Welcome to my first guest Desert Island Books feature of 2021 and I am delighted to have stranded author Diane Chandler on my remote island today. Im hoping it’s a bit warmer there than it is here at the moment!
First of all, let me congratulate you on being crowned an RNA Media Start of 2020! What a wonderful accolade. On reading your blog, I was astounded that you read nearly 200 books last year, many of them as part of your book blogging role. The blogging community provide such an incredible support in nurturing newly published books which is so appreciated.
And thank you too for inviting me to share my five favourite books. I don’t get through half as many as you each year, Julie, but still it’s so hard to choose when you’re an avid reader, isn’t it? For a big birthday a few years back, a friend gifted me this oil painting of the spines of my favourite books. It hangs proudly in my kitchen and I often find myself gazing at it and diving back into all those fabulous reads. Now, some years on, there would be another 20 to add to these, but I’ll happily choose a few books from this painting to read over and over again on my sunny desert island.
Book One – The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguru
In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the countryside and into his past . . .
A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love.
On arrival in the tropics (where I hope my island would be) I’d like to settle down on the sand and begin with what I call a ‘quiet’ novel. Set in the late 1930s, The Remains of the Day is about a head butler, Stevens, who proudly presides over his staff at a lavish English country house and serves his master, Lord Darlington, with an unquestioning loyalty. One might even say with a certain blindness, as war gathers on the fringes of their languid existence. When Miss Kenton arrives as the chief housekeeper, she and Stevens develop a professional friendship, which he treats with the utmost propriety. And in so doing, he misses out on love. Some twenty years later, he takes a drive to visit Miss Kenton who has moved across the country and yet still carries a torch for him, and once again he fails to seize the opportunity for love which is staring him in the face.
The writing is sumptuous, slowly drawing readers in and moving us deeply. Very little happens, and yet everything is happening inside the hearts and minds of the characters. And, astoundingly, the author’s mother tongue is Japanese. I teach creative writing alongside my publisher, Stephanie Zia, and we stress the importance of a character’s journey; that there should be some change within them by the novel’s end. Yet Stevens is a character who does not change – and that is the very point with this novel, leaving the reader with a lingering sense of what might have been.
Book Two – The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
This story is told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.
They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it – from garden seeds to Scripture – is calamitously transformed on African soil.
Having gazed out to sea for a while to let that novel settle, eventually I would shuffle up against a palm tree, and be ready to tackle my next choice. The Poisonwood Bible is about an American family of four daughters who move to Africa, swept along to another continent without choice by their missionary father, who is working to convert African souls to Christianity. This ignorant man is totally oblivious to the culture and values of the African villagers, and there are many entertaining moments where they exhibit their superior intelligence. The mother, meanwhile, tries her best to cushion the existence of her daughters against the harsh conditions in which they find themselves (including the odd deadly snake or two…) For me, this was a wonderfully emotional read. I used to work in overseas aid, including a stint on the Africa desk and always love to read books set in Africa. Moreover, increasingly in the publishing world I hear that, ‘the only goal for an author is to create emotion in their reader’ and boy does this book do that. It’s a little hard to get into, as one of the daughters has developed her own special language and it is she we meet first, but we soon get used to her code.
The opening line of the novel is also a gem. At our creative writing workshops we often study the opening lines of novels – that all-important first hook. The Poisonwood Bible opens with the line, ‘Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.’ A mysterious opening if ever there was one! I would definitely be reading this book again and again… and hoping there were no snakes sharing my desert island with me!
Book Three – We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of a boy named Kevin who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who had tried to befriend him.
Now, two years after her son’s horrific rampage, Eva comes to terms with her role as Kevin’s mother in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband Franklyn about their son’s upbringing. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about motherhood. How much is her fault?
In Lionel Shriver’s hands this sensational, chilling and memorable story of a woman who raised a monster becomes a metaphor for the larger tragedy – the tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.
I think I’d be ready then to speed up the pace and danger somewhat, and would turn to this novel about a mother and her son, Kevin, who carries out a mass murder at his American high school. We follow their journey from his birth to imprisonment. Not only is it brilliantly written – the language, the pace, the structure – but its theme of nature or nurture; whether her son Kevin was born evil or whether he became bad as he grew up, is explored in fascinating and forensic depth. I read it just after I’d had my daughter and was struggling to cope at home – and it blew me away. Well, you bring yourself to a novel, don’t you? And I brought myself to this one as a fragile new mother, wanting only the best for my baby and devoting all my days to her needs (albeit struggling with that). And I concluded that the mother in this novel was ultimately a bad mother; that she lacked empathy and, above all, generosity of spirit towards her son.
Some years later, I came to the book again during a creative writing class, where we deconstructed it, chapter by chapter, to explore how Lionel Shriver had built this amazing novel. And once again, I found myself completely absorbed and oblivious to the author’s techniques, simply sucked in by her story-telling. As a writer, you tend to vaguely deconstruct novels as you read – what was their purpose with such and such a chapter? How did they move the plot or character forward? But I’m sure I could read this novel again and again and still be unaware of the stupendous ending I’m about to come upon. Interestingly, Lionel Shriver was not a mother herself when she penned it, which makes it a stunning feat of imagination too. At my book club, recently, we were discussing American Dirt, including the controversy of ‘cultural appropriation’ surrounding it. (American author, Jeannie Cummins’ first person protagonist is a Mexican woman escaping to the USA, and many Latinx people criticised her for audaciously believing she understood what it was to be a Mexican.) We all agreed that so many books would not be here without such incredible stretches of imagination – including We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Book Four – The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink
For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems.
Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does – Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.
After a calming walk around the island, I‘d be ready to settle down again for something ‘quiet’. When I was a student of modern languages many decades ago, I spent a summer living in West Berlin. This was when the Berlin Wall was still standing – and indeed a period of tension between East and West. I absolutely loved living and working in such an exciting city and since then have been a sucker for any novel set in post-war Germany. Especially an exquisite love story. The Reader is such a love story – but with an incredible twist. Set just after the second world war, it’s about a fifteen-year old boy who is seduced by a voluptuous German woman in her thirties. They spend the summer making glorious love in her apartment, after which the boy reads to her – novels, poetry, anything beautiful – because, as it transpires, she cannot read. And then suddenly the woman disappears. One day the boy arrives at her flat to find it vacant and emptied of all her possessions. Many years later, during the infamous Nazi War Trials, the boy is a law student and taken to watch one of the criminal trials by his tutor. There, in the dock, is the woman. To say more would be too much of a spoiler – perhaps I’ve gone too far already ☺ but this is a sumptuous novel of huge depth. Translated from the German.
Book Five – Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
1910. Amiens, Northern France. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in the French city to stay with the Azaire family. He falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle and the two enter a tempestuous love affair. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters.
With his love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front and enters the unimaginable dark world beneath the trenches of No Man’s Land. From award-winning writer Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is an exceptionally moving and unforgettable portrait of the ruthlessness of war and the indestructability of love.
I first read Birdsong when I was in my twenties and caught up in the excitement of living abroad in Brussels, with the emphasis firmly on fun. By day, I worked as a political lobbyist, by night, I partied – and at the weekends we would head off to Paris, or Amsterdam for all that these cities had to offer. Such a hedonistic and carefree existence. And then I read Birdsong. The opening chapters are about an equally carefree young man, Stephen, who arrives in Amiens with his job and lodges with a well-to-do family. He begins a torrid affair with the unhappily married wife, a tale of lust and burning love which we readers experience in all its sizzling detail. And then, World War One breaks out, and Stephen finds himself recruited to the trenches, going over the top, firing and being fired at.
And this change in his fortunes was something of an epiphany for me and my callow self. To think that all those doddery old men, who paraded or were pushed in wheelchairs at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, were once vivacious young men, alive with lust and vigour. My respect for the whole world grew – and I too grew up. It is this juxtaposition in the novel that has always stayed with me. I’m actually not very good at re-reading novels, because I remember them well and there is no discovery second-time around, but this is one I have returned to. Perhaps, in fact, this is my favourite novel of all.
My luxury item
Well, my gorgeous ragdoll cat, George, is one of my special comforts in life, but I see he’s not allowed. So I’d opt for my laptop and indulge in my passion of writing. After all that heavy reading I’d need to laugh at George’s @catsdoingbooks antics on Instagram too. But I guess there’d have to be some power source to charge it, so maybe that’s a naughty choice too…?!
About Diane Chandler
Diane Chandler’s first novel, The Road to Donetsk, draws on her experience of managing overseas aid programmes, and won the People’s Book Prize. Her second, Moondance, tackles the emotional impact of IVF fertility treatment on a loving couple. Only Human, her third novel, is about a woman struggling to find meaning in life after her husband cheats on her and her only daughter is about to fly the nest. Diane co-runs Creative Writing Workshops London with Stephanie Zia of Blackbird Digital Books, and also coaches aspiring writers. She is the host of http://www.Chiswickbuzz.net Book Club, Words with Wine in W4
Diane also co-runs Creative Writing Workshops London and they have just devised a host of new online workshops, on topics from eg. the use of colour, texture, sounds/smells/taste, to eg. voice, self-editing and getting published. They also continue with our workshops for beginners – on character, plot, dialogue and setting. Each stand-alone session costs £20. Small, safe groups of max 6 participants – and nobody has to read out unless they wish to. More details at their website.
Although Diane loves to read literary fiction, her three novels are commercial women’s fiction and the latest, Only Human, came out in September 2020 during a lucky lull in the pandemic. Published by Blackbird Books, it is set in West London and is about a middle-aged woman, Anna, who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mum. Her daughter is now chopping at the apron strings and she’s just discovered that her husband of 20 years is having an affair. What should she do next with her life? You can buy a copy of the book here.
The Bonds are, seemingly, a tight family unit, until one fateful summer when the temptations of lust and love come for them all…
Tiger mum Anna, who gave up her career to build the perfect home life in London’s leafy Chiswick, is shocked to the core when she discovers that her husband of 20 years is having an affair.
Her daughter meanwhile is transforming into a tricky teen chopping at the apron strings.
Then Jack walks into their lives. Sophie’s first boyfriend is a breath of fresh air for the whole family and Anna gradually discovers new purpose for herself.
But when yet more deceit creeps in, tensions soar.
Anna is propelled through a tangled web of secrets and lies towards a devastating climax.
Connect with Diane:
Facebook: Diane Chandler Author