I’m on a bit of a British literature kick at the moment, so I thought I’d talk about the best British books I’m currently reading and have recently read. If you haven’t read some of them by now, give them a go. Don’t be afraid to stop there either, think of this as an introduction to some of the country’s best writers. Some are set in London, some deal with religion, lots of them deal with life and death, and more than one are a bit surreal. Enjoy.
Money - Martin Amis
The first book I’ve read by either Amis, so I’d certainly recommend it as a place to start, with Martin at least. The novel follows John Self, a television producer who divides his time between London and New York as he prepares to shoot his first big feature film. Self is not a likeable character. He’s a hedonist, a misogynist with mummy issues, a butter-ball made of lager and lard, guzzling everything in sight (and somehow managing to sleep with all of the women he comes across).
It should be clear from the title that this is a novel concerned with money, the pursuit of money, the status money bestows and how to spend it recklessly. Set in the early 1980s, the novel treads similar ground to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, but, Money is, dare I say, a better novel. There’s an irresistible sense of British pessimism about it all, not least when Amis inserts himself into the novel, much to John Self’s chagrin (“You called me a cunt!”). There’s also more than a whiff of Hunter S Thompson about the writing, with Amis describing the patrons of a bar as speaking, ‘Martian, pterodactyl’.
High Rise - J G Ballard
Ballard’s 1975 novel is often touted as his best work. The plot takes place almost entirely inside a new high rise building, an experiment of sorts, in which floors are occupied according to social class. Thus, the upper-middle classes occupy the top floors, middle-class in the middle and working-class on the lower floors. It isn’t long before this microcosm of society all goes a bit Lord of the Flies and the building turns into a war zone full of rape, murder and cannibalism. More accessible than works such as Vermillion Sands and even Crash, High Rise deals in straight forward, simple prose. The increasingly savage acts of the building’s occupants are reported as fact, with little emotion attached, making it an even more disconcerting read. One to ponder next time you glance up and catch the silhouette of a tower against the sky.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman- Angela Carter
Carter’s 1972 novel is set in a dystopian future in which an unspecified Latin American country is under attack from Dr Hoffman’s machines. These machines have the power to distort reality, causing the city to spiral into rampant bouts of insanity and crime. A government minister, Desiderio is tasked with finding the titular doctor, and dispatching him. Along the way Desiderio’s mission is derailed by all sorts or sadistic encounters with centaurs, gypsies, acrobats and a Lithuanian count who is on the run from a mysterious black pimp. A surreal and erotic odyssey.
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The book everyone was forced to read at school and now hates. If you’re one such person, go out and get hold of another copy and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it now you don’t have to write essays analysing every aspect of the plot. It’s a great novel about the darkness and violence inherent in us all, told through the eyes of children who quickly loose their innocence after becoming stranded on a tropical island. One of Golding’s many strengths here is in his use of powerful imagery. From the Christ-like pilot to the speared pig’s head; Golding wraps us up in a beautiful yet horrifying world. A novel terrifying in its honesty.
The End of The Affair- Graham Green
A typically un-cheery British novel in which a writer mediates on the ins and outs of an old affair, following the death of his lover. As you might guess from the title, the book deals with the conflicting emotions that occur once a relationship has ended. It’s a novel of love and hate, wrapped up in Catholic guilt. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, the opening scene of a London common on a bleak January night will speak directly to that tight knot in your stomach.
The Acid House- Irvine Welsh
We all know Trainspotting is a work of genius, and with the adaptation of Filth about to hit cinemas, there’s never been a better time to get into Welsh. For a surreal and hilarious snapshot of what makes Welsh tick, I’d recommend short story collection The Acid House. The book contains over 20 shorts as well as a novella called ‘A Smart Cunt’.
My pick of the lot would have to be ‘The Granton Star Cause’, a short which follows Boab over the course of a single day as he’s dropped from his football team, fired from his job, kicked out of his parent’s house and dumped by his girlfriend. Understandably, Boab’s pretty much at his wit’s end. Things only take a turn for the worst when Boab runs into God down the boozer and gets turned into a fly as punishment for wasting his life. Seeing his parents engaging in sado-masochistic sex probably didn’t cheer Boab up, either.
Buddha of Suburbia- Hanif Kureishi
Kureishi’s Whitbread-wining 1990 novel is a brilliant introduction to one of the country’s most talented novelists. The episodic novel follows the late teenage years of Karim, a mixed race teenager growing up in a dull London suburb in the midst of the 1970s. Karim is desperate to escape to the bright lights of London proper and his dreams begin to come true as he joins a theatre group and becomes involved in the bohemian art scene. These forays into popular culture go hand in hand with the ascension of Karim’s father, an Indian bureaucrat who is transformed into a Buddha-like figure by members of high society who see him as an exotic distraction from their mundane lives. It’s a novel about searching for identity, both national and sexual. The soundtrack’s not bad either...
Union Street- Pat Barker
A grim yet touching novel depicting the lives of seven working class women in the north-east of England. The novel opens with the story of Kelly Brown, an eleven year-old girl who is raped after bunking off school. Things remain bleak as the novel delves into childbirth, back-street abortion, O.A.P prostitution and the death of a lonely seventy year-old. What rescues the novel is the phenomenal descriptions of the area, the fast and funny dialogue and the overall dark humour of the novel.
It’s a book about northern spirit and about women coming together (when they’re not at each other’s throats). There’s a beautiful working class resilience to this novel and Barker’s skill at manoeuvring between seven different women of different ages is unparalleled. Thank god Angela Carter realised Barker’s talent and encouraged her to send the manuscript off a publisher.
Casino Royale - Ian Fleming
The first of eleven Bond novels and also the best, Casino Royale was an instant hit upon publication in 1952. Since then, it’s been adapted as a comic strip in The Daily Express as well as an episode of TV show Climax! in 1954 and the 1967 David Niven spoof, staring CIA agent ‘Jimmy Bond’. Of course, in addition to this, Casino Royale was adapted into the 21st official James Bond film, a film that is credited as getting the franchise back on track. The novel itself is remarkable in its cold and blunt prose, as direct and unflinching as Bond himself.
As you’d expect, there are some discrepancies between the novel and the Daniel Craig film, most notably that fact that in the novel Vesper takes her own life after realising she will never be free of her betrayal of Bond. Bond’s reaction is similar to that of Craig’s bond, with him informing M, ‘The bitch is dead now.’ Thus, the world’s most famous cold hearted assassin was born.
The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst
Hollinghurst’s first novel explores gay culture in London on the verge of the mid-80s AIDs epidemic. The plot revolves around William Beckwith, a 25 year-old, promiscuous gay man who happens to be the grandson and heir of Viscount Beckwith. As such, Will does not have to work to support himself and spends the majority of his time cruising for men. On one such occasion Will saves the life of an elderly man having a heart attack in a public toilet. The man turns out to be Lord Charles Nantwich who later asks Will (a history graduate) to write his biography.
As Will begins to read into Charles’ history parallels are drawn between the struggles Nantwich has as a young gay man from the 1920s onwards and the increasingly open gay scene Will enjoys in 80s London. Amongst many other things, this novel is a fantastic portrait of a lifestyle on the brink of destruction and a wonderful love letter to London.