Looking back at the 70s, and at my own bookshelves, I realise what a fertile time this was for fiction, especially for novels and stories written by women. The feminist movement led to a burgeoning of books about female experience, and some male writers seemed to be focusing more on the turmoil and joys of household life. Of course, as in any other period in literary history, all writers were driven by the personal, singular impulses of the imagination.
When the following books were first published all those years ago – like some of my stories – I was often torn between domestic responsibilities and writing. Somehow I was fortunate enough to also find time to read, and the various voices of these writers were in my head, guiding and inspiring me as I tended to my real and fictional families
1. God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam (1978)
Eight-year-old Margaret Marsh observes the brackets of mortal life – her baby brother with his lolling head, and an elderly woman in an oversized pram – and opines that the world would be better without people. Her mother argues unconvincingly in favour of humankind while Margaret’s father, the leader of a fanatic religious sect, peppers her with biblical quotes. Margaret has other influences: Lydia, her lax, outspoken nanny; adult siblings Charles and Binkie, who have some mysterious link to Margaret’s mother; and the inhabitants of a decaying asylum into which she wanders. The surprising connections among all of these characters are gradually and brilliantly revealed. God on the Rocks is a masterwork of comedy and tragedy in which fallible people inhabit an imperfect world.
2. Will You Please be Quiet, Please? The Stories of Raymond Carver (1976)
The lives of Raymond Carver’s working-class characters are conveyed in brief tales of longing and misery. Carver’s language is deceptively simple, as in this opening line: “Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple.”The reader, drawn in as if eavesdropping on strangers, is rewarded with startling psychological complexity. The mother of a violently disturbed boy tries to escape her frightening reality. A man overhears customers of his waitress wife ridicule her body, and compels her to lose weight. The “happy” Millers start to occupy their vacationing neighbour’s apartment, leading to a disastrous reckoning. The stories in this collection remain an unsparing depiction of how we live.
3. Final Payments by Mary Gordon (1978)
When Isabel Moore’s demanding and devoutly Catholic father dies after a series of strokes, she’s released from caring for him into the terrifying freedom of independence. Isabel was 19 when she first became his carer after her mother’s death, and now she’s an unworldly 30. Two female friends offer advice and support, and two men become her lovers. Isabel, who struggles with the meaning of Christian love, has to choose between the pleasures of an unfettered life and doing penance for an act that contributed to her father’s fatal illness. Final Payments was Mary Gordon’s debut novel, and it is remarkably insightful and accomplished.
4. The Living End by Stanley Elkin (1979)
Dickens, with his wit and compassion, may be Stanley Elkin’s literary forebear; this triptych in which much of the action takes place in Heaven and Hell, also brings Dante to mind. Elkin’s narrative begins in an earthly American city, where the saintly Ellerbee is murdered in a holdup. After glimpsing Heaven, he finds himself deposited in Hell, where he challenges God for forsaking him. Like many of Elkin’s characters, his wisecracking God could moonlight as a stand-up comic as he damns Ellerbee for the pettiest of trumped-up charges. Two others consigned to Hell – Ellerbee’s murderer’s sidekick and a cemetery groundskeeper – also protest their eternal fate in this rousing, irreverent, and hilarious novel.
5. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
Attentive relatives, especially grandchildren, are the chief currency at the Claremont, a retirement hotel in London. But the proud, recently widowed Mrs Palfrey’s only grandson Desmond has not responded to her numerous invitations to visit. Through an accident in the street she meets Ludo, an insolvent young writer with an indifferent family, and a mutually satisfying arrangement ensues. He pretends to be Desmond, and as she treats him to meals in the Claremont’s dining room, they form a deep and affectionate bond. Yet even harmless, joyful deception must come to an end. This is a darkly funny, unsentimental look at the loneliness of old age and the vicissitudes of human attachment.
6. Corregidora by Gayl Jones (1975)
Toni Morrison was the editor of this powerful first novel, which opens with a scene of violence related in an almost detached first-person voice. Ursa Corregidora, a blues singer and the descendant of slaves raped by their masters, is thrown down a flight of stairs by her jealous husband, causing her to lose the baby she’s carrying and her ability to fulfil the family mandate to “make generations”. Ursa’s story is interspersed with a competing narrative, in italics, about her great-grandmother’s brutal experience of enslavement to a man also named Corregidora. Ursa first heard these reminiscences when she was a five year old sitting on “Great Gram’s” lap, and was slapped for disbelieving them. The dual narratives continue and coalesce, with the past haunting and informing the present. Together they form a visceral work of fiction and a harsh and necessary history lesson.
7. Foreigner by Nahid Rachlin (1978)
Feri, an Iranian-American woman, visits her father in Tehran, and is dismayed by how uncomfortable she feels in her rigidly patriarchal homeland. She discovers that her mother, who’d abandoned her as a child, ostensibly for religious pursuits, had actually gone off with a lover. Feri’s American life, including her own marriage, is tenuous. She reunites with her now deserted and destitute mother and experiences unexpected happiness. When Feri’s husband comes to claim her, she’s caught between two cultures, two contending loyalties. Rachlin beautifully depicts the urgency of Feri’s dilemma, and the peace her decision brings her.
8. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
First published in 1975 as a novel for children, this has all the ingredients – fantasy, adventure, and young romance – that a youthful audience enjoys. The four members of the Tuck family drink from a rural spring and discover that none of them ever ages or dies. Eighty-seven years later, when (perpetually) teenage Jesse Tuck meets Winnie Foster, an overprotected girl who both craves and fears excitement, endless life becomes a dubious gift. This wonderfully imagined story about the dream of immortality and the certainty of death still rivets readers of all ages.
9. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (1970)
Sophie and Otto Bentwood lead privileged lives. But there are outer and inner encroachments on their happiness and safety. Their lovely urban street abuts a destitute area, Otto and his law partner are bitterly embattled, and Sophie is still consumed by an affair that ended years before. Then she’s bitten by a feral cat she’s been feeding, and keeps delaying treatment for the festering wound. The narrative suspense of this compressed and exquisitely written novel is matched by the mounting emotional tension between its quietly desperate characters.
10. Grendel by John Gardner (1971)
Grendel, in the Old English poem Beowulf, is descended from the biblical Cain. In a kind of reversal of evolution, he’s a serial-killing, man-eating monster, with feelings limited to rage and vengefulness. His death – after his arm is ripped off in a battle with the heroic Beowulf – is cause for celebration. In John Gardner’s novel, we hear Grendel’s side of things, and he has a few more human qualities, such as curiosity and wit. He still crunches the bones of his victims – he’s a monster, after all – but in Gardner’s soaring, poetic prose, he’s both villain and anti-hero, reminding us uncomfortably of ourselves.