The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow counts among its memorable characters the vividly portrayed New Orleans of the 1950’s. Social issues, music and food all contribute to the sensory imagery that immediately comes to mind about this time, and reading Rita Leganski’s outstanding novel reminded me of other incredible books set in the same time period.
Here, then, is my list of top five books set in the 1950’s – with one honourable mention. Remember to leave a comment below for your chance to WIN a finished copy of “The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow” from HarperCollins!
* The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Hightower This classic psychological thriller about a unstable young man who slowly and carefully takes over the life of the man he obsesses over is augmented by vivid descriptions of life in New York and later Italy during the mid-1950’s. There’s an unsettling feeling in the back of your mind when you read about Ripley and his amoral observations on life. He slides into life in Italy with ease, preferring Dickie’s easy life to his baser beginnings, and shows little to no remorse for his actions. You may not like him, but you will recognize him in every sociopath you have met since.
* The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos There’s something iconic about the thought of Cuba in the 1950’s. Life before Castro’s revolution calls upon images of suave and sophisticated mambo stars, dancing with seductively beautiful women at clubs in the hot, sultry night air. Hijuelos’ novel paints a vivid picture of this life, making the contrast of the brothers’ move to the US so disconcerting. While the movie did a great job of illustrating life in Cuba in the 1950’s, nothing can beat the beautiful language used in the book.
* The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje This beautifully written tale of an 11-year-old Ceylonese boy named Michael who travels unaccompanied by ship to England is set in the early 1950’s. There is still residual fear about what might lurk in the dark waters by some of the characters, but the joy in reading about the hijacks enacted by Michael and his friends as they explore the ship and spy on the mysterious prisoner locked below create a novel of character and gorgeous imagery. This is a not-to-be-missed work of genius if you have not already read it.
* The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey Set in both Scotland and Iceland, and spanning the 1950’s and 60’s (okay, it’s a bit of a cheat), this is an epic homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The vivid descriptions of Gemma’s life, first being moved from uncaring relative to unfeeling school, then finally to the remote Orkney Islands sets the right gothic tone for the scenes of isolation. What is even better is the attention to detail in creating deeper backgrounds for Bronte’s beloved – and desperate – characters.
* Agatha Christie’s 1950’s Omnibus by Agatha Christie Comprised of They Came to Baghdad, Destination Unknown, Ordeal by Innocence and The Pale Horse, this omnibus is a bit of a cheat for me. It brings together some of Christie’s lesser known but interesting characters in a mix of spy and mystery stories, all flavored by the international styling’s of the 1950’s. There’s a darker tone to her work in the 1950’s – people are more suspicious, and the psychological thriller aspects are augmented by the mystery of travel and new cultures.
Honourable Mention: First published in 1953, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White remains a classic to this day. The story of a young girl named Fern, her young pig Wilbur and a rather remarkable spider named Charlotte, and this enchanting tale has captured the imaginations of countless children. While there is no defined time period for this novel, I’ve always believed that White chose to set it in his present day, leaving us with bucolic images of country farms, fall fairs and an all-too-familiar 50’s style social structure, recreated in the barnyard.
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