My all time favorite book, my first choice in all situations when people ask for book recommendations (except perhaps for eight-year-olds), and yet a book that most people have never heard of, is The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin.
As an author, Ursula K LeGuin is one of the few authors who I think best captures humanity and the reality of what it means to be human. Other authors do more beautiful prose, more enthralling plot lines, or transport the reader to more exotic, enchanting settings than LeGuin. Faulkner with his stream of consciousness and variety of approaches, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his magical realism do more interesting, unusual, unexpected things with literature than LeGuin does. But in my opinion LeGuin and Tolstoy are the two authors who have managed to best capture what it really means to be human. They capture the sublime beauty, the simple pleasure, the deep, throbbing tragedy and grief, and the daily hum drum of existence that seems to pass for life in my experience. And to be fair, I don’t find all of LeGuin’s books this spectacular, although I have liked all the ones I’ve read so far (the short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas is my other favorite of hers). But The Telling has enthralled me since I first read it, and I will keep re-reading and recommending it for a long time to come.
I have mixed thoughts about the cover. I would never nominate it for any design competitions, but I do find the illustration appealing and enjoy looking at it. However, it has almost nothing to do with the story! The woman pictured could, I suppose, be the protagonist in terms of skin and hair coloring (the protagonist Sutty is ethnically Indian) but I couldn’t picture her ever frolicking in a field of flowers and butterflies like that; she’s a bit too down to earth for that. And the fancy looking airplane or spaceship up in the right hand corner does hint at the fact that this sci-fi book deals with space travel, but spaceships and air travel are hardly a main focus of the book… again I’m pretty sure that nothing about this scene actually took place during the book.
I guess what the cover does hint at, though, is the relationship between high-tech scientific advancements and a more rural, humble lifestyle. While the book is technically sci-fi, don’t let that throw you off if you aren’t a sci-fi fan—The Telling could take place anywhere that rural ancient traditions have come into conflict with the desire to have modernized lifestyles and use scientific advancement to “improve” society. In fact, LeGuin based the setting loosely around China during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
The book does take a bit of effort to delve into at first, as LeGuin dives right in with the terminology and place names of this fictional world and lets the reader get up to speed as they may; I think I reread the first few pages several times the first time I read the book, in order to try to get a better sense of what she was talking about. But her characters come with a richness of experience and an emotional depth that drew me in.
Aka, the planet that Sutty has been sent to as a sort of impartial anthropological observer, has attempted to bury its past in an effort to become the best it can be for the future. It has achieved monumental advancements but only at the expense of living with oppression and censorship of the past. But the eventual discovery of how Aka came to be like that is fascinating and only too understandable; it is the story of a society that tries to preserve its own autonomy and self-identity but in its attempt ends up destroying the very thing it is trying to safe-guard. It is also the story of a culture built around the importance of storytelling, of knowing the proper stories, of being remembered through stories, and of respecting the greater story being told by the community, all of which I found fascinating and enjoyable. The depiction of the society is balanced with the story of individuals and how they have shaped the communal destiny or been shaped by it—Sutty who has grown up on Earth (a future version of Earth) with oppression, religious zealots, and deep personal tragedy, and the Monitor who at first seems like such a hateful bureaucrat but is revealed to have a personal backstory as touching, as understandable, and as tragic as Sutty’s.
I won’t say anymore—hopefully I haven’t already given away too much of the plot! But if you’re searching for a good read, I highly recommend you pick up The Telling. Let me know how you like it!