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Have you read them yet? Here are four books by British author Sue Townsend that will leave you in splits

Despite her pessimism and caustic humour, Sue Townsend’s stories are therapeutic for all decades and centuries. Here are four books you should read by the famous British author.

books Updated: Jun 01, 2018 23:10 IST
Prerna Madan
Prerna Madan
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sue Townsend,Sue Townsend author,British author
Sue Townsend (AP Photo)

We love books. But no matter how much we read, there are always dusty shelves and stories – real or fictional – that we still haven’t opened our eyes to.

So every month, we’ll write about a topic, an author or a series that catches our attention. Whether it is James Bond or Scandinavian noir, the idea is to celebrate bestsellers across the world and discover more about the unknown faces behind forgotten books.

Bookworm or not, we promise there’ll be a little bit for everyone, because after all, books are forever.

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Life’s never been easy.

In the 17th century, the church executed Galileo for suggesting the Earth is round. Today those flat-earthers are mocked for churning conspiracies as NASA posts mesmerizing images of the planet from space. A few centuries on, the world wars throttled ahead with their devastations. Today, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is willing to talk to the US. Even the predictability of a James Bond novel can be shaken and stirred in this era of absurd, led of course by Donald Trump.

So how do you cope up with instability?

You laugh; even if it means ridiculing a ghost in a horror film to steer away your discomfort.

And no one understands this feeling better than Sue Townsend, a bestseller novelist celebrated in Great Britain but largely invisible beyond the island. Her novels scoff at all things the English were so fond of – the Royal family, the Empire, the prized primness and the self-accorded distinction of exclusivity. Townsend takes these values and crushes them with make-believe scenarios that leave its readers in splits --- from the unlikely end of monarchy to the very realistic rants of a teenager documenting his pimples.

Despite her pessimism and the big-brotherly eye on society, Townsend’s stories are therapeutic for all decades and centuries, presumably like etiquettes were (or still are) for the English. The simplicity and satire in her prose is refreshingly flexible as characters transform fluently from a 50-something mother to a prime minister disguised as a commoner. Remarkably, the author makes even the Queen of England seem human.

Here are four books by Townsend you ought to read:

The Queen and I (1992)

Townsend’s most consistent and inevitable device is humour, which truly comes alive in The Queen and I. Even though she isn’t the first individual -- or really just anyone with a brain -- to ask why the Queen is still relevant, the novel is purely hilarious.

A Republican party, properly elected by the English, does the unthinkable with the blessings of its supporters: eliminate constitutional monarchy. The Queen and her family are forced to live in ‘Hell Close’ on a commoner’s pension, which obviously means the grumpy Philip gives up and goes to bed. Forever.

Princess Diana and Charles – the divorce isn’t in picture yet although the loveless marriage is still rocky – too live in a dingy house with little furniture and no servants. It’s outlawed to use address the family by their erstwhile royal titles.

Townsend plays on caricatures of the English Royals to give a comedy of extreme proportions. The analogies aren’t lost if you’ve noticed how Netflix series, The Crown, has dramatized relations between the family and its politics.

Even though Townsend was sympathetic to the House of Windsors, the novel reminded me of an interview by the British-American comedian and host of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver. “I mean, they’re an emotionally stunted group of fundamentally flawed people still doing a very silly pseudo job,” he summed it up in one perfect breadth.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ (1982)

It was hard at first to get used to the tone of a hormone-driven teen just after reading a lampoon of the Royal British family, but that’s the dexterity of Townsend. Adrian Mole documents, with his limited vocabulary, the precise age at which things start going wrong until the final fall into adulthood’s abyss. At 13, Adrian hovers between counting the number of acne on his face to worrying about his father while his mother is off gallivanting with their neighbour.

The Adrian Mole series are Townsend’s most successful work, but what makes them special, even unique, with an ordinary coming-of-age story, is the boy himself. Sample this diary entry by Adrian:

Tuesday January 13th

My father has gone back to work. Thank God! I don’t know how my mother sticks him.

Mr Lucas came in this morning to see if my mother needed any help in the house. He is very kind. Mrs Lucas was next door cleaning the outside windows. The ladder didn’t look very safe. I have written to Malcolm Muggeridge, c/o the BBC, asking him what to do about being an intellectual. I hope he writes back soon because I’m getting fed up being one on my own. I have written a poem, and it only took me two minutes. Even the famous poets take longer than that. It is called ‘The Tap’, but it isn’t really about a tap, it’s very deep, and about life and stuff like that.

The Tap, by Adrian Mole

The tap drips and keeps me awake,

In the morning there will be a lake.

For the want of a washer the carpet will spoil,

Then for another my father will toil.

My father could snuff it while he is at work.

Dad, fit a washer don’t be a burk!

I showed it to my mother, but she laughed. She isn’t very bright. She still hasn’t washed my PE shorts, and it is school tomorrow. She is not like the mothers on television.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012)

The early excitement of discovering an author usually wears off by the third book, and the story, however illustrious, can become foreseeable. Townsend’s prose by now was increasingly recognizable – breezy, sharp, witty and an unsparing critique of everything from the Labour party to flailing modern marriages.

Still I was taken aback from the first chapter of The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. There was no double meaning to the title. The story was really about a woman who decided, on the day her children went off for college, to stop catering to the world’s demands and lay on her crispy white sheets for a year.

Among the four books by Townsend, this was its own brand of peculiar that everyone should fall in love with. Notably, it’s one of her last works before her death in 2014. Townsend had by then written several novels, plays on politics and the Royals, but the ridiculous story of Eva Beaver, the woman who went to bed for a year, is inherently personal and yet applicable to every soul bogged by the mundane weight of this world.

Number 10 (2002)

It’s not tough to guess what Number 10 is about. In the fictional world of Sue Townsend this time, the iconic black door on Downing Street opens into Edward Clare’s ruinous life. The British Prime Minister’s popularity is diminishing by the hour after his many gaffes and public display of ignorance about worldly matters.

Obviously this setback paves the way for another whirlwind, but equally preposterous, adventure. Like Shakespeare’s gender swaps, Edward Clare cross-dresses as Edwina and tours the country with Jack Sprat -- a self-acclaimed intellectual police officer from Leicester (Townsend’s hometown) -- hoping to scrape the unlit corners and understand what people make of the PM.

Only, the absurdity of the exercise – imagine the leader of Great Britain walking around in heels, traveling in clustered trains, waiting hours for his turn at the hospital and busting a drug racket – leaves Edwina uncertain of Edward’s fate as prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Townsend’s political satire is engraved among one of the greats, but what makes Number 10 worth reading is its supporting characters even when they are stereotypes with rural eccentricities.

First Published: Jun 01, 2018 10:45 IST