Yann Martel belongs to a quirky bunch of elite authors who have written only one great novel. There’s no doubt about it: our current Sunday Arts Section (SAS) Book Club book, Martel’s Life of Pi, the wild, unimaginable story of a teenager from Pondicherry, India, and his fateful voyage across the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, is a one-of-a-kind read.
Martel followed Life of Pi, first published in 2001, with Beatrice and Virgil, published in 2010, but the allegorical journey of a donkey and a howler monkey just didn’t hit the mark. Clearly, Martel can never match Life of Pi. But he’s in good company.
In my book, two novels tie for one-hit wonders: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Harper Lee’s coming-of-age novel about growing up in the prejudice of the American south is filled with unforgettable characters like Boo Radley. Lee tried to write another novel, but couldn’t pen one she felt worthy to follow her masterpiece. She might have had to relinquish that honour, however, if her good friend Truman Capote had given her the credit she deserved on his masterpiece In Cold Blood, which changed the face of popular journalism writing.
Lee travelled with Capote to interview the murderers he wrote about in his groundbreaking work, but he cut Lee out of the picture. You can read Lee’s riveting biography in Mockingbird: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J Shields. It dispels many myths about Lee that I had once bought wholesale.
Mitchell’s sweeping saga of the American Civil War-torn south is an unforgettable romance novel and an eerie portrait of misplaced pride. Urban legend has it that Mitchell had finally surrendered to adoring fans’ pressure to write another novel. She scheduled a meeting with her publisher saying she had settled on the story, but Mitchell was struck by a car and killed on her way to meet the publisher.
Some authors wrote other novels, but none measured up to the one great novel they wrote. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor is the story of a penniless teenager who becomes Charles II’s mistress. Winsor wrote other novels, but this is her timeless masterpiece recently reissued as a “Rediscovered Classic”.
Then there’s The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, the story of a murdered child helping her family come to grips with their loss. Sebold keeps writing, but can’t score another hit. Anna Sewell did not live to see her only novel, Black Beauty, become a children’s classic. She delivered the novel about the abuse of workhorses to her publishers and died shortly after.
Indian writer Arundhati Roy has not been able to write another novel after her Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, and Caribbean poet Ian McDonald has never tried to write another novel after penning one of the most beautiful coming of age stories to ever come out of the Caribbean: The Humming-Bird Tree.
There are some novels that can never be topped. Is that a boon or a curse for a writer? Join us on the SAS Book Club Facebook page and post your thoughts on the books you’re reading.
Note to reader: Our next Sunday Arts Section Book Club book is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.