Today, Thomas at MyPorch and Simon at Savidge Reads identified ten fiction books that sum up their respective countries (the US and the UK). Their approach is geographical which is totally logical but the end result for the UK didn’t really work for me. So I got to musing on what ten books I would choose, and how I might categorize them… Geographical might work for the US but the UK is tiny in comparison – I think I’d choose to represent some of the experiences of different types of people in Britain over the last century, looking at how these experiences have moulded the country. So with that flagrant disregard of Thomas and Simon’s rules, and in no particular order, here are my ten:
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
This book characterizes the mid-20th century crumbling aristocracy in Britain, while fondly poking fun at their quirks and eccentricities, in a quintessential Oxbridge setting. I feel both the fall of the upper class and the Oxbridge experience are very British entities which are depicted beautifully in this book.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
This book about four disenchanted Englishwomen abroad is all about charm, wit, British-style fantasy, and muddling through in a very English way. It might seem odd to choose a book that is largely set in Italy on this sort of list, but personally, I can’t think of a better encapsulation of a very specific British type of charm.
The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff
This book is about the quirk and ‘keep calm and carry on’ Britishness of ordinary country folk as a ridiculous end-of-the-world calamity looms. This might be a controversial choice given that it’s sci-fi, but I would argue that the setting of extreme peril specifically magnifies the elements of the British ‘character’ in a way that earns it a place on this list.
Staying On by Paul Scott
This book depicts the last days of colonialism, as mannerly, dislocated British people negotiate the concluding years of the British Raj in India. Britain was built on a diet of colonialism and I would argue that the experiences depicted in this book help explain some of modern day Britain and Britishness.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Britain has been shaped by its World Wars, and the Night Watch is a great example of the deep impact of WW2 – the big events and the little things – on a diverse group of everyday Londoners. Being that we are going on my tastes, I chose a book with a lesbian theme – so much the better! This is a beautifully written book that made me really start to understand what it was like for those left at home, and the true meaning of ‘keep calm and carry on’.
253 by Geoff Ryman
A fully occupied London subway car holds 253 people; this intriguing book explores the appearance, thoughts and dreams of each one of them, building up a 253-word picture of diverse lives, sometimes linked, fleetingly caught together in one place. I think it builds a really interesting picture of who British people are, what they have in common, and the exciting diversity of people.
The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy
Set near where I used to live, it is an ordinary place where various people find the meaning and humanity in their variously downtrodden lives. This book really digs into the lives of the characters and I just found it beautifully atmospheric and sympathetic as it hovers at the nexus of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Maggie and Me by Damian Barr
This book deals with the huge impact of the Thatcher years, and the grinding struggles and cheery joys of growing up poor in Scotland. I recognize a lot of the juxtaposition and think not only does it depict a certain influential time in Britain, it also encapsulates the British way of making light of dreadful situations, addressing them with dry wit.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay
We are taken on an adventure of a search for roots, a quintessential Scottishness, and the experience of being black in predominantly white Scotland. Despite this book being set largely in Nigeria, it speaks to me as a book that defines what makes people feel British.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
This book gives an important insight into one of the many subcultures that make up the melting pot of Britain, and how to reconcile modern Britishness with a distinctive ‘otherness’. When I lived Britain I often received tiny snapshots into the very different cultures others were living in – and reading this book felt like getting to open the door and peek into a life that is just as British as any other, but also very different. It emphasizes the differences and also the similarities of Brits.
It’s not a perfect list. It misses out anything about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which had a major impact on the British psyche. Wales doesn’t feature explicitly either. And I might have liked something set near the sea. But when I look at these books together, they make up a Britain I personally recognize. What would your list be?