Top 10 Novels and Stories of the 1970s | fiction

THEThinking back to the ’70s and my own bookshelves, I realize how fertile it was for fiction, especially for novels and stories written by women. The feminist movement led to a burgeoning of books on the female experience, and some male writers seemed to focus more on the troubles and joys of family life. Of course, as in any other period of literary history, all writers were driven by the personal and singular impulses of the imagination.

When the following books were first published all these years ago – like some of my stories – I was often torn between household responsibilities and writing. Somehow, I was fortunate enough to find time to read as well, and the different voices of these writers were in my head, guiding and inspiring me as I attended to my real and fictitious families.

1. God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam (1978)
Eight-year-old Margaret Marsh watches the parentheses of mortal life – her little brother with his head tilted and an elderly woman in an oversized pram – and thinks the world would be a better place without people. Her mother half-heartedly advocates for humanity while Margaret’s father, the leader of a fanatical religious sect, sprinkles her with biblical quotes. Margaret has other influences: Lydia, her lax and outspoken nanny; adult siblings Charles and Binkie, who have a mysterious connection to Margaret’s mother; and the inhabitants of a decaying asylum in which she wanders. The surprising connections between all of these characters are gradually and brilliantly revealed. God on the Rocks is a masterpiece of comedy and tragedy in which fallible people inhabit an imperfect world.

2. Do you want to shut up, please? Raymond Carver stories (1976)
The lives of Raymond Carver’s working-class characters are told in short tales of longing and misery. Carver’s language is deceptively simple, as in this opening line: “Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. The reader, drawn as if he were listening to strangers, is rewarded with a surprising psychological complexity. The mother of a violently disturbed boy tries to escape his terrifying reality. A man hears his waitress’ customers ridicule her body and force her to lose weight. The “happy” Millers begin to occupy their neighbor’s apartment on vacation, which leads to a disastrous toll. The stories in this collection remain a ruthless portrayal of how we live.

3. Final payments by Mary Gordon (1978)
When Isabel Moore’s demanding and devoutly Catholic father dies after a series of strokes, she no longer has to care for him in the terrifying freedom of independence. Isabel was 19 when she became her babysitter after her mother died, and now she is 30 supernatural. Two friends offer advice and support, and two men become her lovers. Isabel, who struggles with the sense of Christian love, must choose between the pleasures of an unfettered life and do penance for an act that contributed to her father’s fatal illness. Final Payments was Mary Gordon’s first novel, and it is remarkably insightful and accomplished.

4. The Living End of Stanley Elkin (1979)
Dickens, with his wit and compassion, may be the literary ancestor of Stanley Elkin; this triptych in which much of the action takes place in Heaven and Hell, also makes one think of Dante. Elkin’s story begins in an American earthly city, where Saint Ellerbee is murdered in a hold-up. After having glimpsed paradise, he finds himself deposited in hell, where he challenges God to have abandoned him. Like many of Elkin’s characters, his sarcastic God could be in the moonlight as a stand-up comic as he condemns Ellerbee on the smallest of trumped-up charges. Two other people sent to hell – the sidekick of Ellerbee’s murderer and a graveyard keeper – also protest their eternal fate in this rousing, irreverent and hilarious novel.

Joan Plowright in the title role of Mrs. Palfrey’s 2005 film at the Claremont. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

5. Mme Palfrey at Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
Attentive parents, especially grandchildren, are the main motto of Claremont, a retirement hotel in London. But Ms Palfrey’s proud, recently widowed grandson Desmond did not respond to his numerous invitations to visit him. Following a street accident, she meets Ludo, an insolvent young writer with an indifferent family, and a mutually satisfying arrangement ensues. He pretends to be Desmond, and as she offers him meals in the dining room at the Claremont, they form a deep and loving bond. Yet even the joyous and harmless disappointment must end. It is a dark and sentimental look at the loneliness of old age and the vicissitudes of human attachment.

6. Gayl’s Corregidora Jones (1975)
Toni Morrison was the editor-in-chief of this powerful debut novel, which opens with a scene of violence told in an almost detached first-person voice. Ursa Corregidora, blues singer and descendant of slaves raped by their masters, is thrown down a staircase by her jealous husband, causing her to lose the baby she is carrying and her ability to fulfill the family mandate of “making generations”. Ursa’s story is interspersed with a competing account, in italics, of her great-grandmother’s brutal experience of enslaving a man also named Corregidora. Ursa first heard these memories when she was five years old, sitting on “Great Gram’s” lap, and was slapped for not believing it. The double narratives continue and merge, the past haunting and informing the present. Together they form a work of visceral fiction and a hard and necessary history lesson.

7. Nahid Rachlin’s Stranger (1978)
Feri, an Iranian-American, visits her father in Tehran and is dismayed at the unease she feels in her rigidly patriarchal homeland. She discovers that her mother, who had abandoned her as a child, apparently for religious activities, was in fact parted with a lover. Feri’s American life, including his own marriage, is tenuous. She finds her mother now deserted and destitute and knows an unexpected happiness. When Feri’s husband comes to claim her, she is caught between two cultures, two rival loyalties. Rachlin beautifully portrays the urgency of Feri’s dilemma and the peace his decision brings him.

8. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
First published in 1975 as a children’s novel, it contains all the ingredients – fantasy, adventure and young romance – that a young audience appreciates. The four members of the Tuck family drink from a rural spring and find that none of them age or die. Eighty-seven years later, when (perpetually) teenager Jesse Tuck meets Winnie Foster, an overprotected girl who both thirsts and fears excitement, Endless Life becomes a questionable gift. This wonderfully imagined story about the dream of immortality and the certainty of death still fascinates readers of all ages.

9. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970)
Sophie and Otto Bentwood lead privileged lives. But there are external and internal encroachments on their happiness and security. Their pretty urban street borders an underprivileged neighborhood, Otto and his legal partner are bitterly under siege, and Sophie is still consumed by an affair that ended years before. Then, she is bitten by a wild cat that she feeds and continues to delay treatment of the festering wound. The narrative suspense of this compressed and exquisitely written novel is matched only by the growing emotional tension between its quietly desperate characters.

10. Grendel by John Gardner (1971)
Grendel, in the Old English poem Beowulf, is descended from the biblical Cain. In a sort of evolutionary reversal, he’s a serial killer, man-eating monster, with feelings limited to rage and revenge. His death – after his arm was torn off in a battle with the heroic Beowulf – is cause for celebration. In John Gardner’s novel, we hear Grendel’s point of view, and he has a few extra human qualities, such as curiosity and wit. He still crunches the bones of his victims – he’s a monster, after all – but in Gardner’s poetic, soaring prose he’s both villainous and anti-hero, uncomfortably reminding us of ourselves.


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