1) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – This book is perfect to me. It’s structure and how that structure weaves the same themes and ideas through five different stories, each in a different time period and told through a different genre, it just blows me away. And gives me an incredible rush of inspiration at how exquisitely clever it all is from a writing perspective. David Mitchell’s writing is always strong and engaging and full of subtle poetry and there are characters who have been tattooed on my heart. It’s a novel that once I’ve finished it, I have to just sit there in contemplations for a while.
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
2) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling – The stories that have the most powerful impact on me are stories that present the very worst and darkest aspects of human nature and then show us a way to live with that with hope and a desire to be a light in that darkness against all odds. It’s true of Cloud Atlas and also of DH and the HP series in general (including Cursed Child). Deathly Hallows is full of beautiful passages. Harry’s journey through the book, coming to terms with who Dumbledore really was, his internal struggle of choosing between the Horcruxes and the Hallows (destroying Voldemort or protecting himself), and eventually discovering and choosing to accept his true, horrific destiny… It destroys me in all the best ways.
“Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so he felt more alive, and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone…or at least, he would be gone from it. His breath came slow and deep, and his mouth and throat were completely dry, but so were his eyes.”
3) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – This novel is pure, beautiful agony. Kathy H, the protagonist, is a wonderful, unique character and the complexities of her relationships with Ruth and Tommy are realistic in a way you don’t often find in fiction. There was a point near the end when I realised what was coming–or more like what wasn’t coming–and I had to stop reading because I was sobbing uncontrollably. Kazuo Ishiguro is a huge inspiration to me as a writer, because he has a way of using fiction to explicate deep truths about what it means to be a human. He expresses theme slowly and subtly and by the end you’re submerged and drowning. He’s brutally honest about the way people’s minds work, how our mortality defines us, how our memories are both precious and untrustworthy.
“I half closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, and maybe even call.”
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”
4) Oyrx and Crake by Margaret Attwood – Margaret Attwood is another one of my writing inspirations. I love the way this novel is structured, with clues dropped early on and consistently until they build up into a horrifying but very satisfying conclusion. Jimmy, the protagonist, is one of those characters you love despite and because he’s kind of a fuck up. He’s super-flawed, relatable and endearing. Then there’s Crake in the background, mysterious, brilliant, tortured and horrible. And yet you can’t quite bring yourself to completely hate him. You can kind of see where he’s coming from, actually. The future world Attwood envisions is way too possible and way too close. I saw an article just the other day about pigs who are bred to grow human organs for transplants. (Sadly, I didn’t like either of the sequels to Oryx and Crake. They felt tacked on and not entirely consistent with O&C, the writing wasn’t anywhere near as strong, and there are elements I would have preferred not to have read.)
“Jimmy, look at it realistically. You can’t couple a minimum access to
food with an expanding population indefinitely. Homo sapiens doesn’t
seem to be able to cut himself off at the supply end. He’s one of the
few species that doesn’t limit reproduction in the face of dwindling
resources. In other words - and up to a point, of course - the less we
eat, the more we fuck.“
“How to do you account for that?” said Jimmy
said Crake. “Men can imagine their own deaths…human beings hope they
can stick their souls into someone else…and live on forever.”
5) The Secret History by Donna Tartt – Donna Tartt’s writing, the way she uses language and develops characters, makes me want to roll around on the floor with ecstasy and admiration. Her characters are always vivid and memorable, full of personality, detail and human frailty. You can tell that she watches people. She knows how they work, the locations of their weak spots, the lies they tell themselves. I love unreliable narrators, and Richard Papen is such a gloriously unreliable narrator. She brings the cloistered world of over-privileged, pretentious and self-involved under-grad academia completely to life. And she’s subtle, she doesn’t spoon feed anything, she makes the reader work to interpret what went on behind the scenes, which means you discover new things about the novel every time you read it.
“Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”