Kamila Shamsie's 6 favorite books inspired by literary classics

The highly praised novelist recommends works by James Joyce, Philip Pullman, and more

Kamila Shamsie.
(Image credit: Zain Mustafa)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Norton, $15).

I admit it: I've never cared for Jane Eyre. But when I read Rhys' novel about "the madwoman in the attic" — whom Charlotte Brontë uses only as a plot device — I came to be deeply grateful to Jane Eyre for having provoked such a powerful response.

Ulysses by James Joyce (Vintage, $17).

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The granddaddy of all classical retellings, and simply one of the greatest novels ever written. Joyce closely followed the structure of The Odyssey, but rather than writing about a great adventurer who travels the world for 10 years, Joyce gives us a salesman making his way around Dublin across 24 hours. Ulysses is often described as the hardest book in the world to finish, but that's no reason not to start it.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (Yearling, $27).

Milton's Paradise Lost provided the template for Pullman's trilogy of gloriously imaginative stories about two children wandering between worlds and considering the nature of humanity amid their great and terrifying adventures. And which of us has read it without trying to work out what creature our personal daemon might be? I still haven't settled on mine.

Wise Children by Angela Carter (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15).

This bawdy, greathearted, brilliant novel isn't based on any one Shakespeare play, but it's infused with Shakespearean references, themes, and ideas.

House of Names by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, $26).

Tóibín is one of the finest writers at work today, well up to the challenge of making the blood-drenched story of The Oresteia his own. Anyone thinking, "But I already know this story!" will be wrenched out of that thought upon reading Tóibín's account of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter to appease the gods, as told from the perspective of the girl's mother, Clytemnestra.

Leaf Storm by Gabriel García Márquez (Harper Perennial, $13).

I became aware of this book of stories about the time I started thinking about writing my own adaptation of Antigone. When I started to read the title novella, I was gripped, but had to put it down because I didn't want to think about Márquez's adaptation while working on my own. Time to pick it up again.

Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire, a novel that presents a British-Pakistani student at Amherst as a modern Antigone, was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

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