These books each offer a very different journey through the mind. They consider the fallibility of memory and harnessing the power of exceptional mental ability. There are dystopian imaginings, of brainwashing and violence, and explorations of the ways that we cope when our minds fail us.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was communicated the only way that Jean-Dominique Bauby could, by blinking at the correct letter when a person slowly recited the alphabet. After a massive stroke, he had only one functioning muscle, his left eyelid. This is a poignant and humbling diary of life after the unthinkable and the resilience of the mind in the most awful of circumstances.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day is a subtly devastating novel about memory written by the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is the story of Mr Stevens, an ageing butler in an English country house obsessed with dignity and so desperate to hide his emotions that he is a mystery even to himself. Slowly his façade slips and his delusions are exposed. I, like many, finished it in tears.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
There’s a higher incidence of psychopaths among CEOs than prisoners. Jon Ronson’s book will leave you looking for them everywhere, trying to tick off the symptoms, wondering whether you might be one yourself (which conveniently is a sign that you’re not). Always funny and interesting, he interviews psychopaths and psychotherapists, scrutinises diagnostic testing and considers where the line between normality and madness is drawn.
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani
Gifted is a novel about a young girl with an exceptional mind. Rumi is a maths prodigy, she finds reassurance in numbers during a difficult childhood and at 14 is accepted to Oxford. It explores the tension between the freedom of education and the expectations of her family as she is pushed to her intellectual limits. Compassionate and funny, Nikita Lalwani creates characters who I always feel for, even at their worst.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
In this gripping dystopia, Naomi Alderman has created a world where teenage girls wake up one day with the mental ability to shoot electricity from their fingertips. Suddenly they are the ones with power. Men avoid them; boys are moved to same-sex schools and oppressed women rise up in revolutions around the world. It reads like a thriller and shines a bright light on the inequality in our own society.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson
When writer and academic Jeanette Winterson was a child, living in a dysfunctional home with a cruel, abusive mother, she decided to read every book in the library. She started at A, hiding under the covers because books weren’t allowed in the house. Reading gave her a place to retreat from her physical surroundings and eventually a means of escaping it. This is an emotional and profound memoir about the power of the mind to protect and overcome.
The Transition by Luke Kennard
The Transition is a dystopian love story about mentorship, mental illness and brainwashing. When a couple get into more debt than they can manage, instead of going to prison they are assigned mentors. They work through a 6-month programme designed to make them fully functioning members of society. It’s been described as “Black Mirror with a lighter touch”, and Luke Kennard’s prose is as surreal, funny and thoughtful as his poetry.
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
This novel can be difficult to follow at first. Told from the perspective of Maud, a 90-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease, the perspective is fragmented and confused. But underlying it all is a thriller. Emma Healey shares Maud’s journey with such skill, compassion and mystery that I found myself rushing to the end of each page.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Set on the dramatic Jurassic Coast, Remarkable Creatures is about a nineteenth-century palaeontologist. After being struck by lightning she gets ‘the eye’, the extraordinary ability to see fossils that others can’t and becomes one of the most successful fossil hunters of her day. It’s based on the life of Mary Anning – the original subject of the tongue twister she sells sea shells on the seashore – and is a stunning story about breaking conventions, obsession and evolution.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks was the world’s best-known neurologist. This is a collection of twenty-four of his essays on different aspects of the brain. It’s a fascinating and accessible look at the human mind using case studies of his most unusual patients, including a man who could not recognise objects, one who remembers nothing since 1945 and a woman whose brain doesn’t register anything to the left side of her body.
Illustration by Aysha Awwad