My books are packed away in boxes and I feel bereft, but here are my books a month or so ago in situ in my home in Felixstowe.
I’m in the middle of moving country, so I haven’t been able to see or feel my old favourites in weeks. My Kindle is fat with novels I already own but can’t bear to be without whilst they go into storage. These duplicated novels include my two favourite writers, and what is interesting is that both made it into my heart with their first novels but haven’t managed it with the second or third. I’m delighted that Gone Girl has made Gillian Flynn a household name, but Sharp Objects is a Tour De Force. Likewise, Donna Tartt is a writer worth waiting a decade for, but The Secret History is still the gold standard, and her most recent novel The Goldfinch didn’t quite soar so high. Still, my earnest belief, is that writing just one work at the standard of Sharp Objects or The Secret History is enough for a lifetime.
My guilty pleasure books are penned by Marian Keyes, a master of humour and character, and Freya North who writes with a dash of sauce, her novels being (in my view) far more titillating than anything `grey`. The trick with both these writers is that they produce work that reads effortlessly. I’m not fool enough to believe the writing is without sweat, though.
These books sit alongside The Taste of a Man by Slavenka Drakulic, a powerful novel about a woman who kills and eats her loves when he decides to leave her. This partly inspired me to write The Sacrificial Man, and also forewarned me that such a controversial themes will receive some scathing reviews simply because of the content. But The Taste of a Man reads like an obsessive love story, and is beautifully written.
My recent discovery is Penny Hancock, whom I met at a literary festival in Southwold and knew from three minutes into her talk that I’d love her writing. Tideline is about a forty-year-old woman who becomes obsessed with a teenage boy, and decides to capture him. It bears comparison to John Fowles’s great novel The Collector, but re-writes the story from a female perspective and is more shocking as a result.
I have known for a long time how books can change lives. I’ve always sought books that reflect my experience. As an example, last summer I had to receive treatment in hospital and my best companion was a book about a woman going through the same procedure. Another example, when I was much younger I was in love with a difficult man. We spent a night apart, and I read Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare showed me what love could and should be, in a way this man hadn’t, and that gave me the strength to walk away.
So it’s no surprise that I write to reflect my own experiences too. When I wrote The Woman Before Me I had just had a baby, and the novel was a sort of therapy during those early months with no sleep and plenty of anxiety. And of course my protagonist is a probation officer, reflecting my own past career.
A book can be a best friend, a mentor. It can and should be a challenge. And whether they are in paper form or electronic, they are essential.
Ruth Dugdall is the author of The Woman Before Me and The Sacrificial Man. She is the winner of the 2005 CWA Debut Dagger and the 2010 Luke Bitmead Bursary.