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Abigail Dean on Her Favourite Books on Survival

Posted on 30th September 2021 by Anna Orhanen

Survival sits at the heart of Abigail Dean's thrilling and critically acclaimed debut novel Girl A. Telling the story of Lex and her siblings, who following their mother's death in prison must come face to face with the horrors of their past, Girl A is at once a deft psychological thriller, an intricate character study, and a powerful tale of loss and recovery. In this exclusive piece, Dean recommends five remarkable books that explore survival, each telling a very different kind of story of overcoming hardship.

The Odyssey by Homer

The tale of Odysseus’s decade-long struggle to return from Troy is one of the world’s best known stories of survival. It’s also painfully perceptive in capturing survival in a landscape ravaged by the Trojan War, with all of the vengeful parties and precarious alliances that holds. Amongst mutiny, battles with the Cyclops, and the allure of the Sirens, the greatest pleasure in Homer’s work is just how relatable Odysseus’s struggles are, whether he’s groaning “What country have I come to this time?”, or passing just one more day to feast on Circe’s island: “We were not difficult to persuade.”

Odysseus gets the headline struggles, but one of the greatest displays of resilience in the tale is that of Penelope, who has waited “twenty wearisome years” for her husband’s return, unsure if he’s dead or alive. Her challenges may be domestic, but they’re no easier for that: she must deceive a swagger of suitors, manage a rebellious household, and raise a son who, at times, treats her with frustration and disgust. Redemption comes when the couple are finally united. This scene, my favourite of The Odyssey, is painfully understated; in the wake of their struggles, Odysseus and Penelope survey one another in silence, with everything and nothing to say.

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An unquestionable cornerstone of Western literature, Homer’s epic on Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan war and his wife Penelope’s faithful guardianship of their kingdom remains one of the greatest stories of courage, loyalty and survival ever told.
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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

When I was writing Girl A, I kept returning, dogged, to Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 masterpiece. The Road is the story of a father and son navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape to reach the coast, “each the other’s world entire”. Their journey is punctuated with moments of terrible horror. They are always on the brink of calamity: the road is paved with starvation, with ragged cannibals bands and mutilated bodies. But I returned to The Road not for its horrors, but for its redemption. As they walk, the father and boy share an on-going dialogue – as you may do, on an ordinary hike - about everything from the weather to the child’s latest nightmare. It’s the dialogue of a more normal time, and much harder to read for that. These details are what makes The Road so desperately moving: the small pleasures that the man reserves for the boy, alongside survival. In spite of everything, he is still trying to teach the boy how to swim. 

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A profoundly moving narrative of a father and son traversing a ravaged landscape, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece is an intimate examination of family and devotion in the bleakest of environments and circumstances.
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Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover’s memoir follows her from a mountain in Idaho, with no formal education, to a PhD at Cambridge. Some of Westover’s survival is down to hair’s breadth luck. She spends her childhood working with her father and siblings on the family junkyard: there’s a scene with a forklift and an iron tip which leaves your nerves in scraps. But Westover doesn’t just have to survive the visceral risks of life amidst metal and machinery. The heart of the book is survival in a life apart from her family: both in extracting herself from their delusions and violence, and learning to exist in the strange, new world of academia. In some of the most tender moments of the book, Westover is buoyed, wonderfully, by her university professors, and by her brother, Tyler.

If, in summary, Westover’s story sounds like a fairytale, that’s the fault of my own awe, and not the memoir itself. More than any other book I know, it acknowledges that in order to survive, it may be necessary to suffer terrible loss – to leave some people behind.

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Both a fascinating snapshot of survivalist, rural America and an uplifting tribute to the power of learning, Westover’s memoir charts her journey from a bleak Idaho childhood to a Cambridge-educated academic.
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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

There’s a myth – propagated, I admit, by some of the books on this list – that survival is a lone pursuit. But the wonder of A Little Life is that survival comes in the form of friendship, as Jude attempts to live life as an adult following a childhood of agonizing, unspeakable abuse. It’s the tenderness of these friendships that I remember best: Jude’s relationships with his doctor, Andy; with his professor, Harold; and with his old college roommates, Willem, Malcolm and JB. 

They are captured, beautifully, in Yanagihara’s comments on friendship and codependency: “Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not?” In a year when I’ve relied on friends like crutches – and, in moments when it was too late for crutches, more like pulleys – these lines move me more than ever.

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Focusing on a quartet of graduates as they embrace the seemingly limitless possibilities of New York City futures, A Little Life descends into a dark and involving tale of toxic relationships and the vicious scars of childhood.
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Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is the outcome of Art Spiegelman’s conversations with his father, a Holocaust survivor: the lonely, cantankerous Vladek. Vladek’s experiences of the Holocaust could make for a heroic story of survival. We follow him from the Sosnowiec Ghetto to Auschwitz, from Gross-Rosen to Dachau. But the elderly Vladek is an infuriating, racist figure, who chastises his son for wasting matches; who feigns a heart attack to ensure Art calls him back. Art feels sorry for Vladek only “’til I have to spend any time with him”. In the most painful segments of the novel, survival looks less like a triumph than a curse.

It’s the same curse that Tennyson called on Odysseus, when he imagined him back in the peace of Ithaca, “an idle king” who has “become a name”. After survival comes the messy business of living.

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An undisputed masterpiece of the graphic novel form, representing Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, Spiegelman’s profoundly moving work traces his father’s harrowing experiences of Auschwitz and the challenges of adjusting to peacetime life after an all-consuming ordeal.
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