1. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
If you’ve never read Kate Atkinson, you’re truly missing out. I’ve never seen a writer so adept at capturing the nuances of human emotions. There’s a vulnerability to her characters, there’s honesty, and the relationships between each of them grow and evolve in ways that will reflect your own reality. “Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum she couldn’t even begin to solve,” Atkinson writes of her heroine, pulling her reader into a realm of relatability that makes the novel’s backdrop of World War II even more jarring. To experience the horrors of war-torn London through the eyes of a character you’ve come to love is to make the grief and violence of it all close-to-home pungent. This wonderful novel also has a twist that you don’t often see in the genre: Every time Ursula dies, she starts over again from birth. The timeline that ensues takes some getting used to but once you’ve gotten the hang of it, the book is an immensely rewarding experience. Bonus points for Atkinson’s ability to make her readers (ahem, me) weep over the deaths of even the most minor of characters.
2. Possession, by A.S. Byatt
I don’t think I’m alone in the way I romanticize academia. I’m over the ivory tower, over armchair philosophy, but I still can’t think about great scholars without conjuring images of dusty archives and ancient libraries, late nights writing by lamplight and the glow of the moon. Possession captures all of this with reflective, eloquent aplomb. Bryant’s novel follows two literary scholars investigating a romance between the two poets that they’ve spent their respective lifetimes studying. The prose is stunning and thoughtful, with gems such as “I am certain of nothing, but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination,” and the characters are incredibly well-developed. Every line is pure poetry, and the natural beauty of the United Kingdom plays its own very important role. It’s a hypnotic book, the title being an apt description of the way it can get under a reader’s skin. Only start it if you have five or more hours of free time in front of you because it is so very difficult to put down.
3. XO Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer
XO Orpheus is an anthology of 55 myths reimagined by a collection of dark and daring writers. Edith Pearlman wastes no words in “Wait and See,” the story of a boy with the near-crippling ability to see all variations of colors in everything he sets his eyes on. Madeline Miller’s take on Pygmalion is a Yellow Wallpaper-esque tale of a woman carved from stone and bound in marriage to the artist who created her. Each story creates its own little world; each one a moral tale in the tradition of the myths and fables that inspired them. I took my time with this book, one story at a time, and would argue that it’s the best way to enjoy it. While these stories might be able to exist in the same universe they’re at their most compelling when they stand alone. If you’re intrigued I’d also encourage you to take a look at another Kate Bernheimer-edited anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, in which some very clever authors write their own decidedly gruesome takes on classic fairytales.
4. Rustication, by Charles Palliser
This book is haunting, mysterious, and well worth the cringing moments that come with casting a 17 year-old opium-addicted boy as the narrator of your novel. Disgraced, formerly wealthy family? Check. Dilapidated ancient family mansion? Check. The moors of England? Friggin’ check. Rustication is perfect for lovers of the gothic novel and even better for those who want to dip their toes into the genre for the first time. While the narrator can be difficult at times, easily distracted by beautiful women and his suspicions regarding his mother and sister, he’s also an observant over-thinker. “People talk of suddenly falling in love but little is said of how you can fall just precipately out of it,” he laments as his audience nods in experienced agreement. Oh and there’s a hint or two in there of ghosts. That’s the thing with gothic novels. There’s always a spooky presence, hidden by family secrets, but ghosts never actually make a literal appearance. It’s the atmosphere that haunts, and in Palliser’s Rustication, it is a truly frightening presence.