I always find the question ‘what is your favourite book?’ a difficult one.
A few titles spring to mind, and I soon find myself in a tangle. Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is a stand-out because the story was so ‘disturbing’ I had to stop reading for a little while. Anything that makes me feel that much always prompts my admiration. David Nicholls’ beautiful ‘One Day’ pretty much inspired me to write my first novel ‘This is a Love Story’. ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, by Jeanette Winterson had me in tears of awe on several occasions. I could list many more.
In short, I have read a number of stunning novels that all compete with each other in the ‘favourite book’ stakes, and when asked in the past, I’d rather not wanted to commit to one. Until now.
This morning I was snug as a bug in a rug, curled up in bed with several cups of coffee, finishing ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor. I discovered this novel because I’m collecting the gorgeous VMC Designer Collection, and Angel is a part of it. Its cover design (pictured) has been beautifully crafted by Celia Birtwell, (responsible for a popular range in Topshop a few years ago).
The novel was first published in the UK back in 1957, and this celebratory VMC copy has an introduction by Hilary Mantel. When I was reading Mantel’s words, I already knew that this book could be quite special… Mantel says “… what Elizabeth Taylor does is to de-romanticise the process of writing and show it to us close up, so we are aware that if ten per cent of the process is exhilaration, the rest is tedium, backache, and the fear of failure.” She discusses the vanity required to keep this going, adding that writers are ‘monstrous’. My interest was well and truly sparked!
‘Angel’ follows novelist Angel Deverell from her petulant teenage years living in poverty, up until the last moments of her life, surrounded by the decaying trappings of her own success. Angel is a fascinating character. She is so stunningly written by Taylor that she feels real despite the passage of time that has slipped away since this story was penned. It’s rare that novels can conjure up this much imagery. It was as if there was a feature film flickering across my eyes as I read every word. I devoured paragraph after paragraph of delicious prose, descriptions so rich I found myself blown away by Taylor’s talent.
I must include a minor ***spoiler alert*** before I discuss this book in any more detail… Although there is so much more to this novel than my review reveals (for those who would like to read on), anyone who likes to go in ‘blind’ may want to stop here and come back later.
I will go on now, (if you are still with me…) Angel, in a nutshell, is pretty obnoxious. She can be strikingly cruel, and almost impervious to her vile behaviour towards the people around her who fawn over her every whim. Yet despite all this, she is somehow loveable (a nod to the author’s expert characterisation). Angel is courageous, and bold. She speaks up for herself in a world where everyone tries to control and undermine her. She believes in herself like nothing else. That is a rare quality to admire, however clumsy her ways of showing it. The result is a lead character who made me cringe with her bolshy ways, and who I also became more and more fond of, as the book progressed.
The reader is transported with Angel as she launches to fame as a young author. She is published in her teens by a company in London, who are baffled when she turns up in their office, a strange looking young girl with a chip on her shoulder. She refuses to make the changes to her novel demanded by the publisher, and yet they still print it. This says a lot about her relationship with the world.
Angel then enjoys unprecedented success, writing novel after novel, although her works (while popular) are mocked by critics, for whom she develops a venomous hatred towards (this made me giggle at times).
I don’t want to give too much away so I should stop now…
Essentially there are several reasons why I think this book may now be the best I have ever read. The first being that Taylor’s writing is so skilled – I agree with the sentiment of this article. Elizabeth Taylor is immensely underrated, described as “one of the best English novelists born of this century” and yet so few know of her now.
The next reason is how much the themes of the book meant to me. Being an writer, I read with fascination about Angel’s bizarre vanity and self adoration, but yet I still felt her struggles. I’m sure that legions of writers would be able to relate to the pressure she put on herself to write something bigger and better, and truly know how nerve-wracking this is. I was interested in her constant struggle to fulfil the demands of her own vanity and yet not alienate ‘her public’ as her publisher so elegantly put it. And then there were those terrifying moments of self-doubt, which still got to her despite her steely exterior… I related to all of it in some way, for writers very well might be ‘monsters’ as Mantel says, constantly in a battle between their own ambitions and dreams, and the inevitable criticism that comes with their territory, whether internal or external.
Angel is really a one-off. So representative, (however much an exaggeration), of the painful and yet wonderful reality of being a writer.. I am so glad I read this novel, and I hope you will too. It’s sharp, funny, and also heartbreakingly sad and it might just be my new favourite book…