Gail Godwin’s new novel, Grief Cottage, follows an orphan who lives on a South Carolina island and returns daily to an abandoned, possibly haunted home. Below, Godwin recommends six other books that tap into the power of remote settings.
Best books...chosen by Gail Godwin
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (Dover, $4.50). The Earnshaws held their own in the wild isolation of the Yorkshire moors until the day Mr. Earnshaw brought home a dirty, ragged boy from Liverpool. The sullen Heathcliff wins his way into the hearts of the father and daughter Cathy, and eventually becomes master of the place. Is Heathcliff the devil incarnate, or simply endowed with greater passion and single-minded willpower?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14). By isolating her characters on an un-particularized island in the Scottish Hebrides, Woolf succeeds in breaking down their concreteness and wrapping them in what she labeled the “luminous halo” of human consciousness. This is the book I return to whenever I need proof that further possibilities for representing the human drama are still out there.
Lost Horizon by James Hilton (Harper Perennial, $16). After a plane crash-lands in the Himalayas, four English survivors become guests/ prisoners in the mysterious Tibetan lamasery of Shangri-La. Depending on your point of view, either you feel while reading this 1933 classic that you’ve found your true spiritual home, or you want to escape its peculiar utopia and get back to rotten, assertive civilization.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Penguin, $10). Golding told his wife he wanted to write a novel showing how real boys behave when no adults are around. He invented a plane full of British schoolboys that crashes on a paradisiacal coral island, and in 12 chapters showed how quickly isolated young humans can regress to a state of savage darkness.
The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy (Dial, $17). “The lushness of the island and the remarkable isolation of the school appealed to the do-gooder in me,” Conroy explains in this 1972 memoir, about the year he spent as a young man teaching Gullah children on a South Carolina barrier island.
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Mariner, $15). A compressed, intensified masterpiece about living in extreme poverty on a London houseboat. When the novel won 1979’s Booker Prize, the literary establishment was livid.