Welcome to My Life in Books – the WordFest Blog series where members of the team and guests tell us about eight books that have shaped their life as readers and writers.
First off is team member and author Avril Joy.
Choosing eight books from a lifetime of reading is both a delicious and daunting task. Delicious because reading has been one of the greatest sources of pleasure in my life as far back as I can remember. Daunting because there are so many books clamouring for a place and no list can fully convey how reading has inspired, comforted, and shaped my life, especially my life as a writer. I’m still not sure of my final eight but I’m trusting they will emerge as I write, so here goes…
The Travels of Barbar – Jean de Brunhoff
This is the first book I remember. Even now, when I haven’t looked at Barbar books for years, the illustrations are intensely familiar. The memory is fleeting, I seem to remember choosing it, a huge book nearly as big as myself, from a wooden box in the children’s section of our local library. It was my father who took me to the library and who showed me the joy and value of books. Later the library became a haven for me. I cannot imagine growing up without the solace of books, as when things were difficult there was always another adventure, another journey to get lost in.
The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
I discovered Thomas Hardy at school and realised here was a writer of my own landscape, of the places I came from. I devoured the whole of Hardy in my teens, always returning to the brooding world of Egdon Heath and the dark beauty of Eustacia Vye. I loved Hardy’s use of pathetic fallacy and when much later I began writing, I found I had a fascination for weather and for the way a landscape reflects and holds our lives.
She Came to Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
The fascination continued into my student days and the landscape of new worlds. This is when I began to realise that it was possible for a woman to live an independent and creative life. In She Came To Stay, de Beauvoir tells the story of her relationship with Satre and their life in Paris, a place I longed for (I’d never been abroad), sitting smoking in cafes, living in hotels…But the real focus was on Francoise and her journey towards becoming a ‘free’ woman. I learnt more from this novel and de Beauvoir’s work in general about the life I might aspire to, than any other text I read. I think that’s the power of fiction, that it can influence, even change our lives. It’s also where my love affair with France truly began.
First Love Last Rites – Ian McEwan
This exquisite, collection of short stories made me wish I’d written something so beautiful and perhaps laid a seed in my mind that one day I might try. I was instantly drawn into the atmospheric world of his stories and into the dreamy, boredom of adolescence and summer. But then there was the shocking, sometimes surreal and certainly dark odyssey into worlds of abuse and incest. It seemed like nothing I’d read before, ground breaking. I was so excited by it I went back to the bookshop and bought four copies for friends.
An Evil Cradling- Brian Kennan
This is a book that will never leave me, just like my years spent working in prison. It was, and for me still is, the book that takes us closest to the nature of imprisonment in all its manifestations: despair, humour, language, violence, paradox, intimacy, compassion, imagination and memory. It reminds me every time I pick it up of the power of good writing to get at the truth.
Grace – Esther Morgan
I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t started writing novels whether I might have found a path into poetry. I don’t know, maybe I love story too much. But I do love reading poetry, especially since I started writing novels. I could have picked any number of collections but this by Esther Morgan is one of my favourites. For me, a poem by Esther Morgan is like a still life by Vermeer. She deals in the ordinary, the overlooked, the quiet and understated, but beneath, darker and unsettling themes lie in waiting.
Restoration – Rose Tremain
I had to choose here between Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall, and Rose Tremain’s Restoration. In the end Rose Tremain won out. Another day it would have been Hilary Mantel I’m a huge fan of both their writing writing. I love the way in Restoration, Tremain brings the seventeenth century to life in smells, colours, sounds, in all its horror and beauty. This is a great work of the imagination, yet scholarly in its historical detail, I admire it so much but most of all I enjoyed reading it so much.
Sometimes A Great Notion – Ken Kesey
This is Kesey’s second novel and I know I’m not alone in thinking it is one of the great, possibly most underrated American novels of the twentieth century. My copy is old and battered but it’s a book I could never give away. It’s epic in its scale. A monumental, sprawling, family saga. I don’t remember when I read it first but two years ago when I came to write, Sometimes A River Song, Kesey’s river was on my mind and hence my title. This is the book I wish I’d written.
Read more about Avril’s work and her writing life HERE on her website.