Like everyone who loves books, I have some that I read over and over again, books that have shaped who I am and the way I look at the world. They have also played a major part in making me the sort of writer I am. Here are ten that I put in the ‘To Brooklyn’ pile without hesitating.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I loved this book and read it many times as a child. Mary Lennox, the central character, is sallow, stubborn and thoroughly disagreeable – I felt as if we had much in common. The idea of a secret garden was extremely exciting to me; I always wanted to find one. I also loved the gothic Misselthwaite Manor with its sorrowful residing spirit, and I’m sure it helped inspire Stoneborough, the big house at the centre of my own first novel, The House at Midnight. That lush, hidden garden with its high walls now strikes me as an apt metaphor for imagination and writing.
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
Another book that I loved from the first time I read it at nine or ten. The first in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, it tells the story of three children who, spending the holiday in Cornwall at the house of their Great Uncle Merry, find themselves caught up in a quest for the Grail, opposed by the malevolent Dark. I love Arthurian legend, even the names – Uther Pendragon, Arthur, Tintagel – evoke another world, and this book has a magic that stayed with me.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Like Mary Lennox, Jane appealed to me first because she was difficult and she didn’t fit in. She was so strong and defiant. I reread the book often and admire her more and more for her independence of spirit, self-sufficiency and determination to live according to her principles in the face of obstacles that would crush lesser people. The book has many others of my favourite things, too: a forbidding house; a malevolent presiding spirit; a damaged hero; a strong sense of landscape and atmosphere. Gorgeous.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This was first published in 1996, the year before I left school and went to university. It spoke to my interests and preoccupations so exactly that I felt that it might have been written just for me. Like Tartt’s central characters, I was studying Classics and I got a big thrill from finding the Greek locative case being talked about in mainstream contemporary fiction… At seventeen, I also shared what Richard Papen, the narrator, considers his fatal flaw, “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”.
Temples of Delight by Barbara Trapido
I felt an intense personal connection with this book. This is the story of Alice and how her school-age friendship with the clever, intellectual Jem McCrail changes her life. Jem disappears abruptly, leaving Alice bereft, but years later, an unbridled, food-loving, sexy man named Giovanni turns up from New York carrying the manuscript of a book that Jem wrote before her death and everything is transformed again.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
The first time I started reading this, I got a few pages in and stopped. I was alone on an empty railway station platform and I was so unnerved by the menace in the opening pages that I began to feel physically afraid. When I did read it, I was glad I’d stopped that day. In Pinky, Greene created one of the most frightening characters I’ve come across in fiction; I was terrified for poor naïve Rose all the way through. The descriptions of Brighton on a Bank Holiday are so vivid you can smell the chips and candyfloss.
The End of The Affair by Graham Greene
Another favourite Greene – impossible to choose just one. This book is far from perfect and as someone without a strong religious faith, I find Sarah’s sudden devotion frustrating. What I love about the book is its pervasive sense of longing – no surprise that Greene drew on a passionate love affair of his own. I also love the portrayal of Perkis, the daft private eye whom Bendrix hires to discover the identity of the man for whom Sarah leaves him. It is, as the New York Times wrote in their review in 1951, ‘savage and sad, vulgar and ideal, coarse and refined, and a rather accurate image of an era of cunning and glory, of cowardice and heroism, of belief and unbelief.’
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve read this so many times but when I think of it, it only really exists as a collection of images in my mind – white curtains billowing in the wind, lights on the point blinking through the darkness, the great eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, optometrist, staring down from their billboard over the valley of ashes. Appropriately, I always feel a bit like I’ve been drunk while reading it and it’s all been a beautiful, exhilarating, melancholy dream.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
For a long time, I resisted Dickens. I started several of his novels early in my teens and found his voice so indigestible that I put every one aside after a matter of pages. A few years ago now, I decided that it was pathetic that I’d never read a whole one and resolved to do it, however much I disliked the experience. I chose A Tale of Two Cities – and was blown away. For two days I was glued to it, barely leaving the sofa. Sidney Carton is one of my all-time fictional heroes. Great Expectations is also one of my favourite books but A Tale of Two Cities broke the ice between me and Charles.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I’m relatively new to Lamott though she’s something of a national institution here in America. The first thing of hers I read was her memoir Operating Instructions, in which she writes about the first year of her son’s life and her experience as a single mother. I read it during the first weeks of my own daughter’s life and found her account so evocative and poignant that it brought me to tears several times. She’s forgiving of human nature and very, very funny. Bird by Bird is subtitled ‘Some Instructions on Writing and Life’ and offers some of the wisest, funniest advice on creative writing that I’ve ever come across. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in writing.