About the author:
J.S. Monroe read English at Cambridge, worked as a freelance journalist in London and was a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4. Monroe was also a foreign correspondent in Delhi for the Daily Telegraph and was on its staff in London as Weekend editor. He has written six novels, including the international bestseller Find Me.
The Magus, by John Fowles
Apart from some troubling misogyny, John Fowles’s 1965 masterpiece, revised in 1977, remains essential reading. It’s sheer delight in Scheherazade-style storytelling – tales within tales – is infectious, as layer upon layer of falsehoods are peeled back to reveal ‘truths’ that prove to be anything but. I read it again this year, having first devoured it in my year off, when the novel made a deep impression on my adolescent mind. I realise now that this is the book that first made me want to write. Set on a remote Greek island, it follows a young man, Nicholas Urfe, who is teaching at a local school. He soon comes across Conchis, a mysterious, wealthy recluse living on the far side of the island with a beautiful woman – or maybe two beautiful women. Let the ‘godgame’ begin. A rite of passage novel with mind-bending twists.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s cool, erudite page-turner also has a magus at its centre: Julian Morrow, a lecturer in the Greek myths at a fictional campus university called Hampden. The book’s narrator, Richard Pappin, is determined to be admitted into Morrow’s select band of students, and invents a past – a secret history – to cover up for his own drab upbringing. Any novel that has someone assuming a different identity has my vote. Tartt also taps into that desire in all of us to want to be included in something select and exclusive. And along the way she makes us feel more educated about Greek mythology as we watch the twin human urges of Apollo’s reason and Dionysus’s sexual desire fight for supremacy.
I let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh
Clare Mackintosh’s first book, I Let You Go, announced her as a major new force in thriller writing. Not only does Mackintosh mix up the genres – police procedural with psychological thriller – she also pulls off one of the great twists of all time. When I got to it, I had to go back to the beginning to examine the wiring and plumbing of the book, as it were, working out how exactly she had done it – and how I’d fallen for it. The twist checks out perfectly, withstanding envious scrutiny, and I’ve been inspired by her boldness ever since. Readers love a good twist but you have to make sure it operates on all levels and from every angle.
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Not, perhaps, Ian McEwan’s most well-known novel, but Sweet Tooth is one of my personal favourites. I’m a succour for metafiction and the self-referential elements of this book are delicious. Serena Frome, an MI5 operative in the early 1970s, is instructed by her bosses to persuade left-leaning novelists to stop bashing the West. She focuses her attention – and literary funds, distributed through a fake cultural organisation – on Tom Haley, a Sussex university PhD student who has had some success writing short stories. If Haley sounds familiar, he’s meant to: the student is a thinly disguised young McEwan, who wrote short stories (First Love, Last Rites) before turning to novels. As for the success of Frome’s mission, all is revealed – or not – in a mercurial final twist.
The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel is the godfather of the modern psychological thriller, its influence stronger today than ever. The central idea of someone – Tom Ripley – assuming another’s identity is an ancient trope but Highsmith gives it a new spin. Despite Ripley’s obvious immorality, the reader roots for him, hoping that he’ll evade police capture and live the life he always wanted. It’s a phenomenal authorial achievement, particularly as Ripley’s envy leads him to murder, but there’s no happy ending. Ripley concludes the book in a state of paranoia and fear, a reminder that Highsmith’s moral compass may often be hidden but is still firmly in tact.