Books are so powerful – I think I was told that at least once a year at school, but I’m not sure I fully believed it until I started this blog. Or rather, until I started reading for fun. I have been overwhelmed recently by how many books have changed the way I think – not from one opinion to another, but in the sense that I emerge from the book in the knowledge that there is no “one” opinion to have.
Anyone who has met me, and particularly anyone who has been around after a glass of wine or five, will know that I’m an opinionated person – I suspect even those that don’t know me might have guessed this based on the fact that I’ve built a blog with the sole purpose of cataloguing my opinions on books. Until recently, I’ve always been relatively absolute that regardless of what your opinion is, you ought to have one. I have spent a lot of my life thinking like this: that there is right and wrong, and that you have to pick one. You don’t get to sit on the fence, especially not on issues that affect people and their lives. While I still believe this to some extent, that if you choose ignorance, you side with the oppressor, I think, as a result of books such as the ones listed below, I am increasingly open to the idea that there can be more nuance to a story than right or wrong.
The following books reminded me that sometimes, there is so much more than even two sides of a story: that even with all the possible information, you still can’t form one, and that you can hold two conflicting opinions at once without that invalidating the other.
By Tayari Jones
When Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, yet another black man in the wrong place with the wrong skin colour at the wrong time in Louisiana, his new marriage to Celestial enters a realm it was never intended to exist within. Roy, in prison longer than he has even been married to Celestial. Celestial, living half a life that she didn’t sign up for. But what does “till death do us part” cover if not this? Celestial knows Roy is innocent, what sort of person abandons their husband at a time like this? But while Roy committed no legal crime, neither has Celestial: are two wasted lives better than one, even in the name of “justice”? There is just so much information to learn through various perspectives in An American Marriage and you find yourself constantly thinking, “I would know for sure what I think about this, if it weren’t for…”. And repeat. Nobody is perfect, no character is even particularly likeable, and they’re all making one dubious decision after another. I finished this brilliant book completely unable, or perhaps unwilling, to pick a definitive “side”. Is that life?
By Kate Elizabeth Russel
This is a dark, sordid, disturbing read: not just in terms of the content, but in how it makes you feel. When Vanessa Wye was 15, she entered into a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old teacher, Jacob Strane… or at least, she believes it was a relationship – a consenting, loving one into which she voluntarily entered. It is a truly uncomfortable reading experience “knowing better”, seeing toxic patterns and manipulative, coercive behaviour unfold between an old man and a child, but also having the first person narrator unquestionably believe the opposite to be true. It’s then 2017, allegations are coming out amidst the #MeToo movement, and a number of women report Strane as having harassed them when they were his students. But Vanessa thinks they’re lying, exaggerating, and still believes hers to be a love story, that she was different. For me, one of the more disturbing feelings I had was anger at Vanessa: of course she feels this way, this is what grooming is, that is what pedophiles do. But I couldn’t help but feel like Vanessa’s silence, which she is of course entitled to, was so selfish. We can’t force someone to become the face of a movement if they don’t want to, and yet… A 5-star read which made me think in ways I have never before.
By Anna Burns
Frankly, I think anyone who believes they have a definitive opinion on the Irish Troubles is either misinformed or wilfully ignorant: this time period was so, well, troubled, so complex, that I’m not sure consuming all the books ever written on the topic would leave me resolute. Reading about this period of violence from the perspective of a female child who, by nature of both age and gender, was so powerless, is an excellent literary tool: it orientates us, reminds us that whatever the cause, there is always someone innocent in the cross-fire.
By Dawn French
I’m tempted to say, “after three rather serious topics, this one is a bit lighter”, but the topic is still rather uncomfortable. Hope and Isaac are a young but happy couple who are given purpose and joy by the prospect of bringing life into the world. They are in a hospital in London giving birth at the same time as Anna and Julius. Anna’s hunger for a child is fuelled by her feeling of emptiness, of being “Julius’ wife”, while Julius is a minor Tory MP who knows a baby would make for a great PR push. But after Hope suffers a miscarriage, she does something unthinkable… she steals Anna’s baby while her and Julius sleep. 20 years later, we discover the intricate life that has come from this undeniably irrational but simultaneously heart-wrenching experience. The book is a charmingly written reminder of how, even if you know for certain you will never steal someone’s baby (never thought I’d be typing that sentence…), nothing is ever as cut and dry after you’ve heard every side of a story.
Non-fiction also has this power I’ve been talking about, though I tend to find fiction has unique way of playing with the reader’s empathy. However, if you didn’t know Tara Westover’s book was a memoir, I suspect you’d have thought it was fiction because of how absolutely unbelievable a story it tells.
Tara was born and raised in an end-of-days, devout Mormon family in Idaho. But she didn’t legally exist: she was not sent to school, had never been to a hospital, and didn’t even know when her birthday was because she had never been registered for a birth certificate, as her father believed these things to be run by the Illuminati. Yet Tara’s hunger for an education still boiled within her and eventually bubbled over after a series of incidents and injuries at home that could no longer be prayed away. Who is to blame for this? Her father, whose mental illnesses governed his decisions? Her mother, fearful and misinformed? Her violent brothers, raised in the same environment? I’m not sure you finish this novel knowing the answer, but you feel grateful for the perspective – and in my case, this was a perspective, a lifestyle, that I was completely unfamiliar with. If you only read one book from this list, I think it should be Educated.
Other books that fall into this category:
BUY THE BOOKS: Waterstones | Book Depository | Foyles | Amazon
Disclaimer: I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please get in touch if your preferred online platform is not listed here – I’ll see what I can do!