Part of the joy of reading novels for me is that I feel like I’m getting to know a total stranger inside and out. Not just one stranger, a whole set of them. Often by the end of the book, these people are no longer strangers – they feel like very close friends, or even relatives. I love meeting real strangers, and trying to get to know them, but sometimes it’s easier (and possibly safer) to pick up a book. Also, I love the fact that the characters you meet in books remain as strangers – I like the element of mystery, both with real aquaintances and fictional ones. People can get boring when you know them too well.
Can you suggest some great books with strange people – or just with strangers who you never quite understand?
Dear Stranger Lover,
If you are looking for strangers whose hands you can hold for a short while, then let them go back into their imaginary worlds, yet be changed fundamentally by the experience, then Krik? Krak by Edwidge Danticat is your perfect book. In Haiti a story teller will ask “Krik?”, then anyone wishing to hear a tale will reply “Krak”. This collection of short stories, then, contains nine tales that are self-contained, but they also hang together as a collection in which characters criss cross through time and space. The first story is set on a boat leaving Haiti, while many of the later episodes take place in the States once the refugees from Papa Doc’s terrifying regime have escaped. Rape, brutality and witchcraft are hinted at and referenced, but Danticat’s power is her poetry and the pure insights we gain into her character’s minds, briefly glimpsed, then let go again into their own past, present and future.
A British writer whose novels are eternally strange, and full of strangers who hardly know each other, let alone reveal their thoughts to you, is the great bus driver Magnus Mills. His previous six novels, most famously “Three to See the King”, and “All Quiet on the Orient Express”, all hinge around characters who find themselves in incomprehensible situations, where logic at once pervades the setting and flees its boundaries. “A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In”, his seventh novel, is just as baffling in its circumstances, but, like the other books, utterly compelling, hilariously funny, and highly memorable. The novel's unnamed narrator is the principal composer to the imperial court of a place called Greater Fallowfields, which bears no relation at all to real geography, just as the concert hall that is the most significant landmark in the novel, known as the “Cake”, bears no relation to a real, physical building. Mills’ latest book, just published, is just as brilliantly mischievous and odd as all his others. Take this book with you on the bus and it will be far better than sitting next to a stranger.
A book to make you worry about any strangers you meet in a profound way is Michel Faber’s “Under the Skin”. I can’t reveal what happens in the book, as you are kept in a state of gently prickling fear for the first half of the novel -but suffice to say that after reading this, you would never dream of hitch hiking again; you will look at broad chested men in a very different way for years from now; you may seriously change your dietary habits; you may find yourself a little bit shy of strangers.
After scaring yourself with this book, read JD Salinger’s "For Esme with Love and Squalor", to restore your faith in the fun of meeting strangers. The title story of this collection describes a thirteen year old girl meeting a soldier temporarily stationed in Devon, England. We know they both survive as the story starts with an invitation to the soldier from the girl, Esme, six years later. Their meeting is incredibly inspiring and perfect – describing roughly an hour of their lives, we know that they touch each other profoundly. Here, two strangers meet and form a close, tangible bond in a very short space of time. The other stories in the collection are equally brilliant, each offering you a glimpse of a character that emblazons itself on your memory, but leaves a huge amount unexplained.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist at The School of Life. For more information about the service click here.