In celebration of International Friendship Day 2021 and one of literature’s greatest themes, we put our heads together at Books2All and made a shortlist of books and stories that explore different aspects of friendship.
Relationships between characters are what makes fiction so compelling, whether they are one-sided, devoted, fraught, companionable or about to blossom into love. Read on and see if you recognise these famous literary friends from across the decades, whose relationships made their stories stand the test of time.
Friendship choice 1: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Friendship might not be the first thing that comes to mind when reading The Great Gatsby, a book concerned with Jazz Age decadence, failed love and the death of the American Dream. The friendship between the protagonist Gatsby and Nick Carraway, the book’s voyeuristic narrator, is pretty parasitic. Gatsby wants to impress Nick to gain his help in pursuing Daisy, while Nick is thrilled to be invited into a wealthy lifestyle he could previously glimpse only from the outside.
Nevertheless, in a story of doomed romance, this friendship between two lonely men turns into one of the more touching relationships Fitzgerald draws. Nick is among the few people who really care for Gatsby, even after the lavish parties are over, and who attend his funeral. A complicated depiction of friendship, showing the tie between two people through its peaks and troughs, without romanticising the difficulties of being an important part of someone else’s life.
Friendship choice 2: Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake (1939)
Although better known for his Gormenghast trilogy, Peake’s exceptional skill as an illustrator and children’s storyteller is showcased in this slim picture book. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor is the tale of a pirate ship led by the brutal and violent titular captain. On a pink island, Slaughterboard has an epiphany when he encounters the Yellow Creature, a strange impish figure, and becomes immediately tender and pacified.
The remainder of the book passes without conflict as Peake instead focuses on the evolving friendship between the two unlikely pals. He brings them to life through a series of beautifully illustrated tableaus, from their attempts at pirate dancing to learning how to fish. Slaughterboard’s decision to abandon piracy and make this a story about rehabilitation even hints at romance. The pirate’s unusual friendship with the Yellow Creature might be his first step towards true love.
Friendship choice 3: Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen] (1958)
Set in the 19th century, this Danish-language novella tells the story of a French woman who flees to Norway to escape political persecution. In exile, she stays with two ageing and devoutly religious sisters, having begged them for shelter. Despite the language barriers, the difference in beliefs and their absolute poverty, the sisters let Babette stay for several years working as a cook. As a sign of gratitude, she eventually puts on a grand feast for them and other members of the village who opened their doors to her.
Religious context aside, this tale of goodness, altruism and generosity exemplifies the power of food to bring people together and strengthen communities. Babette and the sisters find a common humanity that overcomes the differences between them and allows the three women to come together as a family. ‘Babette’s Feast’, which was originally published as part of the Anecdotes of Destiny short story collection, continues to endure and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1987.
Friendship choice 4: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
This classic Russian story of magic, religion and hysteria centres on a visit by the devil and his retinue to 1930s Moscow. The Master and Margarita is renowned for its iconic images and moments, including a talking cat wielding a pistol and the novel-within-a-novel discussions between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Less remembered though is the relationship between the Russian woman, Margarita, and Woland, the devil.
As the protagonist of the book’s second half, Margarita is tasked with playing hostess for the demons’ main celebration. Rather than being horrified by the offer, Margarita acknowledges Woland’s show of faith in her and takes on the responsibility by temporarily becoming a witch. Through their mutual respect, these two characters enact one of literature’s unique friendships. Their interplay possibly outweighs the exchanges between Margarita and the eponymous Master, her imprisoned lover, and gives emotional depth to an otherwise complex and satirical book.
Friendship choice 5: A Hawk in Silver by Mary Gentle (1977)
When Holly finds a mysterious coin in an antique shop, it leads her on a wild adventure involving supernatural powers, assassin animals and warring fairy groups. But, despite these high-fantasy elements, the main thrust of this YA novel is the friendship between Holly and her schoolmate, Chris. The two girls spend the bulk of the narrative together, overcoming bullies, deaths in the family and their own straining relationship, to the extent that the fantasy plot becomes almost secondary.
Gentle leads us inside the minds of her teenage protagonists, exploring their reluctance over being involved in bizarre events in a way that provides several funny and touching conversations. Gentle’s debut book and one of her lesser-known works, A Hawk In Silver deserves recognition for the vivid depiction of the girls’ domestic lives, without flinching from the cruelty and tedium of teenage existence where Holly and Chris are each other’s only support.
Friendship choice 6: The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda (1996)
The story begins with a seagull getting caught in a fatal oil slick. Before it dies, the bird lays an egg and makes a nearby cat promise to raise the chick and help it learn how to fly. The ensuing adventure of Lucky the seagull, Zorba the cat and the other felines who help look after Lucky, is a straight-forward parable about putting aside differences and taking care of the environment.
The simplicity of the fable is elevated by Sepúlveda’s poetic writing style. Accessible to adults and children, it shows how to build a substitute family from the people around you, and the opportunities that arise when opposing groups come together.
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