“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read or tell: subtly at night, beneath the waters of consciousness they are altering your world.” – Ben Okri
What makes a story unforgettable? This is the question I’m asking myself as we plan a house move, where there will be less room for books. Which to take and which to keep? There are a few books that I have read more than once, but not many; yet I keep my books based on the notion that I might read them again. And now that I buy most novels on my Kindle, surely getting rid of so many books should not be too painful?
An unforgettable story from long ago, for me, is The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, which I read as a teenager, when my mother and I read the same books; we were in a sic-fi phase and read all of John Wyndham’s books. Whilst he is best known for the very popular The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids is often considered to be his best work. Why do I remember it? Because it presented me with a whole new, mind-boggling idea: people who could communicate with each other without speech: they could read each others minds.
I read it again, recently, to see if it still felt as compelling now, as it did then; and I was even more taken with it, able to understand the political influences it reflects of its time. Written in 1955, a few years after World War II and Hitler’s ideas of an Aryan Master Race, the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where nuclear warfare has laid waste to much of the world we know, and genetic mutations are common. Communities focus on destroying all mutations, to create again a race of people “in God’s image”; any child born who deviates from the prescribed norm is removed from its mother at birth, and killed. The central characters of the novel are able to read each other’s minds, yet this advanced capability was perceived as a deviation which must be destroyed.
As I thought about other books which are, for me, unforgettable, I realised that the presentation of a new idea is central; and that’s what stays with me, that changes my mind, long after I have forgotten plot and character details. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, for example, which presented me with the notion that a foundling child could become a gifted ballerina; so surely there was hope for me? Or The Women’s Room by Marilynn French, which showed so vividly the challenges for women who wanted more in life than domesticity… or The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, with its philosophical message: how will you choose your beliefs, when facts are not available to guide you? Will you choose beliefs which inspire and console you, or those which seem most likely to be objectively true?
What makes an unforgettable story for you?