The Five Books
That Have Influenced Me Most
Here are five books that I read before I was twenty but have stayed with me all my life.
ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll
I’ve always been fascinated by ALICE IN WONDERLAND, although I do have a confession to make – as a little girl, there were parts of the story which really frightened me, especially the episodes with the Queen and her repeated command to chop off people’s heads. It was the randomness of the threatened violence that I found unsettling. Perhaps that’s why the storyline and characters have lived in my subconscious ever since.
In recent times I’ve re-read ALICE and THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS and found them to be brimming with subtext about the search for identity and the notion of order versus chaos. Although Lewis Carroll might not have intended it, Alice comes across, to my mind at least, as a nascent suffragette, manoeuvring her way through Wonderland with considerable determination and aplomb, while constantly questioning its rules. Those aspects inspired the premise for THE JADE WIDOW, my novel about women challenging the conventions of Victorian society.
ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell
I discovered ANIMAL FARM in my first year of high school. Back then, I read it as an entertaining tale about farm animals taking over the farm. I didn’t know it was a political allegory, and even if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have understood what those words meant. As far as I was concerned, it was just a rollicking good story in which animals behaved like humans. As a writer, I’ve learned an important lesson from this book. No matter how impassioned its message or how clever the satire and symbolism, an allegory has to work first and foremost as a story. And that’s certainly the case here.
JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë
Long ago, in the process of working through the Victorian novels in the school library, I came across two dark and emotionally charged books that didn’t seem to fit the traditional model: WUTHERING HEIGHTS and JANE EYRE. The authors were sisters, who spent their lives in a parsonage in Yorkshire. Together with their siblings, they created their own imaginary worlds. Years later I would make a pilgrimage to Haworth to see where they lived. Although I’ve always loved both those books, it’s JANE EYRE that I’ve returned to over and over again. Jane is a rather unusual Victorian heroine. Neither simpering nor helpless, she knows her own mind and in her quiet, self-deprecating way, goes after what she wants.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
If I had to choose my all-time favourite book, it would be TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Everything about it is perfect – structure, story, setting, characters, themes and language. I like the way the events unfold through the eyes of the narrator, Scout Finch, whom we get to know as a little girl and as an adult reminiscing about her youth. I can almost hear Scout’s Southern accent whenever I read the book, but that might be a result of the novel and the film having merged in my brain (which is also why I tend to picture Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck). Among a cast of memorable characters, Atticus is the standout for me, a noble hero and a great father.
LE GRAND MEAULNES by Alain-Fournier
I would never have known about this wonderfully evocative novel, if it hadn’t been a set text in my French course at uni. That’s usually enough to put you off a book, particularly when there’s an essay involved, but I quickly fell in love with Alain-Fournier’s dreamlike story about trying to recapture a lost past. In that respect, there are similarities to THE GREAT GATSBY, which just happens to be another of my favourites. However, the two novels differ markedly in mood and tone. Fitzgerald’s story, set in the Jazz Age, is often dark and cynical, while LE GRAND MEAULNES reflects the comparatively innocent pre-World War I period in which it was written. For me, there’s an added poignancy in that its young author was killed in action on the Western Front not long after the book was published. It was his first and only novel. If he had lived, he might well have been one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.
13 March 2020