Sarah Salway’s top 10 books about unlikely friendships

Sarah Salway is a prize-winning short story writer, poet, and author of the acclaimed novel Something Beginning With.

Sarah trained as a journalist at the London College of Fashion before working as a fashion PR in London and a freelance journalist in Edinburgh. She now lives in Kent with her husband and two children, and teaches creative writing at the University of Sussex.

Sarah’s latest novel, Tell Me Everything was published by Bloomsbury in March 2007.

“Everyone knows the value of a ‘friend in need’ but what about the friendships that take us by surprise, and in doing so, change the way we think?

“Fiction’s full of these often difficult relationships: some good, some bad, some completely, bloodily, awful. So in order to pick 10, I had to make rules: no love interest (which cut out the Empress of Blandings and Lord Emsworth), no traditional master-servant relationships (step down Rebecca and Mrs Danvers), and nothing I haven’t read but people keep telling me to put in (Don Quixote. Oh, the shame).”

1. Burn Marks by Sara Paretsky

The elderly Mr Contreras is detective VI Warshawski’s fretting friend and neighbour in all the books of Paretsky’s popular crime series. I don’t know what would happen to Vic without Mr Contreras to worry about her. Not only do the fictional duo share two dogs, Peppy and Mitch, but Mr Contreras (Sal) is as stubborn as Vic and they have the kind of niggling arguments that only true friends can. She provides the excitement he needs in his life (and then some), and he is the father-substitute she’s searching for.

2. Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

When Cockroft Carthusians arrives self-exiled and self-loathing in Italy, his only friend is the mongrel dog, Timoleon Vieta, but he doesn’t repay the gratitude. At the first sniff of human lust, he bundles the dog in the car and lets him loose in Rome. Man’s best friend tries to find his way home, and, although a host of dog-loving readers don’t seem to agree, the final twist in convention makes this whole story only more poignant.

3. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne

Surely Pooh and his friends are the original models for the TV series, Friends, with everyone looking after each other in Hundred Acre Wood, just as they do in Manhattan. Piglet is the one everyone seems to prefer, but as a gloomy child, it was the unequal relationship between Eeyore and Pooh that caught my imagination. There is something all too believable about the popular friend who would get you a birthday present (ie some honey), and then after they’ve eaten the yummy bit, try to turn the empty container into a Useful Pot you were then supposed to be grateful for. There will always be some friendships about which, as Eeyore would say, “I’m not complaining, but There It Is”.

4. Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson

Oh, this book is cruel. Deliciously so. For me, part of the joy in reading the ongoing battle between Mrs Emmeline Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp is how it centres on winning the friendship of Georgie Pilson. Luckily, it’s clear he enjoys the situation too much to put a stop to it. When Lucia catches him talking their private brand of Italian baby-talk with Mapp, for example, you can almost feel him tingle as he anticipates war. “‘But it will be rather exciting too,’ thought he, ‘and I back Lucia.'”

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

From the funny to the tragic. Lennie and George’s unlikely friendship is centred round their dream of owning a farm, but it all goes terribly wrong. The end, when George is put in the position where he has to shoot Lennie, is totally heart-wrenching. Still worse is how none of the other characters can really understand George’s pain at losing the one person who “gives a hoot in hell” about him, and who still trusts him absolutely, even when the gun is at his head.

6. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The earth-born Genly Ai is sent as a solitary envoy from Eukemen to the icy world of Gethen, to persuade the androgynous inhabitants, to become part of their peace-loving federation. There he meets Estraven. He is secretly Genly Ai’s only Gethen friend, but also the only one he doesn’t trust, largely due to misunderstandings based around gender. It’s only when they need to rely on each other for survival that Genly Ai learns to put his prejudices aside. As the friendship of the two main characters grows, their bond finally transcends sexuality and gender.

7. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Heading the long list of things I envy about JK Rowling is the fact she gets her name on the cover of the reprinted edition of this book. Maria is an orphan sent to Moonacre Manor under the care of a peppermint-popping governess, Miss Heliotrope. Although “most people when confronted with Miss Heliotrope’s nose … could get no further”, Maria loves her passionately – probably because she can always be relied on to say the wrong thing. Her comment when Maria introduces the mysterious Robin as the man she wants to marry – “Dear me! What a very unusual brightly coloured boy” – still makes me laugh out loud.

8. A Month in The Country by JL Carr

Moon and Birkin are two of the so-called lucky ones. War survivors thrown together during the summer of 1920, as one restores a painting and the other searches for a grave in the same English church. Slowly, they dare to ask each other the big questions, about God, hell and the meaning of life, but what they never talk about is what the other actually did during the war. When the dénouement quietly comes – and this is above all a quiet book – it is the realisation that their friendship will never be the same that highlights the different ways in which the two are recovering from their experiences. At the end, you know they will never see each other again.

9. Time After Time by Molly Keane

A ghastly friendship, this one. Childhood alliances are rekindled when Leda, the “Lost Princess doll’ comes storming back – blind but still unsettling – into a claustrophobic Irish family house. Once there, she manipulates everyone by pretending to be their “special friend”, and the story of how she was the original cause of their now broken lives comes out. The end – when Leda is forced to endure forever the ageing April’s régime of non-stop beauty treatments – is so chilling that I was shocked to find myself cheering.

10. The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

Not a novel this, I know, but probably one of the books about unlikely friendships that has moved me the most. It’s the story of how Eric Lomax went from innocently spotting Scottish trains to being tortured by the Japanese on the Burma-Siam railway. Fifty years later, he goes to Japan to meet one of his chief tormentors, Nagase Takashi. The last few pages when Lomax has to decide whether he can forgive this man or not are electric, and the simple phrase he uses almost off-handedly at the end, “my friend Nagase”, has more impact than any full-blown preaching on the power of friendship.


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