Exploring politics, power and protest

This summer, we’re diving into the BBC’s list of 100 novels that shaped our world.

One of the categories is politics, power and protest, and the BBC panel selected these 10 books:

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  • Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman
  • Strumpet City – James Plunkett
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • Unless – Carol Shields
  • V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

Charlie Brampton from the library told us about Home Fire:

Home Fire is a modern retelling of the Greek play Antigone, which demonstrates how plots and characters can remain universal even as the world around them changes beyond recognition.  Parvaiz, the brother in the family at the heart of the book, follows in his father’s footsteps and goes to Syria to fight with ISIS but immediately regrets his decision. He desperately wants to return to London and to his sisters, but is thwarted by both terrorists and the British state. It’s a bold choice for Shamsie to make such a flawed character ask for our sympathy, but she handles it beautifully. The relationship between Parvaiz and his two sisters is what makes this book so powerful. Their love for their brother forces them to make difficult choices and defy expectations.

As Charlie explains, the struggle for power is a timeless theme, which all these books touch on. Here are some questions about these books that we’ve been thinking about….

What would really happen if a group of young boys were shipwrecked on an island? Would it inevitably end in darkness and chaos, like Lord of the Flies?

When researching his book Humankind, Rutger Bregman learnt about six boys stuck on a Pacific island for fifteen months in the 1960s. Read this extract from Bregman’s book to see how they got on. (Spoiler: much better than their fictional counterparts)

What is a mockingbird? What does it look like?

For any questions about North American birds, the sumptuous (and huge) Birds of America from 1827-1830 by James Audubon is a great resource. See his painting of a mockingbird on Bridgeman Education and learn more about him and his book in this BBC documentary on Box of Broadcasts.

What music does Alan Moore listen to?

When he spent two hours with BBC 6 Music’s Richard Norris he played Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, X-Ray Spex, The Residents, Patti Smith and Sleaford Mods as well as some of his own music. You can hear it all on Box of Broadcasts.

Is Strumpet City the great Irish novel?

Well, that’s the question Eileen Battersby interrogates in the Irish Times. Have a read and see what she concludes.

Of course, this list of ten books could never capture all novels on this theme, but one striking absence is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Jane Scholey from the School of Education at Oxford Brookes told us about the impact of this book:

I was 15 when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It had just been published and was causing quite the stir.  It had such a profound impact on me – a teenage girl, living in a part of the country where men were fairly dominant, finding her way in the world, getting interested in politics. As I read the book then I was shocked and appalled by the treatment of the women of Gilead and Offred instantly became a hero of mine. A woman who would not give up but who was living in unimaginable circumstances. A woman who was a symbol for all the other women of Gilead and how they were being treated, not just by the men but by the ‘wives’ also. I could not believe such a situation would ever exist in ‘real’ life.  But, as we all know, situations like this do exist. 

The power of language is key in The Handmaid’s Tale – it explores the connection between a state’s repression of its subjects and its perversion of language. This fascinated me as a teenage girl and made me want to study the English language in much more depth, which I did and continue to do as a teacher. 

Reading the book then made me feel a strong sense of identity as a young woman. It also made me feel a sense of solidarity with other girls and women. I felt strangely empowered by Offred’s journey and struggle. Reading it again recently (for the fifth time), before The Testaments came out, it still shocked me. The appalling treatment of some people in parts of the world today shows how relevant Offred’s journey still is. 

Do you, like Jane, feel there’s a book about politics, power and protest that’s missing from the BBC’s list. Get in touch on Twitter (@brookeslibrary) or Instagram (@oxfordbrookeslibrary) and let us know.

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