Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro Ishiguro is a master of pacing who constantly tests himself as an author. The story seems almost ordinary– teenagers in a boarding school – until the atmosphere begins to tighten. This is no ordinary school: they are being bred to donate their organs to others. In fact, they are clones. And yet this is a very human story of loneliness, love and longing for experience. It had me gasping with distress as I read the final chapter. Unforgettable.
The Visitor by Maeve Brennan. A novella really, by the Irish writer Maeve Brennan who worked at the New Yorker for many years and ended up dying in New York as homeless bag-lady. The Visitor is about a young girl who is the victim of her parents’ destructive marriage and returns to Dublin to live as a visitor in the house she once knew as a home. A haunting and perfectly executed work.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. The story of a power struggle within a Parsi family that gets completely and often hilariously out of hand. You can feel the madness of Mumbai, smell it and hear it as you read. Although it paints a far from a romantic picture of that city – this was the book that gave me the final push to visit Mumbai
A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. A joy to read – the story of Mr Biswas, born of Trinidad of Indian parents and with one finger too many, he is doomed as a baby by an astrologer’s reading to be a failure in life. And so he sets out and for the most part, duly obliges. Mr Biswas spends his whole life striving and failing and then failing better. The story is so entertaining that it sometimes easy to overlook the beauty of the prose. A novel that merits more than one reading.
The Chateau by William Maxwell. I think of this book every time I visit France. Set in 1948, it’s about a young American couple who bearing romantic notions about the French and their culture, arrive to stay at a Chateau in the countryside outside Paris. The novel looks at the scars of war, the resentments incurred by poverty and the dilemmas faced by the well meaning couple. Nothing much happens in the way of plot yet it’s a beautifully written, witty and inspiring book.
Christine is the two-time winner of the Listowel Writers' Week short-story competition, and a prize winner in the prestigious Observer/Penguin short-story competition. Bestselling 'Tatty' was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade, longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Bestseller, 'Last Train from Liguria', was nominated for the Prix L'Européen de Littérature. Her fantastic new novel is called 'The Lives of Women'.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. A tale of greed, loyalty and like most English books - class. It taught me that a dark novel is always enriched by humour and that no matter how large and sweeping a plot, each character most earn his or her place on the page. All human life is to be found here. The last novel of Dickens’s life and all the more precious for that.
Clara - Janice Galloway. I discovered Clara years ago when in France and often skipped dinner out because I couldn't bear to put it down. It’s the story of Clara Schumann – wife of composer Robert. It’s about love, passion, madness and of course, music. It’s also about pushy parents and wives who suppress their talent for their husbands or society. This novel made me realise the link between music and the written word and since reading it, I've used a soundtrack to accompany writing my…
The True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey. Another that kept me at home – every time I left, I only thought about the Kelly boys and what they would get up to next. Carey always surprises. This time he's taken the Jerilderie (last letter written by Ned Kelly, the Irish-Australian outlaw), and used Kelly’s voice throughout. It is a very authentic piece of writing and gives a poignant insight into the life of the poor emigrant and the hopelessness of their lives.
The Plot Against America - Philip Roth. A very credible, if factually untrue, story of fear and danger in the US after an anti- Jewish Charles Lindbergh beats Roosevelt to become president. Also the story of a Jewish American family as told by Philip Roth as a child. I was very taken with it, not just because it is a brilliant story and wonderfully written, but because it begs so many questions about the chance of life and greater consequences and this makes us ask questions of ourselves.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This is chillingly prophetic tale, described by Atwood as speculative fiction, (rather than science fiction). As our world becomes more reliant on technology and as the numbers of women who are forbidden education - never mind basic human rights - continues to rise at an alarming rate, the story is more credible to me now than it was in the 80’s when I first read it. It’s Atwood at her best though – great story telling coupled with great writing.
Mrs Dalloway. Woolf may have dismissed James Joyce’s Ulysses as 'illiterate' and 'underbred' but there are uncanny similarities between these books: city as a backdrop and action taking place in a single day. She gets into Clarissa's head as effectively as he did Leopold's. London rolls by while we see the inner workings of Clarissa’s mind. Both writers showed me how to use a city –to allow it to clash and wallop in the background while a character moves quietly through the clamour.
The Sweet-shop owner by Graham Swift. Swift’s first novel is an unusually accomplished debut. Set on what will be the last day of Willy Chapman’s life, it is the story of a very ordinary Englishman trying to hold his own against the odds. It’s also about the growing pains of a London suburb and the struggle to adjust to post war life. It’s about unrequited love. But most of all it’s about loneliness.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Another great city novel, this time New York. Set in the ragtime era, the story zips along twisting and turning, dipping in and out of characters lives – some famous, some just ordinary New Yorkers. All of the history of that city is here from the turn of the century to America’s involvement in the First World War. A tour de force.
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. I loved this book – the idea of a children’s world hidden inside the world of adults, both moving in the same direction, while each completely separate. It is based on the author’s experience as a young boy when he spent 3 weeks aboard a ship without his parents running wild with two other boys. The novel moves from deck to deck and from childhood to adulthood with the skill and wonderful writing that we’ve come to expect from a maestro such as Ondaatje.