Mary Watson is the winner of the 2006 Caine prize for African writing for her short story Jungfrau, from her 2004 collection Moss.
1. Property by Valerie Martin
Beautifully written, this book stretches taut between two women: one a slave whose sullen sensuality creeps out from between the lines, the other the owner’s repressed wife. The elegant, precise prose contrasts with an underlying unease which simmers then eventually erupts.
2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
I was awed when I read this book which tells the story of a young thief and the woman she intends to defraud. It’s my ideal balance of an intriguing story and beautiful prose. Sarah Waters writes pace and suspense without missing a beat.
3. The Other Side of Silence by André Brink
This book, drawing on historical events, tells the story of Hanna X who arrives on a ship of women sent to Southwest Africa (Namibia) to satisfy soldiers’ needs. She has a series of very grim adventures, including mutilation after resisting an officer. She joins up with a group of Namas and together they seek revenge.
4. The Devil’s Chimney by Anne Landsman
There is something pervasively sad about this book which is partly set on an ostrich farm. South African writers are usually very good at writing about the emotional landscapes of solitary, misconnected women on bleak farms. There really is something irresistible about this and Anne Landsmann tells her story very evocatively.
5. Little Black Book of Stories by AS Byatt
I love this book because it combines two of my favourite things: AS Byatt’s prose and the short story form. And best of all, many of the stories slip quietly into the surreal and return without too much fuss. Two stories especially stand out for me – the woman who turns into stone and the story where a man receives a midnight visit from a young woman while his sick wife sleeps.
6. Gardening at Night by Diane Awerbuck
Diane Awerbuck, originally from Kimberly, South Africa writes this book about a character called Diane Awerbuck, from Kimberly. She captures the small town and its (real?) inhabitants with biting wit. The writing is very, very clever – this from a writer who “puts the fun back in funerals”.
7. Tracks by Louise Erdrich
This book begins with my favourite opening line ever: “We started dying before the winter and, like the snow, we continued to fall.” I stumbled upon this book in the early days of writing my collection of interlinking stories, and was happy to find a writer who did it so well. Louise Erdrich links stories of dispossessed people amongst the Chippewa and her maverick woman character, Fleur, has remained vivid in my memory these last 10 years.
8. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Selecting my favourite of Margaret Atwood’s books is a hard task, and The Blind Assassin beats The Handmaid’s Tale by a hair’s breadth. Which beats Alias Grace only just.
9. Maverick Women by Lauren Beukes
The book that inspired this list. Lauren Beukes invites a host of unusual South African woman to a party: there’s a stripper who danced with a snake, a woman who maintained a long term, long distance relationship with an alien (they visited occasionally), as well as familiar figures in a the South African cultural landscape like the music diva Brenda Fassie and Helen Martins of the owl house.
10. The Big Four by Agatha Christie
The Countess Vera Rossakoff – what a girl! No wonder she was the only one who captured the unattainable Hercule Poirot’s (my hero!) heart.