The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Thornton Wilder, Penguin Classics (first published 1927)
This novel is about the collapse of a bridge in Peru in the 17th century and the deaths of five people. A Jesuit priest sets out to prove that they deserved to die and ends up proving the opposite. The family of the novelist Nina Bawden, whose husband died in the Potters Bar rail crash and who was herself injured, told me about this story and its resonance for pondering the illogicality of fate.
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens, Wordsworth Editions (first published 1859)
Lawyer Sydney Carton is dissolute and unlovable. But twice he saves the day for Charles Darnay, an undercover member of the aristocracy who resembles him in appearance. In the early part of the book he secures his acquittal in a terrorism trial at the Old Bailey and at the end he performs an act of supreme sacrifice in substituting himself for Charles at the guillotine of the French Revolution. As novels about lawyers go, I prefer this one to the more commonly chosen To Kill a Mockingbird.
Samuel Butler, Penguin Classics (first published 1872)
A traveller arrives in a country where criminals are regarded as being ill and the sick are treated as criminals. A form of doctor known as a ‘straightener’ arrives to flog a man ‘ill’ of embezzling money, while a bout of stealing socks is a polite social excuse and a man dying of consumption pleads his innocence of disease. Written in the 19th century – before Brecht, Kafka or Saramago.
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov, Vintage Classics (first published 1967)
Banned by Stalinist Russia, this book was only published many years after the author’s death in 1940. It interweaves chapters about Pontius Pilate with a fantastical tale of a magician who is Satan in disguise and his retinue, which includes a talking black tomcat. A satire of politics, religion and reality whose multiple meanings fascinate on every re-read.
Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful
Alan Paton, Penguin 1983
Written 30 years after his other masterpiece Cry the Beloved Country, this novel explores passionately – but also with irony – the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Particularly telling for me was the description of the way in which laws such as the Group Areas Act were used to legitimise injustice. The book tells the story of people, from a schoolgirl to a station master, who come up against these laws and fight back.
George Eliot, Wordsworth Classics (first published 1876)
I love all George Eliot’s novels, but this one, which was her last, is courageous as one of the first literary denunciations of the dehumanising effects of racism. Daniel Deronda has to come terms with his discovery that he is Jewish and confront the anti-semitism of the time. Gwendolen Harleth, the heroine, marries for power rather than love and suffers the consequences.
Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948-1998
Faber and Faber 1998
I met Harold through Red Pepper and spoke alongside him at Red Pepper meetings. This book (my copy of which he signed for me) includes his reflections on the arrest of Kurdish actors rehearsing his play Mountain Language and the seizure by police of the toy guns hired from the National Theatre, a case of reality mimicking art. My firm sued the police for the actors – we were disappointed when the police settled it as we were looking forward to calling Harold as a witness in the trial. Harold’s plays and writing reflect his deep understanding of oppression and tyranny in all their manifestations.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers, Penguin Modern Classics (first published 1940)
Deaf-mute John Singer makes friends with a cast of characters in the Deep South of the US in the 1930s. Full of humanity, this novel is a heartfelt plea for lonely people who are mistreated and marginalised by an uncaring society and for the human need for the love of others.
Louise Christian is a civil liberties and human rights lawyer, and her selections can be purchased here.
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