WHAT BOOK would author Maggie O'Farrell take to a desert island?

WHAT BOOK would author Maggie O’Farrell take to a desert island?

  • Maggie O’Farrell is currently reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the ninth time
  • Author would take William Boy’s Any Human Heart to a desert island
  • Moominland Midwinter first gave her reading bug when she was eight or nine

…are you reading now?

I’ve just finished How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, about a group of disparate characters in Barbados, all drawn together by a murder. The island may appear, at first glance, to be a near-paradise, but Jones’s forensic prose reveals a society riven by hardship, betrayal and inequality.

It is a novel of great elegance and verve — hard to believe it’s a debut. I’m now re-reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for about the ninth time. I pick it up every few years or so, and, whenever I return to it, I see something different. Its brilliance is so unique and indefinable that it refracts light at a new angle each time.

I have an extremely battered copy that has been all over the world with me, in numerous backpacks and suitcases; I can’t throw it out as its covers are filled with various notes I’ve written while reading it.

Maggie O’Farrell (pictured) is currently reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the ninth time and said Moominland Midwinter first gave her reading bug when she was eight or nine

…would you take to a desert island?

That’s a hard one. It might be William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which is a great, sweeping, cradle-to-the-grave novel about a man whose life is tied to the instability of the 20th century — it’s compassionate, compelling and affecting.

Or I might opt for Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. She is mistress of the form of the short story, at both micro level (with exquisite sentences and images) and macro level (fitting into 30 pages what another novelist might spread out over 300).

She is an incredibly compassionate writer, getting under the skin of all her characters, fleshing them out within a paragraph or two. The scope of her narratives demonstrates a remarkable generosity of spirit towards her readers.

…first gave you the reading bug?

The author would take William Boy’s Any Human Heart to a desert island

I was eight or nine when someone gave me Moominland Midwinter, which remains my favourite in the whole Moomin series. I remember being blown away by the flex and power of Tove Jansson’s prose, by the description of this creature waking up alone in a snow-filled world. It’s a book filled with magic, of the good and dark kind.

Even as a child, I realised very quickly that this was something special, something different. Jansson wrote like no other children’s author I’d ever encountered — she doesn’t pull her punches or shy away from challenging themes such as loneliness, alienation or acceptance.

I went on to read all the books in the series, and I still have the copies from the 1980s. They live on my daughter’s shelves now — all my children have read them.

…left you cold?

I have still yet to read Proust’s seven-part novel, In Search Of Lost Time. Every few years, I make a start and then, somehow, I lose track and end up reading something else.

Maybe one day it will click into place and I’ll race through all the volumes. Until then, Marcel remains on the shelf.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press £8.99) won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. For more information on the Women’s Prize, visit womensprizeforfiction.co.uk.

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