Kit Whitfield is the author of Bareback (Jonathan Cape). It is a whodunnit, a science fiction fantasy and a love story.
“Genre is all very well, but it’s a cage as much as a support. Who knows how many books a person who won’t touch women’s fiction or only reads sci fi is missing out on that they’d otherwise love? But for a writer, the effect is more insidious. A work of art needs to be complete on its own terms: it needs to ring with internal rightness, never mind whether it makes sense in terms of genre. A writer who forces a trope in or leaves an idea out because they’re worried about genre categories has mutilated their book. The best novels are those that are so effective in themselves that they let genre go hang: use what works, leave out what doesn’t, and come up with whatever’s fresh and vivid that serves the story you’re trying to tell.”
1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
One of those books that’s worth including on almost any list because it’s one of the best books in the world, and a book so strong that genre becomes irrelevant. It’s a literary classic, but also, technically, a political fable, an historical novel, a ghost story, an allegory and even an anatomy of a murder – but none of that really matters, because Beloved is just Beloved. There’s no other book like it; it’s unique, individual, perfect. It doesn’t contain a ghost because it’s a ghost story, for instance: everything is there because it couldn’t be any other way. It’s the ideal of literature: a highly cultured and informed book, that in the end is still only answerable to itself.
2. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Marvellously enjoyable as well as moving and highly intelligent, a book I’ve read to pieces. On the face of it it’s a naturalistic novel and, in its portrait of female friendship and terrors, it provides the same kind of satisfaction as standard chick lit, only better. But also, as part of the story, there’s a character who is psychic, and uncannily accurate in lots of her seemingly flaky conclusions. It’s not made an issue of, it’s just a character detail, harmoniously worked into the plot as a parallel to her two best friends’ personalities. Atwood has written some more openly speculative works, but The Robber Bride is my favourite example of her boldness and imagination: rather than leaving out the psychic Charis because the book is supposed to be mainstream literature, she brings her in, and it works beautifully.
3. Frost in May by Antonia White
School drama, psychological horror story, autobiography? Adult novel, children’s tale? It’s any and all of them. I first read Frost in May when I was about 12 years old, and have reread it at intervals throughout my life; it never stales, it never palls, it never ceases to cast its cool, numinous spell. Young Nanda’s clash with the nuns at her convent school is charged with a mesmerising, Stockholm-syndrome ambivalence that makes it an impossible book to categorise. It simply stands apart, even from the rest of Antonia White’s other, admittedly excellent, novels. It’s a vivid moment of brilliance that can’t be classified without diminishing it.
4. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Too good and too delightful to leave out. A fantasy novel, a historical novel, a literary jeu d’esprit? Who cares? The book is so charming, so intelligent, so gripping and potent in its unusual storyline, that I can’t be bothered to debate with anyone what genre it should be considered; I’d rather talk about how much I loved it, then go and reread it.
5. The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells
Action-adventure sci-fi, structurally at least but, underneath it, there’s a philosophical and religious undertow that freezes the blood. It’s science fiction pushed and pushed until it comes out the other side, and spills over into a vision of hell: the tormented creatures, agonisingly chanting a credo they’re powerless to understand, ever helplessly regressing even as torture awaits them from their uncaring creator, utterly incapable of stability or safety, or anything but a desperate slip and slide from one pained state to another. The image that stayed with me is the cry of the panther being vivisected, its screams becoming sobs as the night wears on and it becomes, under the humanising knife, more and more conscious of what’s being done to it. Terrifying.
6. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Modern Greek tragedy, crime thriller, elegy for lost youth, study of character? Again, it’s a novel that doesn’t easily bear comparison with other works – and yet how the reader falls into it, seduced by the precise lyricism of the flawed narrator, the vividness of atmosphere and the air of the mystical hanging over the mundane and the stark psychological frictions. So irresistible and seductive it’s almost a guilty pleasure.
7. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
A perfect little thriller, and much subtler than the movies would have you believe. Something is going on in Stepford, but exactly what is left hanging. Is the heroine’s sci-fi theory correct, meaning that she’s stuck in a town of murderers? Is she losing her marbles in a world of psychological horror, building up her fears of sexism and entrapment into a crazed fantasy? Is she right that there’s something terrible happening, but wrong about what it is? The secret of Stepford hangs tantalisingly out of reach in a gripping and graceful little sleight of hand that keeps the book eternally fresh.
8. Under The Skin by Michel Faber
What on earth is going on in this book? For chapter after chapter we don’t find out. Instead, we simply follow the dubious heroine around at her own pace until we discover everything we need to know. Faber holds his nerve brilliantly and, in the end, the study of personality and the tragically confined viewpoints of the characters are what stay in the memory along with the horror of the premise.
9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Technically a factual book but, knowing what we do about Capote, reading it with a questioning eye, can we trust him when he says there’s no fiction involved? Can we believe his claim of perfect recall of conversations where he took no notes? Can we trust his honesty in his portraits of the two killers, his willingness or otherwise to do justice to both of them, his evasiveness about the effect of his own relationship with them? And yet, for all the questions raised about his ethics in writing it, in itself it’s a strongly moral book, a passionate and persuasive cry against the death penalty, filled with a yearning for common humanity. Paradoxically, a work of true crime that works best if read as a work of fiction, an endless moral conundrum.
10. The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw
A re-telling of one of the medieval Lays of Marie de France, it conveys the story of a werewolf Breton knight with a light touch that’s wonderfully entertaining. It is also an intelligent and compassionate attempt to understand the characters through modern eyes. It should be a straight supernatural story, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it; it’s too naturalistic, too historically detailed, too convincing. Bradshaw is an author I’ve loved since I was a child. She has a great knack for writing historical fiction that occasionally features magic without ever letting the magic unseat the historical verisimilitude. The Wolf Hunt is the perfect book to curl up with on a rainy day or to take on holiday; entertaining and relaxing, she puts no strain on your attention without ever neglecting your intelligence. A lovely easy read, based on good old-fashioned storytelling.