The books that made me

26 March 2019

These questions are asked of writers by The Guardian. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to answer the questions myself.

The book that I am currently reading

Tupaia: Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator by Joan Druett. This is a biography of Tupaia and includes a fascinating account of Tupaia’s voyage from Tahiti with Captain Cook aboard the Endeavour and the invaluable role he played as intermediary with local people, the Maori of New Zealand and the Aboriginal people of the land Cook named New South Wales. It is an attractive book with numerous illustrations and reproductions of Tupaia’s own sketches. It is well worth reading for a Polynesian perspective of the first contacts with Europeans, particularly if like me, you’ve only read about these events from a European viewpoint.

The book that changed my life

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. Narrated by a 13-year-old girl, this novel is about children spending a summer holiday in France. Their mother took them to see the war graves, hoping they would develop empathy for the suffering of others. When their mother falls ill, they are left largely to their own devices and find themselves in situations that are difficult to navigate without the guidance of an adult. It is atmospheric with an overarching feeling of impending doom. Accustomed to reading wholesome children’s stories, this was the first time I’d come across a complex and layered novel that dealt with the confusing conundrums of growing up.

The book I wish I’d written

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. She is my favourite writer and I’ve read everything she’s published. But Moon Tiger stands out because of its narrator Claudia, who is outspoken, complicated, fiercely intellectual and non-conformist, though not particularly likeable. That you end up feeling sympathy for her is testament to the skill of the author. I read it every few years trying to unravel the secrets of its structure but I usually end up just giving into the enjoyment.

The book that is overrated

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I read this amidst the hoopla about her second novel Normal People, thinking I’d go on to that next. But I won’t now. I never really got into Conversations with Friends, didn’t relate to the characters and only finished it because Rooney is so highly acclaimed. Perhaps it’s just that I’m the wrong generation!

The book that changed my mind

The first time I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver it had an Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker on it. This put me off and I didn’t pick up another of her books till The Lacuna, published 11 years later. I loved the insertion of a fictional character into the events surrounding artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1930s Mexico and the witch-hunt of artists in the US in the 1940s and 50s. And I have read and enjoyed several Kingsolver novels since.

The last book that made me cry

Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido. This fictionalised memoir follows the lives of two sisters growing up in late 1940s and 1950s Durban as the apartheid regime gathers pace. Because Dinah, the younger of the two sisters, goes to the same high school as my mother did and the same university as I did, it’s almost as though she’s writing about my life – the growing awareness of the injustices and cruelty of the political system while navigating the pitfalls of being a teenager and trying to find one’s place in the world. Reading it half a world away from where I grew up, I often had tears in my eyes.

The last book that made me laugh

Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido. This same book made me laugh out loud with its recounting of the absurdities of a system artificially separating people on the basis of race. Perhaps you had to experience the contradictions first-hand to find it funny.

The book I couldn’t finish

What else would it be? James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a fair few years since I tried it so perhaps it’s time to give it another go. I won’t be rushing to get my hands on a copy though!

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I feel as though I have read it because of all the references in any discussion of literature. So much so that I have to remind myself that I haven’t actually read it!

My earliest reading memory

The Gingerbread Man (folktale). It is not clear to me whether I remember reading this book or having to read to me but I can replicate the drawings from that particular edition in my mind’s eye. And I can still recite it though I had fortuitously forgotten that the fox eats the gingerbread man in the end.

My guilty pleasure

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. I have read this series of novels several times over the years and have them on my e-reader for when I fancy a quick dip. I know them so well that I can go to the section I feel like reading with ease. I was a teenager when I first read them and I was caught up in the characters living their intertwined lives in Victorian London. The themes of morality, materialism, and marriage seem timeless.