Hay festival 2019 – The Novels That Shaped Our World

BBC Novels that shaped our world

Hay Festival event, photo by Chris Athanasiou

Last week at the Hay Festival I attended the BBC launch event of their new project – Novels That Shaped Our World. It marks the 300th anniversary of the English language novel, and involves a panel of six people (Mariella Frostrup, Zawe Ashton, Syima Aslam, Kit de Waal, Stig Abell and Alexander McCall Smith) selecting 100 novels for this impressive list. I thought this meant selecting novels that have shaped the world, but at the event, they made it clear that it is much more personal than that, and the idea is to spark discussion and debate…

The event featured Syima Aslam (from the panel), Joe Haddow (from the BBC) and author Tracey Chevalier, chatting to Jo While about how the list might take shape. Syima Aslam explained that she would be selecting novels that gave her ‘a gut punch’, novels that she could still remember, years after reading. They discussed whether or not a whole series might be included as one – apparently this will be allowed. They also showed us a couple of clips from the forthcoming programmes, including one which brings The Lonely Londoners to life using drama and narrative. I’m looking forward to watching these in the autumn!

So what does a novel that ‘shaped your world’ really mean? Joe Haddow explained that it could be a book which ‘inspired you, or changed your perspective on something’. One audience member suggested A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: ‘I felt changed after reading it, I looked at poverty differently after that’. Other suggestions included The Overstory by Richard Powers, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which someone said helped them ‘to understand what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes’.

Book The Fault in Our Stars

Syima talked about the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis: ‘When I read them it was a portal opening to a magical world, and I still go back to them’. She also listed Jeanette Winterson’s work, describing it as ‘emotional sustenance’, and The Fault in Our Stars, a book which had a particular impact on her, having had a cancer diagnosis herself.

I thought I’d join in by selecting some of the novels that have shaped my own world, and soon realised that this is a rather unfair task, as I think non-fiction has actually ‘shaped my world’ more than fiction. It’s also incredibly difficult to select just a few! But, if I stick to the rules of choosing only fictional novels (or series) written in English, and start with children’s books, then here, in roughly chronological order, is my list:

Famous Five & Secret Seven by Enid Blyton

It’s so long ago that I can’t remember any specific titles, but I loved reading these adventure stories when I was a kid, and often made up adventures with my sister (tame in comparison but equally fun) traipsing about the grounds of the nearby school, and the local woods. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about going on a mini adventure even now!

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan AikenThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I remember this vividly – the horror of the cold and the wolves, the unfairness of what happens to the two girls, and the way they learn to survive and eventually escape. I recently re-read it as an adult, and it’s not quite as thrilling when you’re in your thirties, but I enjoyed reading it as a child, and I think I can remember watching some TV adaptations of some of her other books.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

I loved (and still love) reading any book set on a secret island, which you can only get to by boat. And I still want to live on an island one day…

Pippy Longstocking books, and others by Astrid Lindgren

astrid lindgren books

Other books by Astrid Lindgren, including the wonderful ‘Karlson on the Roof’

I’ve written about my favourite Swedish books before – these always have a special place in my memory, as my Grandmother was Swedish, and we visited Sweden a number of times when I was young. I love the fact that Pippy lives by herself, and is strong enough to lift a horse…

The Girl at the Lion D’Or by Sebastian Faulks

This is the earliest novel that I can remember reading as a teenager. I was completely mesmerised by it. I can still vividly remember some of the scenes. It’s set during the 1930s, in rural France. It was the first book I ever read by Sebastian Faulks, and I have since enjoyed reading several of his other books. Another favourite is Human Traces.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I studied this at university, and I remember how thrilling it was to read Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness prose, to be totally immersed and carried along by it, and fascinated by the characters, the strange sense of time passing, and particularly the character of Lily Briscoe, the painter. For an assignment, I ‘translated’ the novel into a poem.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey and Mysteries of Udolpho

I studied this at university too, and although I love all the Jane Austen books, I find this one particularly intriguing because the main character, naïve Catherine Moorland, is an avid reader, and part of the plot describes her reading a popular gothic novel from that time – The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe – and Austen never gives away the ending of this other novel, which she subtly critiques and subverts within her own. I was so intrigued I actually went away and read The Mysteries of Udolpho myself.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I read this as a student, and thoroughly enjoyed the utter horror which lies at its centre – the psychological hold which Sir Percival Glyde has over Laura and her sister, and the deception involved.

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

This book is a kind of re-telling of the book of Hosea in the Bible, but is set in the 1850s, during the California Gold Rush. It tells the tragic story of Angel, a woman whose early life was full of neglect and abuse, a woman who longs for freedom. It’s incredibly gripping, and really makes you think about what love and freedom really mean. I’ve read it three times.

The Shack by Wm Paul Young

This is a gut-wrenching read, one of the most tragic, yet also incredibly wonderful books I’ve ever read. It really makes you think about grief, and forgiveness, about what makes people do the things they do, and how human beings can survive through the most horrific of experiences.

So, there you have it, a list of 10 novels that have shaped my world in various ways, along with thousands of others.

What about you? Which novels have shaped your world?

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