I admit my first reaction was to see if there was a way to bend the rules—what exactly counts as a “book”? Can I include Complete Works? Facing-page translations? After abandoning my attempts to “cheat” this hypothetical situation, I tried to balance the familiar with the new, the entertaining with the mind-bendingly complex. (I should probably be concerned that practicality—like, maybe a Girls Scout’s guide?—didn’t really enter into my consideration).
Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey (Fagles translation)
Capricious gods? Crafty heroes? Petulant warriors? Coercive relationships? Homer really knew how to check all the boxes. Ever since my parents introduced me to D’Aulaires, I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology. I love the stark beauty of the Fagles translation, and I know I can find magic, mystery and humor ever time I read about Achilles’ temper tantrums, Paris’s preening and Penelope’s antics to keep her suitors at bay. Besides, stranded on my own desert island, I’d likely discover new pathos for Odysseus as he makes his long, long journey home.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Since my isolation may well turn me into the madwoman in the attic, Rhys’s brilliant, postcolonial reinterpretation of Jane Eyre’s antagonist as a Creole heiress trapped and tormented in a strange land feels like the right desert island pick. I love books that reimagine the well-worn villains and side-notes of literature and history, and Rhys’s masterpiece is among the best of that ilk.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
I love being transported when I read—and probably would find this kind of escape even more necessary when trapped on a desert island. Rushdie’s novels in general, and Midnight’s Children in particular, contain so much intertwining of the real and the mythic, the fantastical and the mundane, that no matter how familiar I grew with these pages, I know I’d always be able to find something new.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a gorgeous, heart-wrenching gem of a novel. It traces the horrors of the Nigerian civil war primarily through the eyes of two twin girls who chart very different courses as they struggle to survive this nightmarish époque in their nation’s history. It is a war novel drawn on a very real human scale—Adichie’s taste for detail brings her characters into flawed, aching life.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I’ve only read Marlon James’ masterpiece once, but the depth and intricacy of both the language and storytelling is breathtaking. The book includes first person accounts of everyone from a conflicted drug kingpin to a blasé Rolling Stone reporter to an ordinary woman on the lam. In addition to James’ vivid prose and flare for cinematic scene writing, the interwoven plots explore events with which I only have limited familiarity: gang violence in ‘70s Jamaica, the crack wars in ‘90s New York, and the assassination of Bob Marley. The book charts a chaotic, overwhelming era, and echoes that sentiment both structurally and linguistically. Some serious desert-island solitude would give me the time and space to fully plum its depths.
Emily Holleman is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently working on the Fall of Egypt series, a set of historical novels that reimagines the saga of Cleopatra from the perspective of her younger sister, Arsinoe. The latest in the series, The Drowning King, is out now.