a short, vaguely feminist, marginally existentialist reading list

My younger sister asked me this week to help her with a request from a work colleague, who had approached her for suggestions of female writers to read. Her colleague likes Sylvia Plath, apparently, is interested in feminism and existentialism, and is planning to take four months off work to go to France and read and drink wine. I’m happy to label myself a feminist, and I’ve been interested in, and influenced by, existentialism ever since studying philosophy in the first year of my subsequently abandoned BA. So I took up the challenge, though I’m usually reluctant to recommend books to other people, as reading taste is so personal. After wracking my brains and trawling my bookshelves, this is the somewhat eclectic list I’ve come up with.

Virginia Woolf – I love Orlando, the sweep of it and the gender switches. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. Mrs Dalloway also impressed me, with its interior perspective, the time shifts, and the depiction of London shortly after the end of the Great War. And of course A Room of One’s Own should be on every feminist’s, every woman writer’s, reading list.

Colette – not feminist per se but French and a wonderful writer, especially of feisty female characters. An inspiring woman.

Simone de Beauvoir – her early novels She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others are flawed but powerful nonetheless. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. As is The Second Sex – another must read for budding feminists.

Jean RhysWide Sargasso Sea – a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, taking the point of view of Mr Rochester’s first wife. Brilliant. And also Rhys’s early novels. I’ve read Voyage in the Dark and Quartet, and may have read After Leaving Mr McKenzie and/or Good Morning, Midnight, ages ago, but I’m not sure. Great titles though. Again, not overtly feminist, but Rhys writes beautifully about diffident, awkward, vulnerable women. Gorgeous, limpid writing.

Deborah LevySwimming Home. Published last year, I read and loved it before it was on the Booker shortlist (just so’s you know). Short and incredibly powerful. “About” depression, failed or failing relationships, madness. It’s compelling and every detail is spot on. There are strong female characters, and quite a tender portrayal of a teenage girl. And, while its subject matter is dark and difficult, the novel itself isn’t unrelentingly bleak. Every sentence sings.

Françoise SaganBonjour tristesse. I read this when I was in my late teens or early twenties. My New Oxford Companion to Literature in French reminds me that ‘the novel describes adolescent sexuality in a casual yet poignant tone’. She was French, and left-wing, so that gets her onto my list.

Margaret AtwoodSurfacing and Cat’s Eye – themes of jealousy, childhood, the cruelty of children. Apparently Atwood doesn’t describe herself as a feminist writer but her books deal with issues around gender, identity, patriarchy, as well as concern for and deep feeling for the environment and natural world. The Handmaid’s Tail is disturbing and dystopian. I enjoyed Alias Grace, based on a real person, Grace Marks, a servant convicted of murder in the mid 1840s. I like the idea of exploring and giving voice to marginalised characters.

Helen GarnerMonkey Grip. Toxic relationships, children, Melbourne in the 70s. I remember this novel having a big impact on me, finding it quite shocking at times. I think partly this was due to it being set in Melbourne, the mix of familiarity and the very different lives to my own portrayed in the novel. I wonder how it would read now. My memory is that female friendship is one of the central themes of the novel, and Garner is very concerned with emotional truth, and the complexity of relationships. I’ve read some of her other (early) novels too, and my lasting impressions are of her integrity and the clarity and beauty of her prose.

Now, of course, I also want to take four months off, go to France, read and drink wine. Only four months would not be long enough. Still, this has reminded me of some great writers to go back to, so many more books that I want to read, and reread.


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