My Spanish sister-in-law recently asked me to recommend some novels to help improve her level of English. Something easy enough to understand after an exhausting day at work or with the kids, but with sufficient depth to keep her engaged.
I’ve had a dig around my book shelves and here are my top ten picks for non native speakers of English:
1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
This is a hilarious and heartwarming mystery thriller recounted from the perspective of a 15-year-old ‘mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. The author underlined that the book is not about Asperger’s syndrome, autism, or a specific condition, but rather ‘about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way’, a theme which many expats can certainly relate to.
2. Animal Farm, George Orwell
Coincidentally I read this satire on Stalinism while staying in East Germany and visiting Russia and I was captivated from the start. It’s such a clever use of symbolism – a simple farmyard tale conveys the brutality, hypocrisy and inequality of a corrupt political order. While the novella reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, it feels as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1945.
3. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Quite simply this is the most beautiful, poignant and powerful book I’ve ever read. The Nigerian author employs extremely simple phrases to convey an incredible intensity of emotions in such an efficient way. While it’s an easy read in terms of length, every sentence is loaded with sensual and emotional depth and it’s by no means a light read. It’s a haunting tale about colonialism and its aftereffects; about pride, social justice and courage. The heaviest scene made me feel angry, traumatised, disgusted and tearful. Yes there is a lot of African dialect that even a native speaker of English would not understand, but this doesn’t dampen it in any way. This is definitely a book to read and reread – I uncover a new meaning every time I revisit this master work.
4. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This beautiful, sensual novel by Nigerian author Adichie details the Biafran war through the perspective of different characters of varying social rank. The writer credits Chinua Achebe as a major influence in her writing, laying bare the horrors of war and the enduring aftereffect of colonialism. A vocal campaigner against racism and a celebrated feminist, Adichie is an essential force in today’s world. Her TED talk ‘We should all be feminists’ sparked a global movement and was even translated on to the Dior catwalk. For me, this novel is not just a tale about the Nigerian civil war, but an essential read for anyone concerned about equality.
5. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
There are very few books I choose to read again and again but this is one of them. Almost every Christmas you’ll find me by the fire (or air conditioning unit if I’m somewhere hot) cuddled up with this fairy tale. It’s an English Victorian classic and underlines the importance of charity and generosity of spirit. The parable evokes all the nostalgia and sensuality of Christmas and is essential advent time reading in my home.
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling
The first in J. K. Rowling’s immensely successful Harry Potter series, it recounts the adventures of orphan Harry against the evil wizard Voldemort. It’s a magical, imaginative and humorous tale which reflects the values of self sacrifice, determination and courage, and speaks to all generations.
7. Northern Lights (also published as The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman
A thrilling children’s fantasy for some, a dark manifesto on atheism for others. For me it’s a magical, enchanting and at times deeply disturbing dystopian novel which I devoured in days. Human souls are portrayed as animals (dæmons) who accompany and comfort their masters throughout life. Dark forces are abducting children to cleave away their dæmons and it is twelve year old Lyra who with the help of her companions is tasked with saving the world.
8. Timbuktu, Paul Auster
Mr Bones is not your average protagonist, nor is this your average book. Mr Bones is a dog and the story recounts his struggle in life after the death of his master. Far from a children’s story or gimmick for canine lovers, Auster’s simple and touching novella explores the themes of searching for a meaning in life and wider existentialism. Even if you’re not a dog fan, it’s impossible not to empathise with the scruffy, old mutt and I’d recommend this book to any expat questioning their journey in life.
9. The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Oscar Wilde
A collection of short stories intended to be narrated out loud to children, the set offers a charming allegory of love, beauty and selflessness. Sparked with typical Wildean wit, it is a brilliant and easy read, and is just as enjoyable for adults as it is for children.
10. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
I’m currently reading this adventure about an ageing, struggling fisherman and his escapades to catch a fish and his struggle escape sharks thereafter. The book was published to great acclaim in 1952 and contributed to Hemingway winning the Novel Prize for Literature a couple of years later. With Christian imagery weaved into a masterful use of narrative, the novel was a game changer in terms of style back then and it’s no surprise that it continues to be cited as one of the finest works of literature today.