This is perhaps my favourite novel, and one I read when I was a young teenager. I have read it many times since, and I give it as a gift more than any other novel. It is in the form of diaries kept by the witty, clever and wistful Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in a ruined castle with her sister, her father, who is a genius with writer’s block, and her beautiful stepmother, who is a life model for great artists.
It was once described as a book about a girl ‘poised between childhood and adultery’ and I don’t think there has ever been a more charming or more acute depiction of what it is like to be a young woman growing up and falling in love.
This very short book can be read almost in the time it takes to have a bath, and it is a perfect demonstration that the very best writing can cover a vast range of history and human emotion in just a few pages.
It is set in the aftermath of the First World War. A shell-shocked soldier has been paid to live in an old country church as he restores an ancient mural on the wall. Although very little happens in the sense of ‘action’, it is a novel about war and peace, and about redemption, and love, and the power of art. It is perfect.
I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was only eight years old: I found a copy belonging to my sister and it looked like a children’s book, and seemed to be about an orphan having adventures, and so I thought it was appropriate for me. Of course there was much that I didn’t understand when I was that young, but over the years I have returned to it again and again.
It is frightening, and funny, and written in gorgeous and occasionally very strange prose, and it is a wonderful example of how deeply flawed characters can still arouse in you the deepest pity and sympathy. I have been in love with Mr Rochester all my life!
My father gave me a copy of Tess when I was still at primary school, greatly to the horror of my teacher at the time. It had a profound effect on me, because it was one of the first books I ever read which has a thoroughly shocking and tragic conclusion.
It showed me the power of literature to carry a reader so deeply into a fictional world that they can experience a tragedy almost as deeply as a personal loss.
This is another very short book that nonetheless tackles huge themes. It tells the story of a man who has been falsely accused of spying in the Second World War, and is interned in a labour camp in Communist Russia.
It is of course utterly gruelling, with depictions of punishment, torture and deprivation. But it is never truly depressing, because Solzhenitsyn believes in the nobility and courage of humankind, and in our ability to form family relationships and loyalties under the most appalling circumstances. It is a very important book politically, showing the dangers of totalitarian regimes, but it’s also – against all odds – very funny and warm.
This remarkable memoir by Hilary Mantel contains a scene in which she, as a child, encounters the devil in her mother’s back garden.
It’s an extraordinary and sometimes quite painful read, as she writes unflinchingly about her life, her health, and her development as a writer. It has been a companion to me ever since I first read it, and has been very precious as I have grown older and seen my books go out into the world.