Who among us hasn’t dreamed at times of revolution, of abandoning our routines and starting fresh, shaking our lives like dice in a cup? Even for one whose situation is perfectly satisfactory, imagining a total disruption can beguile. It’s the ultimate rebellion against mortality, for potential is nearly synonymous with youth. We are born wandering an intact Pangaea of possibility; the choices we make, and the years ticking by, break continents away under our feet until we are each left standing on a small personal island of identity. There we are deemed to be in our final form and can be spoken of as having ended up. The urge toward self-reinvention goes deeper than the risible “midlife crisis” of popular culture; it’s a cri de coeur from that island, insisting: “I am more than I seem.” Even, “The world is bigger than this.”
Upheaval can pose fundamental questions about identity. Our small islands have been shaped by us, but have shaped us as well. In my novel The Possible World, three characters each find themselves abruptly spilled into unfamiliar lives: six-year-old Ben, the only survivor of a brutal crime; his doctor Lucy, facing the dissolution of her marriage; centenarian Clare, harbouring her own story of cataclysm, carrying secrets that will affect the destiny of the other two. All of them struggle with memory, identity and meaning while seeking a way forward into their new lives.
Maybe we read about disruption to avoid having to undergo it. Here are some books that offer vicarious experiences of mayhem and renewal:
1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2014)
The riveting saga of Ursula Todd, who is born and dies in 1910 and is then reborn again and again into the same life, things going a little bit differently each time. She carries memories forward, and as the world marches through one war and then into another, the reader wonders if she will be able to budge the course of history. It is a masterpiece. I strongly recommend the audiobook; the narrator Fenella Woolgar’s performance is a tour de force of its own.
2. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
At first we might pity Eleanor, the 30-year-old odd-bird outcast who lives in a rut of lonely vodka weekends and supermarket pizza. When a sudden passion for a pop star jolts Eleanor out of her track and she resolves to remake herself, her journey out of isolation is hilarious, surprising and poignant. The book doesn’t shy away from serious themes – “loneliness is the new cancer”, Eleanor says – but the sadness is perfectly balanced with hope. Damaged, quirky and above all resilient, Eleanor is a modern heroine.
3. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Evangelist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters from 1950s America to the Congo. The Prices drop into Africa as naively as babes landing in the jaws of crocodiles. Told in multiple voices, this is a coming-of-age story in quadruplicate, as well as a parable about colonial arrogance. A family reinvents itself here, and also a country: the spectacular backdrop is a culture undergoing massive changes of its own.
4. Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee (1989)
A dark odyssey about a suddenly widowed Indian teenager who decides to fulfil her late husband’s cherished dream of moving from Punjab to Florida. She reinvents herself as needed, from Jyoti into Jasmine, Jazzy, and Jase, and finally into Jane, a 24-year-old Iowan housewife. Her voyage brings her to a crisis: she must decide which of her many selves is the authentic one, and which life can claim to be her destiny.
5. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003)
This epic tome recounts the exploits of an Australian prison escapee who gets off a train into the chaos of Bombay. He disappears into the city, tucking himself into the slums and a vigorous exile. The tale is narrated with an irresistible, can-you-believe-it grin, its author an Australian prison escapee who lived a decade in Bombay. The line between fact and fiction is aggressively blurred. Best not to speculate – simply hang on for the long, wild ride.
6. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
The memoir of a daughter, wife and mother, who has all of those identities ripped away simultaneously when her parents, husband and two young sons are taken by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami. You would not think that anyone could survive such a loss without going mad – and she does go a little bit mad in this short book, which is something of a contained howl. It’s also a brave exploration of grief, and a luminous celebration of her lost loved ones.
7. Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas (2000)
A fortyish urbanite cherishing a lifelong yearning for open spaces drives past a picturesque farm one day – and buys it. She and her boyfriend upend their lives, and while the story of their adjustment is at many points highly comical, it is not a slapstick romp, it’s an engaging and tender testament to the beauty of the unexpected and the rewards of following your heart. There is indeed a poodle, who stars in perhaps the funniest anecdote in the book.
8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)
When a mysterious rose-pink envelope arrives for Harold, a 65-year-old man who “doesn’t know anyone anywhere”, it ruptures his stagnant life. His spontaneous decision to walk 600 miles to answer the letter makes a captivating, uproariously funny, often profound pilgrimage story. There are actually two pilgrims in this book, both grappling with buried sorrows and seeking redemption: Harold, walking through the beautifully described countryside, and his wife left behind at home. A deeply sentimental, highly enjoyable book.
9. His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (2008)
Che Selkirk never knew his parents, outlaw hippie terrorists who abandoned him to a life of sanitised privilege with his wealthy grandmother. He’s eight years old in 1972 when he opens the front door of his Manhattan home to a woman he thinks might be his mother. When a chance to abscond with her arises, he willingly goes. The two skip across the globe, evading authorities, and end up in the Australian wilderness. In a matter of days, Che goes from upper-crust American to unwashed child savage. A fascinating, highly layered novel.
10. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (1976)
From its opening words, “I planned my death carefully,” the reader is consumed by the dilemma of Joan Foster, who has made a habit of secrets. A celebrated poet, a beauty and a wife, she is concealing a past of morbid obesity, a current infidelity and a flourishing career as a romantic novelist. Tripping over her own deceptions, she fakes her death and escapes to Italy. There, memory clouds Joan’s new life in a way she didn’t anticipate, and she realises that there may be a limit to one person’s capacity to self-reinvent. Wickedly intelligent, this is an early Atwood gem.