The house I grew up in, in a semi-rural part of Dublin, was dizzy with books. My Ma and Da have always been passionate book collectors, and they had everything from the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales, with their fantastic technicolour illustrations, to the greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and D.H. Lawrence, as well as the Irish masters: O’Connor, O’Faoláin, Bowen et al.
Maybe because our house was removed from the town and playmates were scarce, all seven of us became voracious readers. At the age of eight I was getting through five Enid Blytons a week, oblivious of course to their relentless racism and sexism. By eleven, I was loving Liam O’Flaherty and Walter Macken, whose stories I remember as being full of a West of Ireland passion.
Books seemed to inform our lives: I was slagged by a friend recently when I said that my sister Nessa and I used to act out scenes from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for our own entertainment. On a family holiday to Galway in the 1980’s, we visited Coole Park and I was swept away by the romance of the Autograph Tree, and Anne Gregory’s memoir, Me and Nu: Childhood at Coole. When, as teenagers, Nessa and I took a holiday by ourselves, we headed for Haworth in Yorkshire, home of the Brontës. We marvelled at the facts and artefacts from their lives in the museum there.
Sales of work were a great source for new reads: I’d make a bee-line for the books table, grab a pile of orange-covered Penguins and sift through them to find ones I didn’t already own. One of my favourite books—Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of the painter Gauguin—has that famous orange cover. My copy was given to me by a Swiss woman in Zürich (I worked in Switzerland as a student); Frau Rohr was a governess in London in the ’fifties and had bought it there. It’s a book I’ll never part with.
My favourite novel of all time, which I re-read often, is Alessandro Baricco’s Silk: it’s a delicate love-story/fairy-tale set between France and Japan—a beautiful translation from the Italian.
I’m aware of gaps in my reading: it’s impossible to read every book. I’ve been consciously trying to read more of the classic/cult hits: in the last year I’ve enjoyed Lolita, for the narrator’s single-minded snobbery; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for the unusual way it’s written, as much as for the sensuality of the story; and The Bell Jar for its (possible) autobiographical content. I feel I should also be re-visiting writers I read and enjoyed in my teens—people like Molly Keane, Evelyn Waugh, Macken and Lawrence—to re-connect with what I liked about them.
Short fiction being what I love most (happily encouraged at school with the study of Frank O’Connor and the like), I return over and again to the story collections of Claire Keegan, Anne Enright, Helen Dunmore and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne who are absolute contemporary masters (mistresses?) of that form.