At first, I thought it would be impossible to choose just five books for my desert island. My head was brimming with countless possibilities, but in less than five minutes my heart had led me straight to five rather worn and browning books. As I looked at them, I realised I had read them all before I was twenty one, yet these would be the ones I would clutch tightly in my arms as I stumble from the life raft onto my lonely island.
These books are part of me; they almost define me. They remind me of the people who gave them to me; they have influenced me and, quite definitely, shaped the person I became. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat
My father worked abroad all my childhood and my earliest memories are visiting my grandparents in Cambridge. My great-grandfather left Liverpool for Cambridge in 1880, just three years before Gwen Raverat’s mother arrived there from America. Her book is a delightfully witty account of her Cambridge childhood. She was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and paints a vivid picture of what life was like in an upper middle class, academic family at the turn of the last century. Her illustrations are wonderful, especially the drawing of her mother and aunt in a punt, shielding their eyes with their parasols to avoid the naked boys standing on the river bank.
My grandfather was born in 1884; he and his seven sisters would have passed Gwen’s family on the streets. I love this book, not only for the witty and interesting historical details, but because it so completely captures my earliest memories. Cambridge also became my home. I worked as a nurse in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, my husband studied medicine there, and we bought our first house in Benson Street.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
They say the first cut is the deepest, and yes, for one brief moment my hand did hover over Pride and Prejudice. I wanted to take the omnibus, but when pushed, there was no contest; Persuasion has long been my favourite Jane Austen novel, if not my all-time favourite novel. It is so poignant, so deeply romantic. It is full of heart break, lost hope and courage. It is about second chances. I read it for the first time at A level and can still remember the fury I felt at how badly Anne was being treated. I was appalled by the influence Lady Russell had had over her. My hackles rose. She was being bullied and deserved better. She needed to stand up to them.
Each time I re-read this novel, I love it more. I love the satire, the wit; the perfectly drawn characters. Some parts make me laugh out loud. It has everything in it – a perfect depiction on what is good and bad in any society. Of course, my reading of it has matured; I no longer blame Lady Russell, but the depiction of how one person can persuade another seemed an important lesson to take through life.
War and Peace by Tolstoy
I went to boarding school from the age of eight. There was little or no television and books became my escape. However, I have a confession. My reading of War and Peace coincided with the television dramatisation in the 1970’s which we were allowed to watch and I completely rushed the politics. I was so madly, deeply, passionately in love with Pierre Bezukhov. I loved him when I was a teenager and I still do. He is one of literature’s greatest heroes, full of compassion and regard for others less fortunate than himself. His journey to self-awareness and his unselfish love for Natasha nearly broke my heart.
I have to take this book with me on my desert island. I would make amends, take my time, read every word and get to grips with the politics. I would be transported back to the hard chairs of the dining room, to my boarding house, to Anthony Hopkins and the important realisation that it was compassion I loved in a man, the simple fact that any future husband needed to be just like Pierre Bezukhov. What more influence could a book have than that?
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A recent trip to Brooklyn prompted me to re-read this wonderful book. It is profoundly moving. It opens in 1912 and describes the childhood of Francine Nolan, a child born to Irish immigrants living in a tenement in Brooklyn. The family’s struggle to survive, their fight against squalor and poverty and the terrible hardships they had to endure are brought vividly to life. But what really shines through the pages of this book is their courage and determination, their bravery and warm humanity.
Francine’s courage in this book had a profound effect on me when I first read it, but on reading it again, I realised it is the wisdom of her mother and aunts, and most especially her grandmother, that gives this book such impact. They were incredible women, living such hard lives yet they held fast to their dignity and pride. It is their strength and stoical backbone that is so inspiring. I think this book should be compulsory reading – women who could not read or write, passing down their wisdom from generation to generation. Their advice is still as relevant in our time as it was in theirs.
Candide by Voltaire
My aunt was a historian. One night, while staying at her house, I chose the slimmest book in the bookshelf, knowing I would have to leave it behind in the morning. It was Candide, by Voltaire and when I put it back in the early hours, I knew that although I had thoroughly enjoyed it, there was a lot I had not understood. I knew I would have to come back and re-visit it one day.
Sixteen years later, I enrolled for an Open University degree and Candide still remains one of my all-time favourite books. It is a laugh-out-loud satire, an attack on corruption and hypocrisy. Nothing is spared; religion, governments, politics and philosophy are attacked with dark, vitriolic humour. The message is clear – it was not the best of all possible worlds, we should not just accept our fate.
I would need to have this book with me on my island. Not only would it make me laugh, but if Candide can withstand being forced into the army, flogged, tortured by the inquisition and shipwrecked, then I could take heart – I too, could eat my own buttock and survive.
But this book means more to me than just fun satire. The book is about cause and effect – the consequence of one thing affecting another. If I had not chosen the smallest book in the shelf, I might never have done my Open University degree. If I had not done my degree I would never have fallen in love with the Enlightenment period and I might never have written my books.
I hope you have enjoyed my choice. Do keep an eye out for me on my desert island. I may be a sailor, but I would need satellite navigation, radar, and a very reliable weather forecast before I could even contemplate getting back in that life raft. I may also be lucky enough to have Captain Wentworth and Pierre Bezukhov for company but I’d rather you came and picked me up. Give me four weeks, six at the very most. Then come looking for me…please.