Winter is made for reading. Sitting by a fire or under a blanket, a mug of something warm in one hand, getting lost in a ghost story or a murder mystery. It’s a season for books that are weighty, that span generations or continents, that are absorbing enough to spend all day in. Here are my top ten books to read when it’s too cold to go outside.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
A re-working of the 19th century gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, this is a mythic, dark book. In Sarah Perry’s version, Melmoth is a woman, tall and dressed in black, with bleeding feet, the embodiment of loneliness. She follows the guilty and forces them to face what they have done. This is a novel about redemption and forgiveness, about bearing witness and what that means, and the backdrop of Prague, covered in snow, is richly drawn. It might give you nightmares.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I hadn’t planned to read Normal People in one go but I couldn’t help myself. Set in Trinity College Dublin, it charts the relationship of Marianne and Connell, two characters who feel so real, and are so likeable, that I ended up missing them once I got to the end, worrying about them, wondering what they were doing now. It’s generous, expertly observed and intelligent, touching on a wide range of themes for what is a simple story, including class, privilege, anxiety and trauma.
Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders
For a novel about Abraham Lincoln and his dying son that’s set in a cemetery, with characters who are mostly spirits transitioning from life to death, Lincoln In The Bardo is surprisingly funny. It’s also very poignant, a tender meditation on grief and loss. Written in an experimental style that often feels like a play, it’s fresh and original, unlike anything else I’ve read.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
On a freezing New England college campus, an elite group of students studying Ancient Greek are involved in a murder. This is a Greek tragedy in a comparatively modern world (the ‘90s) with the twists and turns of a mystery. The characters are utterly unlikeable but compelling, they’re privileged and entitled, the narrator an outsider who will do anything to be part of the group. It’s the sort of book you can lose a weekend to.
Winter by Ali Smith
Winter is the second of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet (although you don’t need to have read Autumn to enjoy it). A family comes together for Christmas in Cornwall and we’re transported to their Christmases past. It’s a depiction of England as it is now, today. There’s an urgency to this novel, but there’s also humour and wit and at the heart of it, a human story about love and art.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Winter is the perfect time to take on a classic and Middlemarch is one of my favourites. At almost 900 pages it’s epic, with a large cast of characters set in a provincial town in Victorian England. The characters fall in and out of love, they get married, they deal with failure and disappointment, grief and loneliness, they embark on social reform projects and struggle with trying to do the right thing. Virginia Woolf called it ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ and its wit and psychological insight still feel so relevant today.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
One winter a girl goes missing in a rural Yorkshire village. The community is shocked, they search for her on the moors, they speak to the visiting news crews. Each chapter is a subsequent year as the villagers move on or move away, and carry on with their own lives. It’s a deeply moving novel about the passing of time and Jon McGregor somehow fits all of life into 300 pages in sparse, beautiful prose.
All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wild
I read this with a creeping sense of dread. The narrative moves both backwards and forwards in time, alternating between a farm on a British island where sheep are being picked off one by one and the dry heat of the Australian outback. Slowly, slowly we find out about Jake’s past and what has lead her to this isolated life thousands of miles from home. The language is poetic and haunting, and it’s as tense and gripping as a thriller.
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
Set in Sheffield from 1974 to 1996, The Northern Clemency is a portrait of an era, of cheese-and-pineapple on sticks and striking miners and Margaret Thatcher. Two families live across the road from each other and over the decades their lives intersect, the children grow up, they take divergent paths. Reading it feels like following the lives of real people, never sure what they’re going to do next.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
The first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize, Sabrina is an unsettling look at the modern world. It begins with the disappearance of a young woman, and explores the influence of social media on truth, the public consumption of personal tragedy and the power of fake news and conspiracy theories. It’s an intense and thought-provoking story drawn in muted colours and with a visual subtlety that makes it incredibly powerful. I read it in an hour on a rainy afternoon but it has stayed with me for far longer.
Illustrations by @ayshaillustrates