‘Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her. As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
‘Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do. But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at their beliefs with a critical eye. That’s what I try to do in my books. Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)
If you read the back of the book, you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the girl he loves. His long, slow upward trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful omniscient narrator.
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
This book was first published in 1678. The language, therefore, is more modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s spiritual journey. It is anything but boring!
Take the incident where Giant Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them they will never get out. It is Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to Hopeful. The giant encourages the two men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do so. He also shows them the skulls of past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)
Hercule Poirot is the more famous of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British, consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village all her life. They think she is likely to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of human nature in her 60+ years of life. As she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people that she has once known. She can recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they will do based on these past people’s behavior. She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present situation. Her method of thinking about crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s. Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and Marple a pantser. But they both get their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her fantastic British manners. She is an amazingly good listener. She is excellent at drawing people out. People cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old lady, but she is dangerous to criminals. In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up.