‘The old books I turn to in the middle of the night when sleep is elusive’
Julie Parsons: In a new series, every week this year the author will write about one of her favourite books
Julie Parsons surrounded by her books: “They are my favourite books. I’ve read most of them more than once. They are the books to which I turn in the middle of the night, when the cares of the world press down and sleep is longed for but elusive.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
I stand in front of my book shelves. There are books here which I’ve had since I was a child. Packed up and shipped in an old tin trunk all the way from New Zealand 54 years ago. Their covers are tattered, worn and faded. There is a row of tall green hard backs, their spines decorated with gold leaf which spells out The Novels of the Sisters Brontë, passed down from my grandmother Elsie Purefoy to my mother, Elizabeth Chamberlain, and thence to me.
The shelves are crammed with a collection of hardbacks and paperbacks. A haphazard collection it must be said. Fiction and non-fiction jumbled up together. Not a hint of order or category. They could be the shelves of any old secondhand shop. But one thing unites them. They are my favourite books. I’ve read most of them more than once. They are the books to which I turn in the middle of the night, when the cares of the world press down and sleep is longed for but elusive.
Like The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956), the story of a marriage, told backwards from despair to hope; Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion (1987) which showed me how to write a thriller and The Vanishing (1993) by Tim Krabbe, whose 108 devastating pages demonstrated how to break all the rules. Guest of Honour (1970), Nadine Gordimer’s analysis of the transition of an African colony to independence and the corruption which accompanies it.
Books I read as a child. The wonderful Thunderhead (1943) by Mary O’Hara and Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941), which managed to combine two of my childhood preoccupations, horses and the horrors of the second World War. Books I sneaked from my mother’s bedside table. Alberto Moravia’s The Woman of Rome (1947), the city in the aftermath of Nazi occupation, its women at the mercy of the American soldiers who now hold power, and A Diary of Love (1953) written by the American writer, Maude Hutchins. A writer who’s forgotten now but who weaves the story of Noel, a wealthy young woman, orphaned, struck down by TB, and her interior life, her fantasies, suffused with eroticism.
Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965), the story of Rosamund, a defiantly unmarried mother in 1960s’ London; Life and Fate (1960) where Vasily Grossman dumps the reader in the gas chambers of Auschwitz then takes them into the brooding presence of Stalin as he plots in Moscow. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) which revolutionised non-fiction. And even my favourite cookery books, Elizabeth David’s classic Italian Cooking (1942) and Claudia Roden’s Book Of Jewish Food (1997) which I continue to use all the time.
So I’ve made a list. It’s a personal choice. Perhaps it’s the history of my life, or perhaps it’s just a collection of good books. Either way read them, enjoy them and next time you pass a secondhand shop drop in. You never know what wonders you’ll find.
Julie Parsons’ latest novel, The Therapy House, won Crime Novel of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Every week this year, she will write about one of her favourite books
The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)
I had never read anything by Elizabeth Jane Howard until I came across a copy of The Long View in a secondhand shop in the 1970s. I bought it because it was a lovely little hardback with a paper cover, more or less intact. I had no expectations of it as a novel. I can remember sitting in a sagging armchair in a student flat on Pembroke Road and not lifting my head until I was finished. Then I went back and started again.
The Long View begins in 1950. Mrs Fleming, Antonia, is organising a dinner party to celebrate her son Julian’s engagement. The Flemings are comfortable, London middle class. Money is not an issue; happiness most certainly is. Antonia’s marriage to Conrad Fleming is distintegrating. The book tracks backwards to 1926, following them through their life together, their engagement and courtship.
Structurally it is a triumph. Emotionally, despite the niceties of polite English society, it is raw and powerful. The characters are vividly described. Conrad “has a heart when he chose to use it. But on the whole he did not care in the least about other people.” Antonia has been moulded into the perfect wife. But she has had enough. She says: “The very early morning was the worst time: the frightful half-conscious moments when catching up with the present.” Twenty-first century readers might find the language mannered and stylised, but the story of loss, betrayal, disappointment and pain is as savage now as it was when first published.
Elizabeth Jane Howard married three times. Each ended badly. Her Cazalet Chronicles, huge best sellers and TV series, made her a star. It is hard not to see her own life filtered through her fiction. I hope that eventually the happiness which had eluded her as a young woman transformed her life in her older years.
In praise of older books: the list
1. Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Long View (Jonathan Cape 1956)
2. Tim Krabbe: The Vanishing (Random House 1993)
3. Mary O’Hara: Thunderhead (Story Press Book 1943)
4. Claudia Roden: The Book of Jewish Food (Viking 1997)
5. Nadine Gordimer: Guest of Honour (Viking Press 1970)
6 John Banville: The Untouchable (Picador 1997)
7. Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (Penguin Books 1987)
8. Marguerite Yourcenar: Memories of Hadrian (Secker and Warburg 1955)
9. Doris Lessing: The Summer Before the Dark (Jonathan Cape 1973)
10. Primo Levi: If This Is a Man (Orion Press 1959).
11. Stephen King :The Shining (Doubleday 1977)
12. Margaret Drabble: The Millstone (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1965)
13. Joseph Brodsky: Watermark (Hamish Hamilton 1992)
14. Susanna Moore: In The Cut (Picador 1996)
15. Iain Banks: The Crow Road (Scribner 1992)
16. Mary Wesley: The Chamomile Lawn (Macmillan 1984)
17. Madhur Jaffrey: Indian Cooking (BBC 1982)
18. Pat McCabe: The Butcher Boy (Picador 1992)
19. Joan Brady: Theory of War (Abacus 1994)
20. Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (Random House 1966)
21. Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love (Hamish Hamilton 1945)
22. Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Knopf 1981)
23. Laura Hillebrand: Seabiscuit (Ballantine Books 2001)
24. Anonymous (Joe Klein): Primary Colours (Chatto and Windus 1996)
25. Jeanette Winterson: Sexing the Cherry (Bloomsbury 1990)
26. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch (Novy Mir 1962)
27. Mary Treadgold: We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (Jonathan Cape 1941)
28. JM Coetzee: Age of Iron (Harvill Secker 1990)
29. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): A Fatal Inversion (Viking 1987)
30. Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines (Picador 1987)
31. Vassily Grossman: Life and Fate (Harvill 1985)
32. Molly Keane: Good Behaviour (Andre Deutsch 1991)
33. Russell Hoban: Ridley Walker (Jonathan Cape 1980)
34. Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran (Tauris 2003)
35. Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea (Chatto and Windus 1978)
36. John Le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy (Hodder and Stoughton 1977)
37 . Maude Hutchins: A Diary of Love (Neville Spearman 1953)
38. Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air (Anchor Books 1997)
39. Elizabeth David: Italian Cooking (Macdonald 1942)
40. AS Byatt: Possession (Chatto and Windus (1990)
41. Alberto Moravia: The Woman of Rome ( Zoland Books 1999 (first published 1947)
42. Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 1980)
43. Ryszard Kapuscinski: Shah of Shahs (Penguin Random House 1992)
44. Justin Cartwright: Masai Dreaming (Macmillan 1993)
45. Gitty Sereny: Into That Darkness (Andre Deutsch 1974)
46. Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses (Knopf 1992)
47. John Updike: Couples (Knopf 1968)
48. Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and other stories (Penguin Classics, 2008, first published 1922)
49. John McGahern: The Dark (Penguin 1965)
50. Joan Didion: The White Album (Simon and Schuster 1979)
51. Martin Amis: Time’s Arrow (Jonathan Cape 1991)
52: Graham Swift: Waterland (William Heinemann 1983)