s relationship with her adoptive father. This was a shame, as it had all the ingredients for an interesting storyline without the shabby embellishments.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck – a beautifully written story but emotionally raw. The fate of one the characters was so undeserved and too painful for me. It haunted me for weeks after I read it.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Madame was too stupid for words. I felt embarrassed by her selfish and indulgent behaviour but Flaubert was a poetic writer.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – uncomfortable, yes, but with a purpose (which I didn’t always understand!)
Witch Wood by John Buchan – an unusual story about a young idealistic minister working amongst religious extremists in a narrow minded community in Scotland in the mid 1600’s. The story raises disturbing questions about human nature and our capacity for self-deception. It’s a book that draws you back because you don’t feel you quite got it the first time.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – when a plane carrying a group of schoolboys crashes into the lagoon of a remote island, the boys have to survive on their own with no adult supervision. At first they are exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but before long their behaviour degenerates as all order collapses. It’s a disturbing exploration of human behaviour when external controls are removed, made all the more uncomfortable because you could imagine a bunch of schoolboys behaving like that if left to their own devices.