Being asked to pick five Virago favourites is something of a double-edged sword. For nearly fifty years, they’ve brought us a cornucopia of brilliant, inspiring, and beautifully-written books, so very many of which I could sing the praises of. But being told I can only choose five, well, that’s a true hardship! Trust me when I say that my picks took much deliberation—I found myself skimming the pages of books I’ve loved for years, Rosamund Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness amongst them, while remembering all over again just how perfect a novel Dorothy West’s The Wedding is. Then I got to thinking about more recent publications: Gayl Jones’s Palmares, for example; or a stand-out title from a few years back, Rosa Rankin-Gee’s The Last Kings of Sark. My list could go on and on . . . Let me assure you, the books I’ve picked are all superb, but they’re nowhere near the only gems in Virago’s catalogue.
Since it so excellently showcases her eye for the grotesque, this is one of my favourites of all Comyns’s weird and wonderful novels. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, in the grimy backstreets of Battersea—and culminating in a truly unforgettable and dreadful denouement on Clapham Common—The Vet’s Daughter is suburban gothic with just a sprinkling of magical realism. It’s the strange, sad story of Alice Rowlands, a young girl who lives with her sadistic veterinarian father. It’s tragic, comic and utterly bonkers all in one, and features levitation, a terrible house fire, a neurotic parrot locked in a lavatory, and a “partly-cooked” cat. What more could you want?!
With the publication, earlier this year, of Jack—the fourth volume in Robinson’s Gilead’s series—I found myself re-reading the novels that precede it, and was thus reminded of how heartbreakingly and exquisitely flawless Home (the second book in the sequence) is in particular. Robinson—a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—has been widely hailed as one of America’s greatest living novelists, but this, I think, has to be one of the finest novels ever written. Set in mid-century, rural Iowa, a troubled prodigal son returns home after twenty years absence, shaking up the lives of those closest to him. It’s an understated tale of love, death and family ties, but it’s written with such grace and compassion, it moves me like nothing else.
Ever feel like just saying “What the hell!” to everything and blowing up your own life? If so, is the novel for you. Wayward is the story of one woman’s mid-life crisis, but it’s also about so much more than that. Her heroine Sam—a white, middle-aged, middle-class suburban wife and mother—falls in love with a fixer-upper house in downtown Syracuse, and before she knows it, she’s left her husband and their teenage daughter and is starting over, by herself and on her own terms. It’s a novel about mothers and daughters, about love and sex, about aging, about how the hell to go on living in this horrible, messed-up world. It’s also utterly brilliant.
Petry’s debut, The Street, was the first novel written by a Black American writer to sell over a million copies, but it’s her third novel, The Narrows—originally published in 1953—that’s undoubtably her masterpiece. It’s the gripping tale of star-crossed but doomed lovers, Link Williams and Camilla Treadway Sheffield. Both young and beautiful, and living in the same town, but he’s Black and she’s white. Their fateful entanglement, and the tragic consequences of which that ultimately ensue are at the heart of the story, but it’s also a richly detailed portrait of a small town in Connecticut, life in which is very different depending on the colour of your skin.
The acclaimed writer of Brick Lane’s first new novel in a decade is an absolute joy from start to finish. A gloriously big-hearted tale about a tangled web of secrets, lies and betrayals across two generations, and between two different families, all of whom are drawn together in the run up to a young couple’s impending wedding. These are characters who are a pleasure to spend time with; they’re each funny and flawed, loving and troubled in their own ways. And, all the more impressively, Ali keeps us on our toes throughout. I’m not saying there’s no happily ever after, but it might not be the happily ever after that you expect!