As a child, I found Maurice Sendak’s sumptuously illustrated tale about a little boy, Max, whose bedroom magically transforms into a jungle thronged with fang-toothed monsters, terrifying and exciting in equal measure. The book fired my imagination, sending all sorts of strange creatures wandering through my dreams – and introducing me to the many weird and wonderful worlds contained within the pages of books, just waiting to be explored.
I studied Atwood’s 1988 novel for GCSE English, and her writing was a revelation to me. The novel is about a painter, Elaine, looking back on her life, and particularly on her dysfunctional childhood friendships. It’s beautifully written, packed with poetic imagery, and so cleverly structured, with a non-linear narrative reflecting the chaotic processes of memory. This was the first novel to really show me that a writer needn’t simply plod through a story from beginning to end, but is free to find his or her own original way to tell it.
Hardy was my favourite writer through much of my teens, and I still adore his descriptive lyricism, and the fact that his female characters feel, for the most part, properly three-dimensional. I have this novel to thank, too, for a good early dose of feminist outrage. When, at fourteen or so, I first read the scene in which Tess tells Angel Clare about her treatment at the hands of Alec d’Urberville and Clare – despite having already made his own confession – rejects Tess, I was so furious at his double-standards, I threw the book across the room. Angel Clare remains my least favourite character in literature.
I discovered this 1965 novel in my late teens. It’s about a highly educated young woman who falls pregnant after a one-night stand, and decides to keep her baby. On the one hand, her decision – to me, at seventeen, anyway – felt like an important indictment of the social disapproval such an event still brought in the 1960s. But on the other, I couldn’t quite understand why the character had, as I saw it, opted to throw her life away. This is a novel that offers no easy answers; as a young writer, it showed me how powerful – and true – such ambiguity can be in fiction.
This isn’t the first Anne Tyler novel I ever read – that was A Slipping-Down Life – but it’s the one that has probably had the greatest influence on me as a writer. Its action takes place over a single day, as Maggie and Ira, a middle-aged couple from Baltimore, where all Tyler’s novels are set, are driving to a funeral. Tyler excavates the layers of memory and shared experience that underpin any long marriage, and shows that there is beauty, pain and grandeur to be found in even the most ordinary of lives.
I was twenty-one when this debut novel came out, and it had a huge impact on me. Here, like Cat’s Eye, was a book that took the conventional precepts about narrative structure, and turned them on their head – and did so not to play the sorts of clever-clever postmodern games I’d grown tired of reading at university, but to examine the ties that bind a couple together, even when one of them keeps, well, slipping in and out of time . . . I kept my copy close by while writing The Versions of Us, as an inspiring example of how playing around with structure needn’t mean sacrificing emotional impact.
I came to this Booker-winning novel quite late, having already read – and loved – many of Lively’s other books. But this quickly took its rightful place as my favourite. At its heart is another strong, independent woman – Claudia Hampton, an elderly historian lying alone in hospital and piecing together her own history: memories of her career, her family, and the love she lost. Claudia’s voice is so vivid and real, and I was – and still am – in awe of the way Lively manages to capture a whole life, in all its glorious glamour and banality, and pin it to the page.
Again, I’d read several of Joyce Carol Oates’s other novels before coming across this one – considered by many to be her greatest – in a charity shop. I’m so glad I picked it up: this ambitious, sprawling saga about a family in upstate New York who seem to have it all, until a tragic incident shatters their illusions, is a masterclass in pace and pathos. Oates is so brilliant at tracking the passage of time without ever making it weigh or drag, and she has a magpie’s eye for detail.
I’m a sucker for novels set in New England – there’s something majestic about the region, with its flame-red autumns and lighthouses and Atlantic spray. This is set in Maine; it’s not a conventional novel, but a series of short stories centring around the testy, cantankerous Olive Kitteridge, her long-suffering husband Henry, and various inhabitants of their small town. My mum – a former librarian and voracious reader – loved this book and passed it on to me, and I was captivated from the first paragraph. Strout writes with such delicacy and insight about everyday life – a place that, far from being banal or uninteresting, can actually be a source of the most compelling drama and tension.
All right, so this isn’t one novel, but five – starting with The Light Years, written in 1990, and ending with All Change, published in 2013, not long before Elizabeth Jane Howard’s death. I discovered them after reading a fascinating newspaper interview with Howard, and then hearing one of the early novels in the series – tracing the lives of the Cazalet family and their various friends and relatives, before, during and after the Second World War – on the radio.
I was immediately hooked: Howard’s writing style is dense and detailed, and has an almost hypnotic quality, drawing us into her characters’ lives until they seem almost more real than our own. I read all five books in quick succession, coming to the end of each one with a profound sense of loss – but also reminded of how the very best fiction draws us into the heads of other people, and makes us see the world through their eyes. And what greater adventure can there really be than that?