I don’t know what’s in the air today – or floating around the Twittersphere – but it seems to be a day for celebrating female writers. Hurray!
Its all down to the brilliant people over at Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction. Not content with inventing the most amazingly tasty liqueur (Caramel Baileys, anyone?) and coming up with a prize that celebrates some seriously amazing women’s writing throughout the world, they are now the brain-child behind #This Book. A trend currently doing the rounds of social media, the idea is “to shine a spotlight on books written by women…that [have] had the most impact on you.”
It seems to be the season for talking about women writers who’ve penned books that have impacted, shaped or changed our lives. I am currently in the process of scribbling some words down about books I’m loving at the moment and are written by female authors for For Books’ Sake – another brilliant website getting its love out for all things lady writerly.
So all this has got me thinking about my life and how certain books have made me think, feel, and act over the years. From childhood classics to contemporary page-turners, I’m going to try and pin point the ten books that have had a huge impact on the person I have become (so, yeah, blame the books and not the gin, K?).
1. The Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton.I became mildly obsessed with this book as a child. There are several snaps of me clutching a dog-eared copy – at the dinner table or sprawled on a sun-lounger on holiday – and I think I must have read it a thousand times. Aged eight or nine I was dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning to attend my brother’s football matches and, along with my friend, we’d abscond to a climbing frame in some near by park which served as our very own faraway tree. We’d recreate lands filled with Moon-face, Silky fairy and Dame Washalot (and laugh at the names of some of the characters like Fanny and Dick). This is where I learned to let my imagination run wild and drown out the noise of the world (aka. my mum’s loud and embarrassing cheering from the side-lines).
2. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott. I wanted to be Jo. For me, Josephine March may just be one of the best literary characters. She is strong willed and fearless and an incredibly fantastic story teller. She hot-foots it to New York and becomes a published writer, and has a romance with an older German professor. She is a feminist with her unconventional behaviour and refusal to accept gender stereotypes, and I love that she won’t marry the first fella that comes along (however much I may have loved Laurie!) When Beth dies it broke my heart and continues to break my heart every time I read it. I’m totally with Joey when he puts the book in the freezer in Friends. Beth dying is the most harrowing moment in fiction!
3. The Harry Potter Series – J K Rowling. I don’t know when I decided I wanted to be a writer but it was somewhere between Little Women and the middle of Harry Potter (and all the library books borrowed in-between) I – along with most of the world- fell in love with the magical life and wonderful characters J K Rowling created, and am eternally grateful that she sat in that café and persevered for so long (Yes, I have been to The Elephant Café in Edinburgh like a proper Fan Girl). There’s something about those novels that made me want to be a writer. And who doesn’t love Hermione, Ron and Harry? I grew up with these books, carrying them through my teens and into my adult years. We used to have a brilliant PE teacher who would read us extracts from the novels and let us name our netball teams after the houses – I always wanted to be in Hufflepuff. Its such a strong word! I turned every page with anticipation. I cried and laughed and cried again. These books made me want to be part of that special world – the special author world that seemed to be so full of magic and possibilities. I’ve just started reading them to my niece and nephew when they visit. Isn’t it a wonderful feeling getting to pass something you love on to the next generation? I suppose this is how my mum must have felt when she sang Lisa Stansfield songs in the car and tried to make us learn the words. Sort of.
4. Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte. I studied this novel for AS Level and it was such a turning point for me. I’d always loved reading and had enjoyed school but the essay I turned in on Wuthering Heights was my first English A grade – and marked the start of a time I really began trying to get good grades – and it was one of many to follow. I just fell in love instantly from the first line, “I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour I shall be troubled with,” to the very end, “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Like every girl who has ever read this book, I fell madly in love with the exotic and brooding Heathcliff, and envied the free-spirited Cathy for getting to smooch him! This novel also spawned a pretty amazing song.
5. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte. Another Gothic love story to set my teenage heart a flame. I love Jane. She’s brilliant. In your face Blanche Ingram, the Jane’s of this world are better. Plus it gave us Mr Rochester. O.M.G. He was the love of my teenage years. I also liked that, once Jane found out about Bertha, she chose not to go with Mr Rochester to the South of France to live in glorious sin with him (she’s a stronger woman than me, I’d have been on that boat quicker that you can say ‘ahoy!’) and sticks to her guns. They get together eventually, and the novel ends as all good love stories should. Although I always felt angry about the representation of Bertha, and wondered what had happened to her before she became the crazy-ex.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” – Jane Eyre
Which brings me to my next choice:
6. Wild Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys.Everything about this novel is beautiful, from the colours to the language. Rhys reimagines Bronte’s madwoman in the attic and gives her a story. Caught up in an oppressive patriarchal society where a cruel, cool husband can deem his wife mentally unstable, Rhys creates a beautifully displaced character and gives Antoinette a life. This was also the first novel I read that was really about somewhere “other,” somewhere exotic. It also heavily influenced my undergraduate dissertation which was about displaced women and mental illness. It also fuelled a love of reading about exotic, beautiful places.
7. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath.I don’t love this novel. I like it and I certainly think it influenced me because I often come back to it. I read it over and over and over, and have got different things from it at different times in my life. Its wonderfully poetic and thoughtful. Its a novel that has always stayed with me but I am not sure why.
8. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger. I read this book from cover to cover in a matter of days. I then read it again. Then I gave it to a friend who did the same thing and loved it just as much as I did. It was just something wonderful. There is this beautiful, beautiful love story that transcends time and place, and is both incredibly heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. I went to see Niffenegger read from her next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry (which is equally as wonderful and the creator of my obsession with Highgate Cemetery) and she was everything I hoped she would be – fiercely intelligent, artistic and funny. Plus she gave us Henry. One of my favourite literary crushes ever (and thanks to the film, forever immortalised as a half-naked Eric Banner in my noggin).
“We laugh and laugh, and nothing can ever be sad, no one can be lost, or dead, or far away: right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection, or steal the joy of this perfect moment.” – The Time Traveller’s Wife
9. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy I read this book as part of my undergraduate course – a module called Modern Gothic. I didn’t love it instantly. In fact I read half of it and just couldn’t continue. It was a slog and I felt displaced and unsure the whole time I was reading it. Then, years later, when I was out of books and needed something to pass the time on the hellish 197 bus journey into Manchester, I picked it back up and read it again. This time I read the whole thing, and loved it. I loved it so much that I reread it. Twice more. Its so vivid and beautiful and horrific and messed up. Its everything a great novel should be. There’s this idea of “love laws” in the novel, and who should be loved by who, and how much and its impact on the people who have to live under these rules is rife in the novel. Its about all the small things that influence our lives and lead us to the path we decide to take. Plus, its her only novel to date which makes it even more special in my opinion.
10. Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is quite possibly my favourite novel in the world. It was recommended to me by a friend and my copy is very special to me as it has a note from her in the front which is all about our friendship. The physical book means as much to me as the actual story. I can’t even talk about the story because its so perfect and wonderful. Just promise me you’ll read it?! (I may talk about this soon, elsewhere watch this space).
And because I can’t choose only ten – I am a greedy book fiend – here are two more books I NEED on my list.
- My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece – Annabel Pitcher. This book made me want to write YA fiction. It was THE BOOK which made me think, ‘wow, this genre is powerful.’ Everyone was talking about it. It crossed over the line from young adult to adult readership with ease. In a time post-911 in the USA and the 7/7 bombings in the UK, when the world was terrified and fraught and people were afraid of everyone else, this novel showed us a version of that world through a child’s eyes who couldn’t understand – and didn’t care – about issues surrounding religion and race, nor understand the fear, but fell in love with a beautiful girl who became his friend. It was so positive. It is incredibly uplifting and powerful, and hats of to Annabel Pitcher for tackling such a brave subject and creating such a wonderful character in Jamie. It makes me want to write a book as commanding as this. The ending is just the best.
- Paper Aeroplanes – Dawn O’Porter. I’ve always been a fan of O’Porter, right back to her pre-O days when she was writing articles and producing documentaries about internet dating and our size zero culture. She’s always made me laugh, said what I was thinking and I generally agree with most of her comments. Then came Paper Aeroplanes and I fell hook line and sinker for O’Porter’s writing style. Its candid and hilarious and just like reading a teenage diary. I love the characters of Renee and Flo, and there is something magical about following a female friendship as it blossoms. There are so many novels out there about first love – particularly in teen novels – but what I really like about Paper Aeroplanes is the suggestion that real first love is actually between female friends. Whenever I read this book – and its sequel Goose – it reminds me of being that young, meeting your best friend and it being the most important and significant relationship of that time. I think about the person I met when I was a teenager and how she is still a great friend of mine all these years later. For me, not enough YA author’s write about female friendship, or friendship in particular.
Well, there we have it. My life in books. Well, by female writers anyway. There are many more writers that I love and who’s novels have influenced my life (Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Maggie O’Farrell, Jenny Downham).
If you could pick ten (or twelve in my case because I am greedy) books by female authors that have changed your life, what would they be?