The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My mother gave me this book when my parents and three siblings were sailing on the Queen Elizabeth 1 from New York to Southampton. We were going to live in a new place – ‘foggy’ England. I was 8 years old; excited, scared, unsure. Not unlike the main character, Mary Lennox, who comes from a hot country to live in Yorkshire. She finds out about a secret garden and one day finds the key which opens its door. Beyond the walls are roses and birds and possibility. Her life changes: she makes a friend.
This book had an impact because I identified with Mary. We were both young when we went to live in a new country. I could understand her feelings of awkwardness and isolation. Mary was brave and did something forbidden that didn’t hurt anyone else. Her adventurousness brought her friends and the opportunity to help another.
Angelique by Anne Golon
By the age of 11, I was at school in Suffolk, an old-fashioned girls’ boarding school where you had to wear two pairs of knickers every day and a long cloak with a pointed hood to survive the bitter cold. We were allowed out on a rare Saturday for two hours to walk in pairs to Southwold. We were not allowed to enter shops and the shopkeepers reported us if we did. Drawers were raided for ‘contraband’ such as biscuits and torch batteries. Yes, we had midnight feasts if our contraband was not found. I read Angelique and most of this historical series from under the bed covers (no duvets then) in failing torch light as reading was not allowed after ‘lights out.’ I flushed when ‘heaving bosoms’ were mentioned.
The school was strict; one felt controlled. It was brilliant to escape to a place of breathless hope and soaring romance.
Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diary Ed. David Garnett
I was living in a commune on a Somerset farm in my early 20s; no telly, no radio, no newspaper. We dropped out. I grew much of the food, made bread and beer, milked the cow while others drove tractors or worked in the fields. One harvest, a woman came to stay. She wasn’t much help with the hay, but she did lend me this book. I slipped away from another evening dancing by the fire to read Dora Carrington’s words. Here was a young woman, like me, living outside society. She voiced the struggles, battles and complications she was going through; there was a ring of recognition. I was captured by her ‘voice’ and how this writer described complicated feelings through the choice of pace and phrase.
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life by Helen Simpson
I had two young boys in 2002 when I read this. I was working and singing in a band some evenings. This book captured my experience of juggling, exhaustion, joy and frustration. It was about women who wanted something out of life but could not see how to get it while they drowned under the weight of washing, guilt and breastfeeding. It could have been about me or any of my friends. How had the author found a way into our heads?
One of the main pieces of advice for writers – show, not tell. Simpson rarely tells you what someone is feeling or thinking but you know all about it from what she shows. She writes with economy, assurance and skill. She also demonstrated how humour, if done with skill, can communicate painful and difficult things.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
I bought this book in preparation for the ‘Ways with Words’ Festival at Southwold in 2016. My first novel, The Huntingfield Paintress, had just come out and I was being interviewed there. That evening I was to join other writers for dinner including Penelope Lively. I read Moon Tiger again and admired it even more. It’s told through the eyes of an older woman, Claudia, who is dying. Looking back through her life, she reflects on the big topics: love, death, legacy and memory. Scenes are described from different points of view, so the reader gets a different take on similar events. The book employs a clever use of time, jumping forward and back. It demonstrates beautifully how structure builds tension and drama. I used it in my second novel, Wyld Dreamers. Claudia is selfish and cruel and yet we readers like and even admire her. No wonder the book won the 1987 Man Booker prize.
My third novel, The Curious Life of Elizabeth Blackwell, is published on 25 October 2022 by Bloodhound Books.