When I first thought of creating these lists, I wasn’t sure what I desired or if their creation possessed any objective. They were ideas adrift – borne only from my hope that they could function as buoys to young women as unmoored as I by the mechanics of a cacophonous world. A book has always brightened every bleak spot or unfortunate circumstance in my life.
As I grew, I also began to curate my reading selections with greater zeal. I discovered that there were untold and buried stories written by woman who could snatch me into the unknown. Each of those discoveries always contained more than a bit of magic; it was as though I entered into a secret club filled with women I wished to emulate. When I felt frustrated, stymied and alone at 22, Renata Adler gave me a heroine and Shirley Jackson helped me escape. In my mind, the desire to escape is inextricably tied to magic, because once inside a book you are free and untouchable like the wind. Nina Simone sang, “for we’re creatures of the wind and wild is the wind.” The books listed below possess a similar sort of magic:
Helen Oyeyemi: Boy, Snow, Bird
Oyeyemi’s tale reconfigures the classic tale of Snow White within the landscape of civil rights era America. We meet our evil stepmother through the indomitable Boy Novak – a young woman who grows up under the shadow of an abusive father and runs away to survive. We travel with Boy to an idyllic small town enclave, where orchards and quaint bookstores are abound. Here, Boy meets the widower Arturo. Boy and Arturo are inextricably drawn to one another. However, as Arturo and Boy’s love grows, past secrets and complications surface. The ensuing tale brings forth the ideas of motherhood, racial identity, womanhood and trauma.
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries
Catton’s Luminaries is a parody of Victorian novels; works written in the vein of Charles Dickens, ripe and overstuffed with humanistic care. However, the word “parody” is not to assert that Catton’s creation solely pokes fun or coolly satirises those novels with a world of characters and the internal mechanics of a reliable Swiss watch. Rather, The Luminaries stands proudly within this predominantly British literary tradition and transports it to the New Zealand frontier. At 28, Catton is the youngest winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. She possesses the distinct accomplishment of providing her home country with a novel that not only combines an astrological murder mystery, adventure tale and aching love story, but also creates a new literary tradition.
Leanora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet
Carrington is a Surrealist painter and novelist who spent her adult life in Mexico City. Like many notable women, her legacy is routinely overlooked in favour of her male counterparts. Her visual art is gothic and hallucinogenic – qualities that inform her literary output. The Paris Review called Carrington’s Hearing Trumpet a “genuinely strange work of fiction”. Marian Leatherby is the novel’s heroine. Marian is a unshakeable octogenarian wonder woman, whose stream of consciousness style of communicating with the world leads us from her small bedroom at her son’s house to the rest home, where she fights something akin to the powers of darkness and ends up presiding over a new world order. Marian’s matter-of-fact view of the world is an oddly comforting reminder that in a world rocked by change, those most adaptable are the odd and forgotten who think for themselves.
Heidi Julavits: The Vanishers
The Vanishers opens on Julia Severn, a talented young pupil enrolled in a prestigious psychic-institute-cum-graduate-school in the wilds of New Hampshire. Julia draws the attention of the school’s head, the magnetic Madame Ackerman. However, what began as a mentorship soon turns hazardous, as Ackerman becomes jealous of Julia’s burgeoning powers. What happens next catapults Julia into the world of the “vanishers” – those who are miserable enough to disappear from their lives, leaving only video memorials behind. Julia’s involvement with the vanishers spurs a fascination with her own mother’s suicide. At its core, The Vanishers is a book about women; what it means to be a daughter, mother, an eroticised body, conduit to the spiritual realm, and a player of innumerable other roles within a world built to stymy your power.
By Annette Lepique