My own 'little black book' that lives at my bedside records three hundred and something novels that I've read since I started recording them in the late nineteen nineties. I entertain myself by giving them a mark out of ten and this helps me remember them I suppose, as much as grade them, for the grading does not attempt to be objective, it is indulgently personal.
To score a ten the book really has to move me on several levels. First it has to be a good read. Second it has to be a celebration of the use of language. Third it needs to give me some insights that cause me to engage. This will often involve the worst aspect of a novel: that point somewhere after the middle of the book, when I slow down my reading because I am frightened that the book will finish, leaving me bereft and wanting more. There are probably more criteria that I use, and some of these will be entirely unconscious, but overall, a really good novel helps me to feel that I'm able to participate in an extra life, while also carrying on with my own.
The book shown above, The Secret Scripture, is most certainly a ten for me. I finished it weeks ago, and am into my third book since, but it still hasn't left me. The place is Ireland- Sligo to be precise, and the time scale is a broad century leading up to the 1950's. The subject is the interacting lives of several people on the periphery of Ireland's great social and political turmoil- 'the troubles'- and the damaging paternalism of the social structures of the time. The lives examined are ones that we can identify with though, they aren't the movers and shakers, they are deeply human and flawed in the ways that we all are. But it is the writing that lifts the story off the page. It is an Irish sort of voice, and very pictorial, and sometimes I found it hard to believe that it was mere printed words that I was reading.
I can't wait to run out of options so that I have time to read it again.