So now we enter the top 50 Greatest Novels in the world ever. At least in my opinion…
50 The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (1995)
A young adult novel which, arguably, presents a humanist alternative to CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It occupies a steampunk universe with anachronistic technologies including the use of zeppelins to fly long journeys at great speed. I found this the most engaging of the trilogy of which it is the first part because its world is closest to our own. I was less convinced by later further parallel universes.
49 Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (1945)
An evocative trilogy of shortish books collected into a single volume that covers the author’s semi-autobiographical story of growing up in the English countryside at a time of great change at the beginning of the 20th Century. The rural way of life into which she was born is changed forever by the encroachment of urban modernisation and industrialisation of agriculture. Captures a key moment in England’s development from a very personal and human perspective.
48 Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
I love the prose style with which this is written. It has a panache and flair – a self-confidence – that sweeps the reader along into the world of the young would-be socialite Holly Golightly. It also has a toughness to show the emptiness at the heart of her life and how this affects her – attracting her to shallow relationships to avoid commitment to anyone or anything.
47 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
A classic English misadventure in which much of the humour is derived from the seriousness with which the three men engage in their ill-fated enterprise. It has a timeless quality because the human nature on which the fun depends is unchanging. I am sorely tempted to try to recreate the journey but am put off by the camping element at which, I know, I would exceed even their incompetence.
46 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1615)
A book for which the adjective picaresque was made. The sequence of chaotic misadventures suffered by the delusional would be knight errant, Quixote, is both hilarious and sad. His sidekick Sancho Panza, the butt of much of the Don’s ill-temper when things go wrong, is the archetypal long-suffering straightman but he often has the last laugh. He is the role model for the many lower class characters who shake their heads in wonder at the follies of their supposed betters that run through fiction – one can think of Figaro as another example.
45 Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (1991)
As befits a book that tries to examine the history of philosophy, this book is complex and convoluted. It takes concentration to stay with it through the twists and turns but the didactic intentions do not get in the way of the story but seem to flow naturally out of it. I am still in two minds about the Deux Ex Machina ending though.
44 A Man of Property by John Galsworthy (1906)
The first book of the first of a trio of trilogies about the Forsyte family. The clashes of duty and desire run as a theme throughout. Galsworthy manages to engage the reader’s sympathy with each of the characters even when they behave badly (sometimes very badly) towards each other. He does this by showing us that it is their human frailties which drive them as much as their strengths.
43 Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)
Quite possibly the funniest book (IMHO) ever written. I know, I know, everybody has a favourite. The book follows the misadventures of its put upon central character – or sex-crazed murderous fiend as he is perceived by the equally hapless police – as they escalate out of control from the most innocent of starting points. The sense of inevitability about each successive catastrophe is key to the success of this farce. You want him to succeed yet each time he succeeds in spite of, because of, his best efforts in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
42 Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier (1936)
Du Maurier wrote a number of haunting tales set in the west country and she is expert at conjuring the eerie atmosphere and gloom of the Cornish landscape. That the setting is real – you can visit the Jamaica Inn itself – lends even more weight to this skill. The story is a classic romance at one level – the young heroine falls for an unsuitable man and goes through trials which eventually result in her getting her man. It also has gothic elements. The leader of the wreckers is almost superhuman in strength, not only physically but in personality.
41 Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor (1985)
Creates a fictional town and populates it with characters so real that the distinction between what is real and what is the product of Keillor’s imagination has become blurred over the years. (You can actually locate the town on Microsoft’s Virtual Earth in the heart of Minnesota.) Captures the feel and spirit of homeland America in the deep mid-west better than any other. Gentle but not without a touch of steel running through it.