I’m delighted to announce that my new novel, Lost Daughter, will be published by Bookouture in May 2019.
It’s an emotional family drama about Rachel, whose life has unravelled since her husband has been given custody of their young daughter Becca after a messy break-up.
There’ll be another book from me out from Bookouture in September 2019.
I think my younger, book-loving self (pictured here reading in bed, big fan of Enid Blyton and Bunty) would have been thrilled if she could have time-travelled to pick up the news…
Here’s what my brilliant editor, Bookouture associate publisher Kathryn Taussig, had to say about Lost Daughter and my writing (OK so this is the part when I get ready to blush):
‘It’s such a rare thing to find an author who can write family drama well, and for this reason I’m over the moon to be publishing Ali Mercer. Her writing is beautiful, thoughtful and moving. Her characters are believably flawed and yet endlessly relatable and her stories are engrossing. Lost Daughter is a perfect fit for Bookouture and I know it will delight readers of Jodi Picoult, Diane Chamberlain and Kerry Fisher.’
Bookouture are brilliant – they’re forward-looking and fast-moving but they take their time looking after their authors and getting their books just right, and they really know how to develop author’s brands and build the relationship between readers and writers. And Kathryn is a star. We’re both up for a bit of strong emotion, twisty drama and suspense, and we’re both fascinated by what makes families tick and what goes on behind closed doors. There’s no secret like a family secret, and no secret is quite as explosive as one that has been suppressed but comes out in the end…
Outside was a preposterously beautiful, Technicolour autumn day, all blue skies and trees turning the colours of fire. If you’d used it in a film it would have been for heartbreak and parting, a belated outpouring of summer made all the more vivid because it is nearly time to say goodbye. Inside the grand but compact chamber of Henley’s Town Hall it was unseasonably warm; with five minutes to go there were only two seats left, and I took one of them. ‘Not much knee space. We’re rather close,’ somebody said as I squeezed in and arranged myself.
We were a packed and anticipant roomful of mostly women, book lovers and therefore by definition fond of the essentially private pastime of reading, though we were there not to read but to listen and to ask questions, to experience fiction as a public event. Instead of words on a page or a screen, we were going to see the writers who had drawn us there and hear their voices. We wanted stories, but more than that, we hoped for a glimpse into how and why they were told.
At one end of the room was a small and empty stage with three important-looking chairs, which were throne-like but in the manner of an English town hall and therefore designed for the comfortable sitting-out of long meetings as well as to be imposing. I imagine all sorts of practical things have been discussed in that room over the years: the price of corn or parking, the collection of refuse, the balancing of books and the taking of votes.
We weren’t there for any of that. We were there for semen and baby shoes, tales of a psychopathic rapist or a leech-like friend, families divided by wars and continents and the brutal convictions of an era, the tragedy of failed reconciliations and the power of impossible loves. And that was what we got, but as if that wasn’t enough, we also got to find out a little bit about what it takes to make all that stuff up and write it down.
Secrets uncovered: the prelude to post-lunch erotica
Windows were opened; the noises of outside – traffic, the market – drifted in along with the stirring of cooler air. A frisson ran round the room as our writers came in and went up to the little stage and took their places. We were on our way.
I’m sorry not to have a picture of them: they were a glamorous pairing. Patrick Gale is a dazzlingly charming silver fox, with a voice you could listen to forever – I think I’m right in saying he wanted to be an actor when he was younger and he has that gift that some actors have of making an instant connection with other people, a sort of receptivity that both gives and holds attention. I’m onto my fifth Patrick Gale novel now and am a committed member of his fan club, or would be if he formally had one. If you haven’t read any, and you have a space in your reading life for a writer who will draw you in, make you care, make you laugh and break your heart, then go get started.
Polly Samson was new to me. There’s something otherworldly about her which makes it not quite right to describe her in worldly terms. She’s beautiful, poised, measured, with the kind of cool intelligence and self-possession that suggest heat under the surface. She’s also kind of rock’n’roll. She’s a lyricist as well as a novelist; her other half is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and when she’s working on a book she reads what she’s written each day out loud to him in the evening.
Our hour with Patrick and Polly was hosted by Lucy Cavendish, who mentioned that Polly hadn’t eaten any lunch while Patrick had got through two chocolate brownies. If he was skittish, so were we. Off we went with a discussion about how both authors’ latest books had drawn life from their family history and secrets. Patrick told us about Harry Cane, his mother’s mysterious cowboy grandpa who emigrated to Canada under something of a cloud. Patrick set out to tell a story that would explain both what had happened to him and the way the family spoke about him, ‘a story that the women of the family wouldn’t have been told, but that might have been true’: ‘my nefarious scheme of gaying my great-grandfather.’ (I think that might be my favourite PG line from the session, along with the description of the readings as ‘post-lunch erotica’.)
Polly relayed a story from her own family history, a tormenting love triangle in which paternity was at stake. A couple who could not have a baby asked a friend to father a child for them, which he duly did before emigrating to the US, with the understanding that future contact between them would be minimal. But then war broke out and the husband sent his wife and child to their biological father in the US for safety, remaining in Paris to sort out paperwork… and ended up interned and separated from them for years, after which time his wife had decided that their child only needed one father, and was already living with him. A terrible story which culminated in the husband’s suicide.
This fed into Polly’s new novel The Kindness, though transplanted into a different time and place. Polly’s own complicated parentage also provided fuel for the story, and she told us about the father figure with whom she had lost contact, who she later learned had kept her baby shoes close by all his life.
A lesson in how to breathe and a cloudy offering
Both writers read aloud from their novels. Both read scenes that involved seduction, of one kind or another. Polly’s had a specimen jar, innocence yielding to scientific curiosity and a braless milkmaid, the examination of a cloudy offering. Patrick’s had a therapist who teaches a young man to breathe, then introduces him to sex on a bed so narrow that one of them must always be on top of the other. Clients visit in the morning, but the young man is invited to return in the afternoons: ‘You can just wait in the bed.’
We laughed and fanned ourselves with the useful cards explaining who had sponsored the event. They had us. We were sold. Now we wanted to find out how they had managed it. And this is what we learned.
(Warning: there are some spoilers in what follows, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but if you absolutely hate spoilers, you should go and read the books first. If, like me, you are undisciplined and sometimes even peek at the end of a story before you get there, you won’t care.)
The novel you end up writing may be quite different, in form at least, from the one you set out to write.
This was a bit of a revelation to me as I thought it was only me that did this and everybody else just put together their card indexes or flow charts or whatever and wrote the damn things, but no.
Patrick set out to write a very simple book, drawing on EM Forster and boys’ adventure stories, starting at the beginning and rattling on to the end: wrote it, and then set about chopping it up, both to tease the reader through the narrative and to break up the sadness in it. So the novel is a bit like a thriller, in that you learn early on that Harry has killed someone and that there are loves he can’t speak about.
Polly’s last book was a collection of interlinked short stories, and she set out to write this one as a series of stories but then restructured it so that she had two main voices followed by a third voice. She had been surprised by comments that it was like a thriller, and hadn’t set out to write a novel with twists and turns, but there they were. This meant she’d had ‘the joy of writing from two perspectives’ – she gave as an example an assignation in a Paris hotel described from the point of view of both the male and female lover, a fantasy made real for one and a seedy compromise for the other.
The story will be brought to life by the happy accident of characters who make their own way in.
Patrick told the story of Troels Munck, the antagonist to Harry Cane’s hero and, for my money, one of the most terrifying and convincing villains in all of literature. (A Place Called Winter is revelatory about evil, and how people try to survive it and can be destroyed by it.) The name was given by a real-life someone who had won an auction for it to be included. Patrick described the email exchange that followed: (PG): ‘Is it all right if I turn you into a psychopathic rapist?’ [LONG TUMBLEWEED EMAIL SILENCE] (TM): ‘OK, as long as he is hot.’
Is Troels hot? He’s a bully and a brute, but a compelling one – and he’s real, which is testament to the truthfulness with which he has been created. God save us all from encounters with the likes of Troels – outside of the pages of a book.
Polly spoke about Katie, the leech-like friend who was meant to be just a line in The Kindness but kept turning up. She also described the intense absorption of writing, how her children would come back from school and talk to her about their days and she would find herself not really taking it in, still caught up in the world of her characters. (I know that particular daze.) But she’d read Elena Ferrante while she was working on The Kindness – four years of close work, twenty years of gestation in all – and had found that Ferrante’s characters were as real to her as the ones she had invented herself and was carrying round with her. (Now I have to decide what to read next, The Kindness or Ferrante.)
Polly commented on how characters seem to turn up fully-formed. Patrick agreed: ‘They have to be, or they don’t work on the page.’
But what about planning? Patrick said he plans meticulously, but then ignores the plan. ‘It’s like getting ready for a play – I need to know about the characters and feel confident about who they are.’
The land you put into your book will shape it.
Patrick explained how as he worked on the book he had got increasingly angry about what had been done in Canada, but had wanted to show that in an elliptical way, without tub-thumping about imperialism. It’s there in the tragedy of Ursula. Also, as he explored the landscape and the history of the settlements, he became increasingly aware of how dangerous it was, and how vulnerable his characters were. Hence Troels.
Here’s a surprise nugget for you: there were no starlings in Canada till 1934, as a Canadian friend of Patrick’s told him after reading an early draft. Starlings follow agriculture and it took till then for them to arrive. So you won’t find them in Winter.
Patrick talked about his road trip to find his grandfather’s lot, and asked Polly if the house and garden in The Kindess were based on a real place: ‘I really wanted to go weeding there.’ Polly said the garden was a mixture of gardens she had loved.
Inevitably, your research will shape your book. Are there starlings, or not? Polly’s novel opens with a hawking scene. What size are the baby mice fed to a hawk?
Children in stories – yearned for or lost – exert a special power.
Harry Cane is a father, separated from his child by both distance and disgrace, and the plot of The Kindness hinges on the fathering of a child. Patrick said he felt that the male yearning to be a father is not much written about, and I think this is true; as he said, most stories that touch on this cast the father as the reluctant figure and the mother as longing for a child. (There is a weird nexus of cultural confusion around this, a mixture of blind spot and acute sensitivity – writers, take note: when that happens, there’s something to dig for.)
The story of Polly’s baby shoe lingered with us. (It made me think of the design for the hardback cover of Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing, which featured baby shoes, and which prompted a brilliant baby-shoe-shopping scene in the final version of the book.) At the end of the session, when I was chatting with my neighbours in the audience, one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s potent six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, nearly worn.’
Patrick was asked whether he had a favourite out of his books. And yes – he does: they are the ones he wrote during the happiest times of his life: Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music, Little Bits of Baby. ‘I’m always very protective of the most recent one, it’s like a child that’s just started school.’
And then we were done. We shifted and stretched, murmured to each other about how good it had been, formed an orderly line for books and signing, began to slip away.
Sooner or later we will start to read. We will hear those stories again, not in the august surroundings of Henley Town Hall but wherever we are – on a lunch break, in an armchair on a winter’s night, in the doctor’s waiting room. And once more we will allow those voices to take us somewhere else.
Polly Samson and Patrick Gale were speaking at Henley Literary Festival, in conversation with Lucy Cavendish, at an event sponsored by HW Fisher & Company.
As the parent of a child with autism, you mess with routine at your peril – but once in a while you have to try something new. And so, last Saturday, instead of doing the usual things, I went off to Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest) to listen to authors talking about their books.
I also sat outside lovely indie bookshop Jaffe and Neale drinking tea and starspotting (I saw Lee Child! Charisma! Very tall! Nice to his fans! I was too shy to ask him for a photo/autograph though.)
And I set about filling up my biggest Books Are My Bag bag with signed copies. You can fit a *lot* in a Books Are My Bag bag, and here’s proof – this is what I got into mine:
All that, *and* a brolly and an outfit change…
Matt Haig talks to Cathy Rentzenbrick: Reasons to Stay Alive
First off, I went to see Matt Haig, author of The Humans, talking about his book Reasons to Stay Alive, which is about his experience of depression and – well, the title says it all, really. He was being interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrick, who is associate editor of The Bookseller and has a memoir coming out in July this year about her brother, who was hit by a car on a night out a fortnight before his GCSE results and was left in a permanent vegetative state.
Sombre subject matter, but listening to them was ultimately enlightening and uplifting, far from the ‘double dose of misery and disaster’ that Cathy drily referred to. It was obvious from the questions asked by the audience that Matt’s philosophical frankness about what he’d been through had touched people and connected with their own experiences.
In the end, Matt said, he was grateful for his experience of anxiety and depression. ‘It’s made me appreciate life more, and appreciate pleasure more. When I was younger, it was about extremes. Now I’ve got a thinner skin, I can enjoy going for a walk and being with my children.’ He added: ‘You need to feel the terror to feel the wonder.’
Matt on writing? ‘For me writing is both uplifting and depressing. The actual writing is uplifting; the career aspect is difficult.’
Richard and Judy with Julie Cohen
On to Richard and Judy, interviewed by my fellow Transworld author Julie Cohen whose novel Dear Thing was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. I never actually watched the Richard and Judy TV show… misspent youth! They’re brilliant – what a double act. It’s an art to tag-team the way they do, to be warm and open and personal, to tell anecdotes that work as stories. I was absolutely and completely charmed. It was a cosy venue − Chipping Norton’s lovely and compact Victorian theatre − and it really did feel like being invited into their living-room.
Richard talked about book programmes on TV – his view was that stand-alone book programmes couldn’t work, and that the Richard and Judy book club had been so successful on TV because it was an item on a show that was also about all sorts of other things. He recalled the first book they featured, Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, and how, three days later, the publisher rang up to ask for advance warning if they were to feature another book on the programme, as they had sold out of the entire print run.
Both Richard and Judy discussed their attachment to Cornwall (I can definitely identify with that), which is where Judy’s novels are set. Now I know a bit about Looe Island! They also both spoke very movingly about their memories of their friend Caron Keating, who died in 2004.
Richard and Judy on writing? Both stressed the importance of pressing on and finishing – and both recommended Stephen King’s On Writing (I’m a fan too). And Richard said, ‘I’m a bloke from Romford, Essex, who left grammar school at 16 – if I can do it, anybody can do it.’
Mothers in fiction: Clare Mackintosh, Hannah Beckerman, Rowan Coleman
Next: mothers in fiction, a panel discussion with three novelists.
Clare Mackintosh was the founder of ChipLitFest and her debut novel I Let You Go, a psychological thriller, is out in paperback in May. It’s about a mother who moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast in an attempt to start a new life after a tragic accident – but then the past catches up with her. Clare observed about her novel, ‘I think you write books like that, and you read books like that, because ultimately you want to count your blessings.’
Rowan Coleman has written more than twenty books, including The Memory Book, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and is about Claire, a mother whose family help her put together a book of memories after she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. The Memory Book has its fair share of romance – Claire has a lovely husband (Rowan explained during the course of the talk that she didn’t want anybody in this book to be villainous), but it’s also very much an affectionate portrait of a matriarchy, with starring roles for Claire’s mother and daughter.
Hannah Beckerman’s debut novel, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, is about a woman who watches from the afterlife, or a kind of limbo, as her husband and child adjust to life without her – and then her husband meets someone new. Hannah wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child – it was then picked up for publication and she did a thorough rewrite after having her baby, having realised that the emotions her heroine went through didn’t go nearly far enough to reflect the reality of motherhood.
The novelists were asked to name their favourite mothers in fiction, and these are the books they mentioned:
Room by Emma Donoghue
Dear Thing by Julie Cohen
The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey
… though the very first fictional mother mentioned was Mrs Bennett, and I have to say she’s the first one I think of too.
Mulling over this later, I found myself thinking about Rachel in Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (especially the scene where she gets so absorbed in drawing by the sea that she more or less forgets about her kid – when you read this you are on tenterhooks wondering if he is going to be all right). Also: Moominmamma, and the scene in The Magician’s Hat when she looks into Moomin’s eyes and knows it’s him, even though the magic hat has completely changed his appearance. That’s mother love all right.
To give Rowan Coleman the last word on motherhood: ‘It’s about being there when nobody else will be there. That’s what you know your mum will do, and what you know you will do for your children.’
Writers, Not Writing: an exhibition of photos by Jane Stillwell
Finally I went to see the exhibition of photos of writers not writing, by Jane Stillwell. Cue multiple double takes as the subjects wandered round chatting and swigging champagne while their portraits looked on from the walls… Here’s mine.
It was a great day – though it was lovely to get home too. My son asked where I’d been: ‘Mummy was invisible,’ he declared after I tried to explain. (Charlie Brown turns invisible in a cartoon he likes.)
I was also glad I made time to sneak away from the hubbub, sit on a bench, take in the scenery and read my book (Rachel Hore’s A Gathering Storm, which features an exceptionally heroic mother.)
Stevie Smith said differences between male writers and female writers were more obvious if the writing was bad. I’m a big fan of Stevie Smith, but I’m not sure that’s true. Reading blurs and breaks down boundaries and allows us to access the imagined unknown, and to experience many different lives (to paraphrase a line from one of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, the man who reads has many lives, the one who does not lives only once). When I’m reading a book I love, I could be anyone, and so could the writer; there’s only the story. (Perhaps that’s what Stevie Smith meant.)
So why single out male writers for a list like this? Pretty much, to redress the balance – I’ve already blogged about women writers who changed my life (parts I and II – III will come at some point), so it seems only fair.
The male writers who have changed my life
This is a list of writers rather than of books, so the writers I have included have written more than one novel that has made a big impression on me. Hence some major omissions, of which the biggest is The Catcher in the Rye, which I discovered at the perfect time, as a lonely teen in the school library. Also, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which features one of my all-time favourite heroines.
I haven’t touched on non-fiction (Al Alvarez would definitely be on that list, and Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy – ‘f*** the begrudgers’ is a useful mantra) or poetry (that would be a long one, with a starring role for T S Eliot and, of course, my OH Ian Pindar).
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe have soaked into my unconscious. I still often find myself thinking about the uniquely biroid lifestyle, or the first ten thousand years being the worst, the second ten thousand being the worst too, and after that, going into a bit of a decline. Or it being too late to worry that you left the gas on when you’re about to watch the universe boil away into nothingness. Or the mark of civilisation being the question, ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ Or about how you might feel safe on an alien spaceship if only you could see a small packet of cornflakes amid the piles of Dentrassi underwear. And so on.
William Gibson. Discovered mid-90s, browsing in a bookshop. The inventor of cyberspace, no? The kind of cyberspace we’re still evolving towards – a virtual simulacrum of the world we live in, with criminals, hustlers, defended power bases and ghosts. And Molly with the retractable claws… I often think of William Gibson when I see a wasp’s nest, or read about the hyper-rich – he’s brilliant on the dehumanising effect of immense wealth.
William Gibson introduced me to Cornell boxes – years later I saw some for myself and was stunned by how beautiful they were. Sometimes when I see my son, who has autism, set out his toys, I think of those Cornell boxes. There’s something very precise about the spacing and arranging, something numinous, even if I don’t understand it.
I once tried to write an imitation William Gibson story. It wasn’t very good, as my boyf at the time reluctantly, but rightly, pointed out.
Ian Fleming. Mary Goodnight is the reason I wear Chanel no 5 (though Marilyn Monroe also has something to do with it.) A couple of years ago I wrote a short story called What would a Bond girl do? The story probably wasn’t up to much, but I still like the title.
Around the same time I read the Bond books (early to mid teens) I read a lot of Dick Francis novels, but all I really remember from them is the description of a hungry jockey griddling himself a steak. Also, that 80 hours into learning to be a pilot is the most dangerous time, because you begin to think you can do it and forget to be afraid, which maybe applies to a certain stage of learning in other areas too.
Raymond Chandler. Especially The Big Sleep. Love those slangy, cynical, man-of-the-world cadences – the beaten-up toughness of it. Love the old rich man with the orchids, the sharp dialogue, the ending. When I first read it I didn’t really get a lot of it, but it didn’t matter. And now I’m thinking of Bogart and Bacall. Btw, there is a brilliant essay on how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart in a collection of essays by Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (if you read the book, look out for Charlie Chaplin and the jolly orgy involving paint).
Ernest Hemingway. My dad likes Hemingway and once told me The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel. Hemingway was also on an improving reading list that my English teacher gave me, and I read a fair bit aged 16 to 18 and loved it – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. The short story Hills Like White Elephants has stayed with me – it catches so clearly the sterile feeling of being with a lover when there is almost nothing more to say. Read The Killers recently – eerily brilliant.
Patrick Gale. I read my first Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition) last year and could happily spend the next working through everything else he’s written. Look out for A Place Called Winter, out next month – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.
Patrick Gale’s novels give me a feeling of space and light: new people, new territories, illumination. He’s also a damn good storyteller. When his characters do unexpected things, or have unexpected and sometimes terrible things happen to them, you’re left thinking – yes, that’s how it is, that’s the truth of it. He knows what makes people tick.
Raymond Carver. Bought mid-90s, collected short stories, after Short Cuts came out. Shining example of what can be achieved by being lean and spare. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stays with me – an inspired sideways glance at the question of what love is, up there with James Joyce’s The Dead. Also the one about the three men who go fishing and find a body. And Cathedral.
James Ellroy. How do you find writers you love? Movie adaptations don’t hurt. I bought LA Confidential after seeing the film. Read the first page, thought what’s a shiv? Soon found out, read a load more. Big, ambitious books with amoral heroes – he shares some qualities with George RR Martin: an eagle eye for the workings of power; a desire to tell stories about bad people with a bit of good in them, and good people with a bit of bad in them; and an interest in twisted families.
George R R Martin. Nearly at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones as I write. George RR Martin has a spectacular ability to create real people in a fantasy world. Intensely believable and often terrifying. Grim to think that pretty much any of the dark stuff in the books has really happened sometime, somewhere – and a relief when humanity’s more redemptive qualities come through: courage, integrity, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour in the face of overwhelming odds, loyalty, vision, love.
Neel Mukherjee can do it all – his fiction is funny, profound, vivid, sweeping, and revelatory about how and why people do the things they do. After I’d read The Lives of Others I felt I understood more about why terrorist atrocities happen than when I started – it was an education. I’m very much looking forward to his next. The extract that appeared in January’s Granta was startlingly, shiver-inducingly spooky.
D H Lawrence. I read lots of DHL aged 16-21. (He was on the improving reading list too, and, later on, the degree syllabus.) The end of Sons and Lovers is one of my favourite endings of any novel – more affecting, to me, than the arguably more celebrated ending of The Great Gatsby. One of the endings of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others hits the same note: poignancy and exile, moving on and out into the world. And I like Ursula at the beginning of Women in Love, like a daffodil with all the growth going on underground, before the shoots come up for everybody else to see – and Mrs Morel with the lilies in the moonlight, her brute husband left behind indoors.
OK, so that’s my list. I know as soon as I post this I’ll be troubled by omissions – other names and books are occurring to me as I type, clamouring for inclusion – but you have to start somewhere…
Swift homage to Tolkien, in passing – The Lord of the Rings had pride of place on the bookshelf in my mum’s house and we painstakingly taped the radio adaptation. My OH recently acquired a bit of the recording and it’s still brilliant.
As a girl in the 70s I had dungarees with workmen’s tools embroidered on them and Richard Scarry books illustrated with all the primary colours. If I was a kid these days, I’d have been much more likely to spend my days in a pink fairy costume reading a pink book about pink princesses. I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia – I definitely wasn’t a tomboy – so probably I would have been quite happy with this, at the time anyway.
Looking back, I’m glad that my 1970s childhood didn’t indulge my pink princess tendencies, and that I read Richard Scarry as well as Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit.
Over the last year, I’ve travelled in time and space from Calcutta in the late 1960s to Canada in the 1900s. I’ve witnessed the sinking of a Thames houseboat (the cat escaped, but only just), the lifting of beet on a struggling Yorkshire hill farm and the smoking of Sobranies at a Hungarian party in a tiny London flat (‘Dar-link! Von-dare-fool!’) I’ve witnessed the invasion of a strip club, a miscarriage at a baby shower, people being abused and betrayed and drawn into relationships with those who have misused them; painters at work, alcoholics in recovery, and, from the perspective of the afterlife, a woman trying to get over her still-living husband.
I’ve encountered villains, lovers, rescuers, torturers, aliens and a whole host of heroines. I had the chance to get to know Penelope Fitzgerald and George Eliot, and I observed a Brush with Greatness: (fictional) artist Rachel Kelly bumping into Dame Barbara Hepworth on a booze run.
It has been a terrific year’s reading, mainly of novels, almost all by writers who were new to me. Some were published this year, others some time ago; one – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter − is due out in 2015. Some were recommendations; others I looked up because I’d come across the writers on Twitter or heard about them online. Twitter has played a part in my reading this year as never before – it’s a great medium for fandom.
The other novelty for me was that it was the first year I started reading on Kindle – though I’ve read most of these titles in paperback, which I still prefer. I was talking to a reader at a book group recently who said she read everything on her Kindle and had no idea what the books were called – if people asked her what she’d been reading, she had to look it up. She had started making a point of checking what the covers looked like. I’m still getting my head round this brave new ebook world… I don’t feel like I really own a book unless I have it on paper, and I don’t feel like I engage with a story as closely unless I’m actually turning the pages. OK, so we have severe book storage problems in our house, but as far as I’m concerned that is the only real advantage of the ebook. Also, I quite like reading in the bath. So chances are that 2015 will mean yet more demands on our limited shelf space…
Here are the books I read in 2014, which, in a rare fit of nerdiness, I’ve put in alphabetical order by author. (Check out the links to see their Twitter feeds).
Hephzibah Anderson: Chastened. What happens when you give up sex for a year in the hope that it will improve your chances of finding love – or at least make romantic disappointments a bit less heart-wrenching? Does treating ̕em mean keep ̕em keen, or is it just the route to a different kind of loneliness? This candid, witty, elegantly written study of sexual politics in and out of the bedroom is also a paean to the freedom of single-girl city living. It took me right back to my own London days and made me hanker to visit New York. (Should have gone in my twenties. Have still never been.)
Hannah Beckerman: The Dead Wife’s Handbook. The narrator of this novel is dead and grieving, existing in a nebulous afterlife from which she is permitted occasional glimpses of her husband, young daughter, mother and best friend. But as time moves on and their lives begin to change, can she find it in her heart to let go – especially when her husband is eventually coaxed into starting to date again? A smart, tear-jerking and expertly realised portrayal of the frustrations, sadness and joys of playing witness to your own life after the event, and coming to terms with your loved ones’ slow recovery from your loss.
Amanda Brookfield: A Family Man. This is the story of a man whose wife suddenly vanishes, leaving him to learn how to juggle work, childcare and the confusing possibility of new romance as a single parent. A warm, sympathetic account of a dad who finds that what looks like disaster is actually a chance of a different kind of life. Originally published in 2001, now available in ebook.
Julie Cohen: Dear Thing, Where Love Lies. Gosh, it has been a year of weepy reading! Dear Thing, Julie Cohen’s tale of a tug-of-love between two women who both come to want the same man and the same baby, got my tear ducts going. It’s crisply written, artfully structured and beautifully observed – the scene where Claire has a miscarriage at a baby shower is all the more heart-rending for its restraint. Julie has an acute eye for how people behave in extremis and how even good, kind, likeable people can be brutal when circumstances pit them against each other.
Where Love Lies is a lush, mysterious, time-travelling love story that sends its narrator back to her first experience of romance and then pulls her back into her present. Felicity is at the mercy of her senses, overwhelmed by flashbacks to her past and tempted to act on the old feelings that she is experiencing afresh; so who does she truly love – the old boyfriend who she feels impelled to seek out, or the long-suffering husband who has no idea what she is going through?
Tamar Cohen: The Broken. I *had* to peek at the end of this one – I literally couldn’t bear not knowing how it turned out and I had to get some sleep! It’s a study of conflicting loyalties, jealousy, rivalry and anxiety about doing the right thing. When their friends Sasha and Dan break up, Josh and Hannah find themselves sucked in to the fallout: is it wrong for them to meet Dan’s hot new model girlfriend, and is Sasha really as terrible a mother as Dan believes? The story is laced with dark humour and sharply-observed details of the insecurities and self-destructive impulses tucked away behind the shiny facade of North London domestic bliss. Wraps up with a mean twist. (I read Tamar Cohen’s The Mistress’s Revenge last year – there’s a bit about it in my round-up of my books of 2013.)
Rowan Coleman: The Memory Book. This is one to be read with the tissues at the ready, though it’s also very funny – one of my favourite scenes involves a mother and grandmother invading a strip club in order to retrieve the daughter they have found out is working there. This is a novel all about a matriarchy, and Claire, the mother, is at its heart, seeking to record her life in her memory book in a race against time, as she begins to lose her knowledge of who, when and where she is. However, the stories from the past are far from finished, and an intrigue unfolding in the present threatens to wreak havoc on the family as everybody struggles to come to terms with Claire’s worsening condition. Claire’s other half, Greg, is the love of her life, and yet she is meeting someone in secret, despite her increasing confusion. Is she putting herself in danger, and will she be able to help her loved ones make sense of their shared past before it’s too late?
Jenny Colgan: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe. A super-sweet comic confection that’s as much about getting your business dream off the ground as it is about choosing Mr Right, though it’s about that too. Published in 2011, it’s the story of how Issy Randall uses her redundancy pay-off to set up a charming café – but will her venture survive the interest that her property developer ex-boyfriend decides to take in it, and will Issy be taken in by him? I saw Jenny at an author event with Lisa Jewell and Rowan Coleman at Henley Literary Festival back in October, and Jenny explained that she was inspired to write Cupcake after moving to France and realising that she was going to have to learn to cook from scratch if her children were ever going to have anything to eat other than carrots, apples and crisps. I’m a baker of Bridget Jones-like incompetence myself, but reading Cupcake did inspire me to dig out my one and only truly reliable cake recipe.
Samantha Ellis: How to be a Heroine. Anne of Green Gables, Lizzie Bennett, or the ladies in Lace? This book, a re-reading of the formative novels that helped shape Samantha’s ideas about what makes a heroine, sent us all back to the fiction we read as children and teenagers to see how different it might look from the perspective of experience. It sparked a zillion conversations and got me thinking about my own personal canon of the women writers I’ve loved the most. Samantha’s book is a nostalgia-inducing book-lover’s approach to the questions that trouble all heroines: how to find love, happiness, yourself. Pure pleasure – and thought-provoking, revealing, brave, frank and funny, too.
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop. Also Hermione Lee’s Life of Penelope Fitzgerald. I came to Penelope Fitzgerald through the reviews of Hermione Lee’s Life. I was struck by the details that conveyed the indignities of not having enough money and trying to find ways to make do, sometimes with disastrous results: the affordable but leaky and decrepit Thames houseboat that ended up sinking, the attempt to dye her hair with tea-bags. I read the biography and then read my first of her novels, The Bookshop. It’s short, succinct, devastating and brilliant, and the sucker-punch ending floored me and made me howl as few books have done (the ending of Notes from an Exhibition also caught me by surprise by making me bawl like a thwarted baby.)
Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition and A Place called Winter. (A Place Called Winter is out spring 2015 – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.) My work book group read Notes from an Exhibition some time ago; I missed it at the time (writing deadline – writing does sometimes interfere with my reading) and decided to catch up on it later. It’s set largely in Cornwall, so was great to read in the run-up to our first ever family holiday and my first visit to Cornwall in more than a decade. I admired and enjoyed it very much and it made me cry hopelessly. Some brief notes on what struck me: the portrait of the painter at work – so well realised, the physicality of the paint, the messiness of it; the Quakers; the relationships between the siblings, maternal and marital and filial love; and the pure storytelling – the movement from one point of view to another, revealing one surprise and then another until the last page goes over and you realise there isn’t any more. I’ve been in the process of moving from writing in the first person for my second novel back to the third person for my third, and it was a liberating reminder of just how much you can do with the third person.
A Place Called Winter – this is a historical novel about Harry Cane, a gay man in the 1900s who is forced by a scandal to leave England and settle in Canada. He embraces a new life as a farmer, but any chance he has of finding love and happiness is always attended by terrible jeopardy. It’s a profoundly romantic story – love stories need opposition, and if Harry is to be lucky enough to find a man to love and be loved by in return, their relationship will always be under threat, always required to remain a secret. There are some harrowing scenes of violence, and their consequences are explored with great truthfulness and insight. This is a novel with a sweepingly vivid sense of place, brilliant on the challenges and satisfactions of working on the land in different seasons and on the search for a place to call home and someone to share it with. It feels like a story that was crying out to be told.
Matt Haig: The Humans. A couple of years ago I read Moondust by Andrew Smith, which describes his mission to track down all of the surviving astronauts who walked on the moon and record their memories of it. It seemed that what was really remarkable about going to the moon was the perspective it offered on the Earth; how beautiful and precious it appears from a great distance, surrounded by blackness. Matt Haig’s wise and funny novel pulls off a similar trick. There’s no place quite like home and the people that make it so – and how better to arrive at a full appreciation of what it is to be human than by adopting the perspective of an alien who has fallen to earth, with a mission that is in jeopardy as soon as he begins to learn what it is to love?
Amanda Jennings: The Judas Scar. Amanda’s second novel is a dark, suspense-filled page-turner that explores the guilt felt by a man who failed to protect a childhood friend from a brutal history of boarding-school bullying. It’s also a tale of a marriage that is at risk from secrets on both sides, as well as being under attack from the treacherous intentions of apparent friends. When someone Will never thought to see again unexpectedly begins to play a part in his life once more, the consequences are potentially deadly – but who for? There is plenty that Will hasn’t told Harmony, his wife, and by and by Harmony will have reasons of her own to feel guilty… Amanda’s first novel, Sworn Secret, came out on the same day as my first, Stop the Clock – publication day twins! Amanda wowed a packed-out Henley Town Hall at Henley Literary Festival this year and I’m looking forward to her third novel.
Harriet Lane: Alys, Always. The scheming, shrewd, manipulative narrator of Harriet Lane’s debut novel is one of my favourite antiheroines ever. A dark twin of the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she has no compunction whatsoever about trying to step into a dead woman’s shoes, and is dauntlessly predatory as she hunts down the highly-regarded widower she has set her heart on. A sense of something unseen, or something bad about to happen lurking around the corner, permeates this book. Will the schemer be exposed? Has she ventured out of her depth? It’s also a darkly funny account of what it takes to get ahead in the literary world, which might aptly be subtitled (with a nod to Tamar Cohen’s debut) The Sub’s Revenge.
Rebecca Mead: The Road to Middlemarch. One of my most vivid memories of reading this year is of turning to this book after a car breakdown on the road to Abingdon one hot summer afternoon, while waiting for the RAC to come and sort me out. It’s a personal appreciation of George Eliot and an exploration of her work and life, and it’s wry, witty, sharply observed and ultimately profoundly touching. I finished it filled with admiration for George Eliot, both for the brilliance of her writing and the courage it took to live her life as she did, on her own terms, flouting convention by cohabiting with a married man. Rebecca’s tribute to George Eliot was an excellent diversion from my roadside predicament, which was, thankfully, soon resolved.
Charlotte Mendelson: Almost English. Marina longs only to be inconspicuous at her super-snooty English public school, but her outspoken, glamorous, elderly Hungarian relatives have other ideas, and are not inclined to be discreet about them. They are ever ready to judge the appearance and behaviour of all and sundry – Marina included – with their favourite epithets, Von-dare-fool! and Tair-ible! And yet there is no doubting their love for her and the sincerity of their desire to see her succeed – and the weight of the responsibility she feels towards them in return. Includes an acidly funny portrait of Marina’s mother’s dangerous yearning for romantic escape, or, at least, a life that involves a modicum of privacy, a decent duvet and some labour-saving devices; an account of an almost-romantic reunion; a tragicomic tale of miscommunication between mother and daughter; a sly debunking of a smug male authority figure; and a hilariously liberating conclusion. All the joys of the school story set against the perfect foil: Marina’s Sobranie-smoking, silky-bloused great-aunts and their Hungarian expatriate community. And oh, the food! Made me so long to be invited to one of the great-aunts’ parties in their tiny London flat.
Lorrie Moore: Birds of America. I got this so I could read the short story People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk. SO GOOD. If you’ve ever spent any time in hospital with a child – or in hospital, full stop – or just want to read a miracle of storytelling packed into 39 pages, this is for you.
Liane Moriarty: The Husband’s Secret. This was recommended to me at a book group I went along to talk to about After I Left You. It’s a masterclass in how to build tension by moving between different points of view and raising the reader’s suspicions: just how dreadful is the husband’s secret, and what is the wife going to do when she finds out? It also explores a classic moral dilemma: what would you do if you found out the person you’d shared your life with had done something terrible before you even met? Cleverly structured and psychologically acute, plus every chapter is as well crafted as a stand-alone short story.
Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others. Neel’s second novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is now on the shortlist for the Costa and nominated for the Folio Prize. So many scenes stick in the mind, from the act of sabotage involving nail varnish and special clothes to the bitter, tender ending. It is a brilliant novel, and a devastating account of the violent and terrible consequences of great inequality.
Alice Peterson: One Step Closer to You and Monday to Friday Man. Monday to Friday Man knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the kindle no 1 spot; it’s a touching romance about how meeting fellow dog-walkers and taking a weekday lodger might just get you over heartbreak and change your life, with a moving back-story about a much-loved sibling. Alice is brilliant at weaving together heartwarming love stories with explorations of experiences that bring her characters into conflict and put them to the test. Her new novel, One Step Closer to You, is about addiction and its impact on family life and relationships; its heroine’s recovery is threatened when the father of her child seeks to come back into their lives. The AA scenes are brilliantly done and I found the scene from Polly’s childhood when her brother Hugo leaves home for a residential school absolutely devastating. Polly is left feeling that she can never make up for how much her parents miss Hugo, and the novel shows how this and other losses add to her vulnerability when looking for love.
Geoffrey Robertson QC: Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: The Case for Overturning His Conviction. I’m distantly related to Stephen Ward, which doesn’t make me feel any closer to his story than anybody else, but did add an extra frisson of curiosity to the experience of reading this spirited defence of a man who seems to have been a charming, hedonistic chancer, well and truly hung out to dry by the Establishment. I hope I’m still around in 2046 when they finally release the records relating to the Profumo affair – my hunch is that there may yet be some interesting stuff to come out… (Here’s a recent Guardian article by Geoffrey Robertson about the Profumo affair, written following the death of Mandy Rice-Davies.)
Barbara Seaman: Lovely Me: Life of Jacqueline Susann. I always approach books that touch on autism with both curiosity and wariness – will they be upsetting? Infuriating? Enlightening? I was appalled to learn that Jacqueline’s son, her only child, was given ECT at the age of three in an attempt to treat his autism. (He was institutionalised soon afterwards.) It’s a devastating book, but an inspiring one too – Jacqueline was nothing if not a grafter. Her Valley of the Dolls is, apparently, one of the ten most widely distributed books in history – along with the Bible, Mao Tse-Tung’s Quotations and the Guinness Book of World Records.
Susie Steiner: Homecoming. This debut novel about a Yorkshire farming family introduced me to a tight-knit world where old livelihoods are increasingly hazardous, and making the wrong decision about how and when to lift the beet is to incur the risk of financial ruin. But what happens when the capable prodigal son returns? The characters are beautifully and lovingly evoked, from the pub vamp to the daughter-in-law-in-waiting who loves nothing better than to be left in peace with her wiring. An illuminating depiction of the horrors of lambing gone wrong and the satisfaction of seeing new life brought into the world, sibling rivalry, the settling of scores and the dawning joy of finding love you don’t want to live without.
Rebecca Wait: The View on the Way Down. Rebecca is an honorary Abingdonian and I’d heard this debut novel spoken about admiringly by mums and grandmothers in my children’s school playground. It’s about a family that has fallen apart after the death of one child and the disappearance of another: is there any hope of reconciliation? Painful family mealtimes, brotherly bonding over computer games, the awfulness of girls at school and the edgy, forceful positivity of the mother who’s trying and failing to hold it all together are all brilliantly summoned up in this tender, bold and poignant novel. A terrific debut.
Polly Williams: Husband, Missing. Gina fell in love hard and married fast. Six months later her husband, Rex, goes on a trip to Spain with his brother and some friends, and disappears. As Gina investigates Rex’s disappearance and begins to uncover the secrets he has been hiding, she is forced to confront the possibility that the charismatic, successful man whose spell she fell under so quickly was an illusion. But what became of him – and what is his brother not telling her? And was there something crucial that she had failed to tell him? A cracking tale of marital mistrust and how falling in love can blind you to truths you don’t want to acknowledge.
So, what’s on my reading list for 2015? I’m currently reading Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In, and I want to read the new Louise Douglas, Your Beautiful Lies, and Sarah Vaughan’s The Art of Baking Blind. I’ve dipped into the autobiographies of Dame Stephanie Shirley and Margot Harris and will revisit them to read them more closely. My Christmas list included Daughter by Jane Shemilt, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and My Policeman by Bethan Roberts. I’ve bought Rachel Hore’s The Gathering Storm and Santa Montefiore’s The Butterfly Box as gifts but I think I’ll be able to borrow them by and by – so, plenty to keep me going!
I also predict that, in 2015, somebody will write an article bewailing the state of women’s commercial fiction. (To echo Mandy Rice-Davies – they would, wouldn’t they?) This year Julie Bindel had a bit of a go in a blog post for The Spectator, coining the phrase ‘sick chick lit’ (others have talked about ‘chick noir’ or ‘domestic gothic’ when attempting to highlight the publishing trend Julie was getting at). There was then a set-to on Twitter which gave rise to my phrase of the year (another Julie Bindel coinage): Chick Lit Lout. I’ll have that on a t-shirt please, in glittery pink.
I’ll sign off with a quote from one of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones books: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’ Merry Christmas one and all, and all the very best for 2015. And happy reading!
These are the women writers who I discovered in the tricky years between my mid-teens and early twenties – tricky because that’s when you begin to figure out for real what kind of woman you are going to be, and also because, if you aspire to be a writer, you are simultaneously trying to work that one out too.
If you are headed for wifedom, will you be a capricious, dangerous Rebecca, or a good, quiet, jealous Mrs de Winter? Will you end up as an occasionally desired and ultimately abandoned Jean Rhys woman, whose prose is all discipline, lucidity and sensuous clarity while her life is a muddle of drink, lovers and poverty?
Or will you be a social butterfly spinster who chats brightly at parties and returns home resolutely alone, as one imagines the narrator of this Stevie Smith poem might do: ‘The nearly right/And yet not quite/In love is wholly evil…’? (The poem ends, ‘Take my advice/ Shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her.’) And if none of these options appeal… what then?
I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.
Daphne du Maurier. When I was fourteen or so and at my traditional all-girls’ school, which had turned out not to be as much like Malory Towers as I had hoped, we had to pick a book to tell the rest of the class about. I chose Rebecca. I knew it was impregnable; whatever my classmates might think of me, there was no way they could find fault with the book. It was just too compelling. Nowadays I think I might read it differently, with rather more sympathy for Rebecca, and a lot more impatience with Max.
Jamaica Inn also made a big impression, though I was unnerved by it too, and found it sinister – there’s a real sense of lurking menace and threat. Frenchman’s Creek was gentler and sunnier. I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.
Susan Howatch. Aged 16 or so, I loved Penmarric, Cashelmara and the rest – sagas of rich landed families and their love affairs and bitter rivalries, usually modelled on tracts of British royal history, told in a series of first person narratives so you got a taste of everybody’s point of view – both the men and the women.
So I tried writing my own family saga, which featured a country estate and, er, a series of first person narratives. It began with the point of view of the slightly hopeless Casanova heir of the estate-owning dynasty, who falls in love with rogue redhead Clara but fails to marry her. The opening line was this: ‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ The novel petered out and I never finished it, but hey – it was a start.
‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’
Then my English teacher gave me a reading list with things like the Mitfords on it. I stopped writing and started concentrating on trying to get into Oxford to study English, and didn’t really start trying to learn how to write again till ten years later.
Stevie Smith. She’s better known as a poet – ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ – but I loved Novel on Yellow Paper, with its chatty, discursive, distinctive first-person voice (‘I am a forward-looking girl and don’t stay where I am. ‘Left right, Be bright,’ … my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable.’) Over the Frontier, which was written in the late 30s and is partly set in Germany, is much darker and more ominous: you can feel the storm coming.
I read Novel on Yellow Paper at about the same time I read The Catcher in the Rye, and for the same reason; I’d taken to hanging out in the school library at lunchtime. One of the books I found there was a collection of Stevie Smith’s letters, which were terrific (there was one berating George Orwell for constantly telling small, irritating fibs that would make an angel weep – I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) That led me to seek out NYP for myself. Another school library find was The Catcher in the Rye: it was the perfect time and place to read it.
Jean Rhys writes anti-heroines, and that’s why I love her. Her women turn passivity into an art; they are sensitive to everything, they register everything, and yet they are incapable of taking charge of their own fates. Their only power is the ability to bear witness and give in. They are not good girls, or good women. They don’t know how to play the game, and don’t want to. They’d laugh at The Rules and go off and get crazy drunk and do something wild and helpless and stupid.
I was introduced to Jean Rhys by my mum, who bought me Wide Sargasso Sea because I loved Jane Eyre so much. In my early 20s I sought out the four earlier novels: Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight.
Oh, but they are good. They are so pared back. I admire Jean Rhys absolutely. I’m a little scared of her darkness and sadness, though. Could anybody else have written the gigolo scene at the end of Good Morning, Midnight? I think not.
Here’s how Jean Rhys saved my bacon: we were all advised to write an optional long essay, a kind of mini-dissertation, which would knock out our worst mark in our Finals papers. I did mine on Jean Rhys. I ended up staying up all night in the computer room to finish it, my view of the PC screen glazed with tears because I’d just had a big row with my boyfriend. But anyway, it turned out OK, and replaced my Shakespeare mark, which was truly awful. So – Jean Rhys, my champion!
E. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News was given to me by a friend who was also setting off for journalism school in the mid-90s, and it was a very apt present, because one of the things Quoyle, the hero, has to learn to do is how to write a good auto wreck story for the local paper.
I still have the page turned over at the part where someone tells Quoyle (who is a hapless gentle giant hero) that there are four kinds of women in every man’s heart: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman and the Tall and Quiet Woman. Seems like as good a summary of female character archetypes as any. I just found the page turned over for this paragraph, too:
Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?
I guess that sums up the dilemma that Anna Jones is trying to resolve in After I Left You… and what all of us are trying to find, in the end, when we look for love.
This is a list from the heart and not the head. It’s an acknowledgement of the women writers who belong to my own personal canon and a whistle-stop tour of turning-points in my life as a reader.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager down the pub, I had a conversation with a boy who maintained that women couldn’t write fiction. He honestly believed that not a single woman had ever written a novel worth reading. (He liked Thomas Mann.) I failed to change his mind, but I know that if I’d missed out on any of the writers mentioned here, I’d have been the poorer for it.
Inevitably, a list such as this is full of omissions, but I have tried to include the writers who have taken me out of myself, who introduced me to new worlds and gave me new ways to see my own. As Winifred Holtby observes in South Riding – or her narrator does, or one of her characters – ‘We all take, we all give: this is what it means, to belong to a people.’ (I’m paraphrasing. I haven’t read it since I was 17 or so, and don’t own a copy – but as you can tell, it made an impression). Here are some of the women writers I have taken from, in more or less chronological order.
In spite of the omissions, the list is still rather long, so I’ve split it into three parts. To follow: Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith, Jean Rhys, E. Annie Proulx, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Claire Messud and Curtis Sittenfeld.
Enid Blyton. For Malory Towers. I was gripped and shocked in equal measure by the scene in the first book in which Darrell pushes Sally over during a fight – she is plagued by guilt when Sally becomes seriously ill afterwards (naturally, Sally and Darrell become best of friends later on). Girls fighting – and then making up! Well – who said we were nice all the time?
I so wanted to go to Malory Towers. I was obsessed. I loved the idea of sitting at a desk rather than a table, and wearing a tunic, and the old-fashionedness of it all. (The red rooftops and Cornish rock pools sounded good too.) When I finally did go to a school that did all that traditional stuff, though, I didn’t love it anything like as much as the Enid Blyton version. Sometimes fiction really does have the edge over life.
@AlisonLMercer Malory Towers feels even better second time around. A crash course on anti-femininity, like bravery and not showing emotion.
Charlotte Brontë. For Jane Eyre, really, which I came across almost by accident. I was quite young (but precocious), visiting my step-grandmother, who had a beautiful flat in Bath with a big bookcase on the landing. When it was time to leave I was found perched on the chair next to the bookcase, completely absorbed in a fine old edition of Jane Eyre – the kind with a frontispiece and pages of tissue paper to protect the illustrations.
The Gateshead and Lowood sections hooked me in – I was into school stories, but Miss Scatcherd/Miss Temple/Mr Brocklehurst/Helen Burns were something else. There’s nothing quite like injustice to pull you into a narrative – and for a child, the figure of the unfair teacher is an especially potent one. The death of Helen Burns was almost certainly the first death I had ever come across in fiction. I still think it is one of the most devastating.
But the whole book sank in deep. Jane is so testy with Rochester, so assertive of her equality. I love the scene where she upbraids him for dressing up as a gypsy and trying to trick everybody, and the survivalist bit where she wanders the moors after fleeing her own wedding,and is reduced to begging for pigswill. (When I read about Katniss struggling to find water in The Hunger Games, I thought of Jane.)
And so my very first attempt at writing a novel was a homage, though I didn’t realise this at the time. The climax featured a dangerous woman setting fire to a house and dying in the blaze. Having got shot of her, at The End there was a wedding.
Jilly Cooper. I learned a lot from Jilly. For example: that if you go on a boat holiday, someone else will use up all the water and you won’t be able to wash your hair. Also: that animals can be better companions than people. And: a true hero will see your gorgeousness even if it’s not apparent to you, and even if he doesn’t always make it obvious that he likes you. (There are bound to be a few crossed wires and mismatches, and also, some adventurous or disastrous wardrobe choices. And sex. ‘You know how some men maul you for years and nothing happens, and then someone touches you and it’s as if a thousand volts just went through you?’ I’m paraphrasing and I can’t remember which book it’s from, but there it is: the weirdness of chemistry.)
Mary Stewart. There was the trilogy about Merlin, and lots of romances, almost invariably in exotic overseas locations. They were vividly written, escapist and seasoned with literary references. My Brother Michael, which is set in Greece and dotted with quotes from the classics, opens with the heroine sitting in a cafe and writing: Nothingever happens to me. What better invitation for adventure could there be?
Antonia White. Four brilliant novels: Frost in May, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass. The convent (and the cutting of the novice’s hair), the retreat (the heroine cannot bring herself to write anything about Hell), Les Fleurs du Mal, the consequences of her novel about sinners coming to light, the difficult mother (‘A mother goes down to the gates of Hell for her child’), the father who makes a pass at her friend, the unconsummated marriage, the Chelsea artist who attempts to paint and seduce her, the insanity, Clive, the Hail Marys, the rosary at the end… If you haven’t read them… just do. They were televised in the early 80s, and I read them sometime after that. Trivia fact: Patsy Kensit played Nanda and is pictured on the cover of the paperback I have.
@AlisonLMercer Excellent list in every regard. I have that edition of Frost in May, didn’t realise it was Patsy Kensit on cover
OK, people, here’s the news: the publication date for the paperback of my next novel, After I Left You, has been moved back to July 2014 − BUT the ebook will be published at the end of January.
So if you love your Kindle or e-Reader, you’ll have a long head start. If you prefer a paperback, the timing could be just right for you to take After I Left You on your summer holiday…
Isn’t reading a big part of the joy of going on holiday? In the above pic I’m deep in John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy while on a boat holiday (check my 80s hairdo – I was a teenager). One of my best holiday reads ever was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the one and only time I got some winter sun. I’ll always associate that book with the luxury of escaping from Britain in January.
After I Left You: ebook in January, paperback in July
Sometimes there are changes late in the day in the world of publishing – it’s just how it goes. If you were looking forward to getting your hands on the paperback of After I Left You, I promise you it will be worth the wait! I love paperbacks myself – I spend a lot of my time staring at screens, so it feels like a treat to read a story in this format. It does mean we have stacks of books everywhere, but I kind of like that too – I’d miss them if they weren’t around.
In the end, the paperback of After I Left You will have a much better chance of reaching as many readers as possible as a summertime book. Still, I’m really pleased that the ebook is coming out at the end of January and if this is the way that you like to read, I hope you’ll try it, love it and recommend it! There is nothing like word of mouth!
You can see a range of suppliers for both the paperback and ebook of After I Left You on the website of Transworld, my brilliant publishers (have a look round, they have lots of fantastic authors and I’m very lucky to be in such good hands).
If you’d prefer to read the paperback, it should be stocked by all good bookstores, including local independents. Independent bookshops such as Mostly Books in Abingdon are brilliant at ordering books in – I did my Christmas shopping at Mostly Books by sending an email with a long list and picked them up from the shop the next day. Mostly Books is also happy to post books to you.
What people have said so far about After I Left You…
Other writers have made some lovely comments about After I Left You. Alice Peterson, author of Monday to Friday Man (which knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the Kindle no 1 spot!) had this to say about it: ‘A lovely absorbing read, so evocative of student life. Alison Mercer really captures the passion of falling in love for the first time.’ Tamar Cohen, author of The Mistress’s Revenge, said, ‘Alison Mercer has expertly spun an engrossing story about love, secrets and second chances.’
You’ll also find a couple of lovely reader reviews on Goodreads. These readers won proof copies of After I Left You in a giveaway and I was really pleased they enjoyed it. At the risk of coming over all Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars, or at least sounding a bit corny, I found it very emotional to write, so it’s lovely when readers respond to that.
I’ll be posting sneak peeks of After I Left You on my Facebook page in the run-up to the publication of the ebook. Right – now I have to crack on with writing the next one!
The German edition of After I Left You comes out in summer 2014, and it’s called Und dann, eines Tages. I love the cover design the publisher, Diana Verlag, has come up with – it refers to a specific scene in the book, as you’ll see when you get to it, but you don’t need to know this to pick up what the image suggests.
Just before Christmas I got a fantastic treat in the post: the Diana Verlag May to October 2014 catalogue. Their edition of After I Left You is on the cover and looking beautiful on a double-page spread inside.
Once upon a time someone – perhaps several someones, friends or lovers – sat on that bench underneath that beautiful tree. Who were they, what happened to them, and where did they go?
The catalogue describes the novel as ‘about first love and the years that follow’. The story opens with Anna sheltering from the rain in a London bookshop and bumping into Victor, her first love from her university days. She hasn’t seen him for seventeen years. This chance encounter is destined to change Anna’s life, but first both of them will have to face up to the secrets of her past.
Other writers have made some lovely comments about the novel. Alice Peterson, author of Monday to Friday Man (which knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the Kindle no 1 spot!) had this to say about it: ‘A lovely absorbing read, so evocative of student life. Alison Mercer really captures the passion of falling in love for the first time.’ Tamar Cohen, author of The Mistress’s Revenge, said, ‘Alison Mercer has expertly spun an engrossing story about love, secrets and second chances.’
I am so pleased that the novel is being translated for German readers, and I really hope they will love it.
I’ve just been on a hunt through some old photographs to find a snap from a trip I made to Berlin back in 2000 – here it is!
I thought it was a wonderful city, full of energy and busily rebuilding itself. It was also very friendly, and there were plenty of quirky little bars – I’m in one of them in this picture.
At that time, there was a huge amount of construction and renovation work going on in Berlin – you’d walk along a row of houses and one would be awaiting restoration, the next would be covered in scaffolding and the third would be gleaming and good as new. There was very little evidence of when you were passing into the former East Berlin, apart from the bright pink overhead pipes that were used to carry cables, and, as I remember, the flat cap and pipe sported by the little green man on the pedestrian crossing signs.
I don’t know anything much about architecture, but I remember the Reichstag building as one of the most beautiful and impressive I’ve ever visited – there’s something very powerful about being able to look down and see politicians toiling away underneath your feet! You can see a video of it here.
The visit made me wish that I’d found some way to live in Berlin in the late 90s, and spent a little less time in London! I very much hope to visit Germany again one day.
Revenge, injustice, unreliable narrators, psychic powers, power in hands that are good or bad or hapless or downright sadistic; not being able to remember how you got where you are, not being able to find a man because none of them can cope with your son, and having the chance to live your life over and over again. My 2013 has been filled with good books, and as it’s the season of lists and round-ups, I thought I’d return to some of them here.
This isn’t an exhaustive or particularly scientific list and I’m sure that as soon as I’m done I’ll be troubled by what I’ve left out, but over the past year these books have kept me gripped, made me smile, taken me out of myself, shown me the world as I never thought to see it before, and kept me up turning the pages because I just have to see what happens next…
The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. Oh! What a weepie. Beautiful, lyrical, elemental, epic. I believe it’s being filmed. A thing of beauty with a small and much-beloved child at its heart.
The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen. This was the year I was introduced to the concept of ‘domestic gothic’, which I guess you could argue this and the next four books belong to. Home life isn’t all cupcakes and Mr Right; in this twisty tale of a woman scorned, it’s all about Mr Wrong. Darkly funny, acidic and obsessive, and one for anybody who’s ever been bitter or angry about the end of a relationship.
The Playdate by Louise Millar. How well do you really know your friends and neighbours? A paranoid glimpse of what can happen if those close to you aren’t as benign as you assume. The central character is a single mum trying to get back to work, with a really infuriating ex and a vulnerable child. If you’ve ever had to run to make the pick-up, you’ll find plenty here that’s familiar as well as a few of your worst fears.
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly. So your friend’s child was meant to come to yours for a sleepover… and you forgot, and now she has disappeared. An edgy drama with a heroine who is warm but not always wise, played out against the backdrop of a small community in Cumbria. Expect some jaw-dropping surprises – including a startlingly excruciating dinner party scene – and plenty of menace.
Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings. A dead teenage girl had a secret – and uncovering it will take her grieving family to the edge in this intense and suspenseful tale of the aftermath of loss. The vulnerability of adolescence is in the spotlight as her sister discovers love for the first time and struggles to make sense of the past. Who can she really trust, and who knows more than they are telling? The family’s ordeal is far from over, and as long as the truth is in doubt, it can’t be the right time to let go.
Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson. The heroine looks in the mirror and sees a middle-aged woman; where did all those years go? She can’t remember, because she forgets each day as soon as she sleeps… unless she writes it down. Can she trust the husband who seems to care for her so patiently? Includes one of the most unsettling sex scenes I’ve ever read.
This Boy by Alan Johnson. I’m not one for political autobiographies – but this isn’t at all the kind of book you would expect a politician to write. It’s really a story about women – in particular a mother struggling in a rotten marriage, doing her best to survive, and her resourceful teenage daughter, who later manages to keep herself and her brother out of care. It’s a tribute to women’s staunchness and resilience in the face of the odds, and a glimpse of a London of another time.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. She is such a good writer. This is one that will keep you on your toes – and up late. The prose is lucid, the people are opaque, and there is no predicting what may be revealed next.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. Twin psychics with very different attitudes to their shared gift. When there are intimations of an earthquake, are they right? A deliciously observed character study of two very different women who just can’t escape their interconnected fates (but can anyone?)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant study of the aftermath of a brutal crime on a Native American reservation, exploring what happens when justice loses its way on the border between cultures. Evocative and beautifully written.
The Boy Who Fell to Earth by Kathy Lette. Hats off to Kathy Lette for writing a funny, romantic, truthful novel about a single mum who is looking for love, struggling with an awful ex and trying to do her best for her son, who has autism and can’t help but tell her suitors what she really thinks of them.
Anything by George R R Martin. You know nothing, Jon Snow… I’m down to the last couple of hundred pages of the most recent book in the series. I’ll be bereft when I’ve finished. A monumental (and sometimes brutally gory) work of fiction, with a terrific cast of characters. A fully realised world that has plenty of parallels in the history and geography of our own.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman. Begins with a louty food fight, but will it end with redemption? They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. An Oxford novel that definitely does not romanticise the dreaming spires.
Harriet by Jilly Cooper. My editor suggested I read this when I was working on After I Left You. It starts with an Oxford student whose randy tutor gets her to write an essay on which Shakespeare character would be best in bed. (You’d want to give Hamlet a miss, but Mercutio would be fun for a fling, or perhaps Benedict for a keeper?) After that I read Riders and Polo in quick succession. Robust, naughty fun.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Sensuous and sensitive character study of an unravelled family drawn back together by a mysterious disappearance, against a background of simmering heat.
Small Talk by Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blake. Nicola is a brilliant speech therapist who has done lots of great work with my son, who has autism. This is a practical guide on how to help children learn how to communicate. A really useful parenting book, with expert tips presented in a friendly, accessible way.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, with an introduction by David Mitchell. Just beautiful. The world seen through the eyes of a boy with autism and translated back to us. Listen: ‘Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.’
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Deserves to be showered with prizes. Elusive, stark, sharply observed, compelling tale of life, death and chances that are never quite missed, and keep coming around again.
So – what am I looking forward to in 2014? Well – by and by I will read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Susie Steiner’s Homecoming. I’m also looking forward to Alison Jameson’s Little Beauty, Sarra Manning’s It Felt Like a Kiss, The Best Thing That Never Happened To Me by Jimmy Rice and Laura Tait, In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas, Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing and Tamar Cohen’s The War of the Wives. And I have to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; I bought it as a present for someone and after she’d read it she went straight off to the library to hunt for more.
I love a bit of Victoriana – see the above illustration from my first ever novel for proof! So I’m keen to get started on Victorian crime mystery Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, described in The Scotsman as ‘fine, extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable’. It’s by William Sutton, who was a couple of years ahead of me at university.
Plus my friend Neel Mukherjee has a new book out in the spring, The Lives of Others, which I know is going to be brilliant. Here is the cover. Gorgeous!