Much of what makes books work for readers and makes them continue to work for generations of readers over long periods of time is the transfer of emotion. Often, when trying to work out why a book appeals, people will point to particular characters, or the plot, or the invented world, or the prose. All these things are of course vital parts of how a book delivers its effect, but I think readers often forget that what they like most is what all the nuts and bolts of the writing are making, the overall experience they create.
Books can make us laugh, cry, smile, curl up in contentment or despair, jump up and shriek, run out of the room, and recite passages to friends and family. They can provide relief or ratchet up anxiety; they can deliver hope and triumph and deep satisfaction at a world set to rights. Books help us feel an enormous range of emotions as we experience the lives of others through the medium of story.
It’s how we feel as we read a book that makes it memorable (or not).
There are quite a number of books I could choose that do the transfer of emotion extremely well, on top of everything else. Great stories, wonderful characters, absorbing worlds, prose that does exactly what is needed without getting in the way, and all of it coming together to deliver that extra, ineffable bonus of emotional transfer.
I have many books like this on my shelves. Dotted with tear-stains, or featuring dog-eared pages from particular sections I read over and over again, or simply falling apart at the binding from too many re-reads for comfort or hope or to recapture a feeling temporarily lost.
Here are just five.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner
This is probably the last of Garner’s books where the boiling, super-pressurized power of myth lurking beneath our world is perfectly mixed with the edge-of-the-precipice emotional charge of being young and uncertain of oneself, wanting love and not knowing how to find it, and how easily this can lead to hate and resentment. In deceptively simple, extraordinarily lucid prose Garner tells a story that is at the same time both realistic and deeply mythological and every time I read it I get the strongest sense of dread just lying in wait underneath ordinary life. The last few pages in particular are beyond brilliantly written and extraordinarily cathartic.
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
There are any number of books that have terrible things happen to the characters in them, including sexual violence. But very often these terrible things are mechanistic plot points, used fairly simply to propel the story or incite further events. We read them and move on, perhaps being reminded every now and again that something bad occurred to the character we are going along with. But we don’t really feel the shock of these events, or the continuing effect of them. There’s nothing wrong with this; indeed it may well be what both the writer and the writer want. Quite often it’s all I want from a book myself: that surface read that does not ask too much of the reader, and gives just enough in return. But then there are books like Deerskin, where McKinley writes so effectively of not only the terrible things done to Lyssa, but also the long-term effects of how she lives on after surviving them. The emotional transfer is so powerful that you really do feel something of what it is to be the unsuspecting victim, to be powerless, to have to flee and somehow live on despite physical wounds and crushing despair. But these bleak emotions are later perfectly balanced by love and hope, by the good in the world and in people (and dogs) slowly rising to gently but inexorably counter the terror and sorrow. It is not a bleak book at all (as I have heard someone erroneously describe it), but a joyous one, the joy all the greater for coming after terrible hardship.
Uncle Fred by P.G. Wodehouse
It’s not easy to consistently write an entire book that will make people laugh, and be able to do so with all parts of it: the characters, the dialogue, the descriptive prose, the situations and plot. Wodehouse does it all, seemingly effortlessly. I like to think of him as a fantasy writer, because he created a secondary world that is rather like England (and sometimes parts of the U.S., and the South of France) in the glow of the last summer of 1914 before the war, mixed with the 1920s surprised delight at being alive. A world which never changes and is unaffected by the terrible events of the first half of the 20th century. I could have chosen almost any Wodehouse book as an example of a book that evokes laughter, which makes mirth bubble up inside the reader with every page, to uncontrollably break out when particularly brilliant passages are read. I almost chose the Psmith books (“the p, I should add, for your guidance, is silent, as in pthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?”) but there are possibly just a few more moments of comedic brilliance in the Uncle Fred books. And “Uncle Fred Flits By” has a parrot with a lisp…
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
It is one thing to write a story about a star (like our sun, not the film or TV variety) who becomes a dog. It is a whole order of difficulty greater to be able to make the reader feel like a dog. While not forgetting this dog is also a star, wrongfully cast down from the heavens, not a human at all. Much of this book is from the viewpoint of the dog, with very doggy feelings and perceptions, and the reader is right there, experiencing being a dog. Not a human who happens to be in a dog shape, but a dog. It is doubly brilliant because Sirius is a star as well, and Diana Wynne Jones makes that work, communicating the strangeness and power of other beings who inhabit the galaxy and work at a level we can barely comprehend. Then there are multiple layers of story and emotion beyond even this, as we feel deeply the loneliness and courage of the small heroine, the ordinary dysfunction of families, the love that exists between people and their animals and even what it is to be connected to what some call terrorism and others patriotism.
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
I thought a long time about whether to include this book or its predecessor, A Wizard of Earthsea. Both classic fantasy novels, of course, and I’ve re-read them (and pretty much all of Le Guin’s work) many times. A Wizard of Earthsea is very powerful and in the course of it, the reader experiences pretty much the full gamut of emotions as Sparrowhawk grapples with ambition, fear, hope, misery, love and affection, loss and recovery (and more). But The Tombs of Atuan I think has more concentrated transfer of emotion, though in a narrower range. It infuses the reader with the sense of what it is to be slowly but surely buried alive, and not entirely metaphorically; and then there is the spark of possibility, escape and another life becomes something no longer beyond imagining, but a real opportunity. Yet the chance is slim, and the tension grows in the reader, the darkness presses on us just as it does upon Tenar and Ged…
Finally, I would like to make a special mention of The Lord of the Rings. Spoilers follow for the one person in the entire readership of Tor.com who has not read the books. There are many parts of this classic tale where Tolkien masterfully transfers emotion: from the simple comforts of food in the wilderness to the arrival of allies when the battle is certainly lost and hope is abandoned; to the bittersweet emotions that fill the reader as the cost of saving the world becomes apparent when the heroes return to find their home despoiled. The Shire is so much closer to our world than the rest of Middle Earth, and the hobbits also closer to us, so we feel their losses greatly; as we do the deep sadness that comes when we discover that Frodo, who suffered so greatly to do what had to be done, cannot enjoy the fruits of victory. But then, right at the end, there is the great reassurance of yellow light in a warm family home, there is love, the evening meal and a child on your lap.
Top image: Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (2008)
New York Times best-selling author Garth Nix, one of the most talked-about names in fantasy, is the author of Lirael, Sabriel, Abhorsen, Clariel, To Hold the Bridge, Newt’s Emerald, A Confusion of Princes, The Ragwitch, Shade’s Children, and most recently Goldenhand, available now from HarperCollins.