Writers write. But writers also read. It’s their reading that forms the cradle for their talent, that inspires them to pen stories of their own. The books writers read shape their own writing. Books show them what goes on under the bonnet, how a story is put together.
This week, I’m paying homage to the five books that have helped me shape my stories, my favourite books of all time. These books perfectly balance the four ingredients of story: character, plot, setting and theme. They’re books that tell stories on a grand scale and though their themes may seem bleak, they offer hope.
- Underworld – Don DeLillo
A soaring mountain range of a book that takes the daring leap of making America its central character. And it succeeds, as it takes you on a journey through the decades, to baseball games, subways, film sets and swanky parties. Hard to say what this one is about; there’s a huge cast of interconnected characters. The richness of its prose and breadth of vision took my breath away.
- The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro
The least decorated of Ishiguro’s books and it’s easy to see why. Imagine your most jarring dream – and multiply it by 10. Renowned pianist Charles Ryder arrives at a hotel in a central European destination for a concert and is warmly welcomed by the caretaker, but all is not as it seems. This is a book about dislocation, physical, social, cultural and emotional. Probably the most dazzlingly original book I’ve ever read.
3. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
Sometimes you just need to lose yourself in a thumping good yarn. That’s what A Fine Balance is. But it’s a lot more than that too. It’s about the fates of four people who share a flat in 1970s India. It contains the most perfectly formed sentence I’ve ever read – the entire fate of the characters hinges on just two words. The book is also a window into an exotic, dangerous world you’d never otherwise have access to.
- Dancer – Colum McCann
This is a retelling of the life of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, in his own words and the words of those who knew him. McCann uses the grace and precision of Nureyev in telling the story – his control of his large cast of voices is masterful. And the ending is one of the most memorable I’ve read.
5. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
I was given this book as a present and stuffed it into the bottom of my groaning stack. A story about two boys flying kites in Afghanistan wasn’t high on my hitlist. Then I dug it out for holidays and found myself crying on the plane home. This book is a feast for the senses and the emotions. It reveals the Afghanistan behind the headlines, a place of colour and ritual. And its tale of friendship betrayed and of redemption speaks to the heart.
If you’ve read these books, I’d love to hear your opinion. And I’d also love for you to share your own top five.