You know that state you arrive in when you begin, momentarily, totally, to identify with the protagonist of a story more than you identify with yourself? When, for a brief, heavenly period, you escape the prison of your own mind and take flight in somebody else’s?
This list is full of books that are guaranteed to do that. I am the first person to admit that this list is incredibly random. But trust me, I write and teach literature for a living.
These books will transport you. And my list is so varied, that there is hopefully something for everyone.
If you are in need of some unadulterated escapism, and who isn’t right now, then here are my ultimate books to transport.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is an intense psychological drama about the weirdness of female friendships in a world where women are repeatedly set at odds with each other.
Beginning in the boiling hot, stinking streets of Naples in the 1950s, it is the story of Elena and Lina, and their lifelong competition to be the best.
It is a story that sucks you into the narrator’s neuroses and passions and fears so totally that you can forget about your own for a moment.
What begins as a coming of age story develops into something much more ambitious, with the relationship between Elena and Lina working as a way for Ferrante to discuss politics, corruption and love in southern Italy.
White Fang by Jack London
Abundantly unlike the previous novel, this is a tale about survival in the Canadian wilderness, and about the beautiful and mysterious bond that can exist between animals and humans.
I read this on a swing chair in Spain during one of the bleakest times of my life, and in spite of the sweat dripping down my neck, and the volume of my anxious thoughts, I was successfully transported into a world of ice and endurance.
Swinging idly in the sunshine, I felt surrounded by ice and wolves as my heart pounded; I identified wholeheartedly and unforgettable with Henry, one of the novel’s narrators (another narrator is a dog).
Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman
Surely no list of mesmerizing fiction could be complete without a Phillip Pullam novel. Northern Lights is my favorite because it stars Lyra Belacqua, the fearless, determined little girl who will change everything.
Somehow, Pullman writes so convincingly that the tritely impossible stakes (little girl literally saves the world, again) become entirely believable and you find yourself dragged from the world you thought you knew into one of daemons and witches and talking armed bears.
This was the first fantasy book I read, after finally giving into peer pressure when it was recommended to me for the dozenth time, and I will never forget my experience of reading it. If you haven’t read it already, I am jealous that you get to have that glorious experience.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games is a book that shattered all of my snobbish preconceptions about dystopian fiction and YA (Young Adult). It simply took hold of my brain and demanded that I keep turning pages, long after it was time for beddy-byes.
I fell head over heels in love with amateur herbalist and future-murderous archer Katniss Everdeen, and I hated psychopathic, sweet-smelling Lord Snow. More than anything, I wished that these blameless children would escape the brutal, traumatic situation they were born into.
More of a shamelessly thrilling page-turner than Northern Lights, this is another astonishing, enchanting book to turn to when you just need a flipping break from the realities of your life.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Published in 1961, this is the story of April and Frank Wheeler, an ambitious young couple struggling to come to terms with the fact that they are, perhaps, not as extraordinary as they had hoped themselves to be.
Beginning with the quiet devastation of an amateur play not quite coming off, this story explores the nuances of disappointment and deception against a backdrop of the suburbanite mid-1950s America that inspired Betty Friedan’s culture-changing masterpiece The Feminine Mystique.
Room by Emma Donaghue
Full disclosure, this one is bleak as hell, and certainly does not offer the same wide-roaming romping reads of some of the other books on this list. Nonetheless, it earns its place here for the quality of the writing and for the way that it teaches of the limitlessness of love and the human spirit to rise again.
Also, it has one of the most extraordinary plot twists, which if you’re a book dork like me, you will appreciate. Mind you, a person would have had to be living in a bunker to have made it to 2020 and not know what this story is about.
Just in case that’s you, I’m not going to give any spoilers. You’re welcome and enjoy. ; )
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A subtly terrifying, insidiously creepy novel, this poses as a coming-of-age novel, but is actually something much darker. Without ruining the magnificent plot, the story is about three friends growing up in the weird, confusing boarding school of Hailsham.
Touching on Ishiguro’s favorite theme of unrequited love, it is also about, indoctrination, inequality and social injustice. Please, if you haven’t already, go and read it.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Yes, I hear you, this list is incredibly random. But trust me, I write and teach literature for a living. This book, published as three volumes in 1860 tells the heartbreaking story of wonderful dreamboat Maggie Tulliver, and the absolute bullshit that she must undergo due to being born at a time when (in the words of Rizzo from Greece) there really weren’t worst things girls could do was go with a boy or two.
Published in 1860, Eliot renders the sweet, spirited consciousness of poor Maggie Tulliver brilliantly, as well as artfully capturing the terrifying rise of industry. She describes the very moment when humans were losing touch with the land that had raised them and the inherent trauma of that separation.
It’s about family, home and the life-changing magic of kindness, as well as a searing critique on capitalism. What more can you ask for in a book?
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Chelsey Flood is the author of award-winning novels Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, a lecturer in creative writing and a dedicated truth-seeker. She is currently working on a memoir about getting sober.