Lucy Caldwell is a novelist and playwright hailing from Northern Ireland. Her work has been performed on stage and on air for the likes of the Royal Court and BBC – the latter being one in a host of estimable institutes who have awarded Lucy for her published endeavours. Her stripped back writing style allows her to navigate the psychological minefields of her characters, where timeless preoccupations – love, death, sex, and identity – are given compelling contemporary treatment.
Lucy admits she found the process of selecting her choices somewhat stressful, saying: “Here are my five books, with a caveat that if I’d come up with this list an hour earlier, or later, it might be completely different. For the sake of sanity, I’ve stuck to fiction, too: I haven’t even turned around to look at the bookshelves on the back wall where my plays and poetry are. I couldn’t begin to narrow it down to five if they were included, too. Needless to say, I can’t live without my Collected Chekhov and my Selected Louis MacNeice, so you’ll have to let me have those, too.”
The Dark is Rising Quintet Susan Cooper
I’m cheating slightly here – getting five books in the space of one. Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree. If you’ve read them, you’ll know why. I first read the sequence when I was 10 and I’ve re-read it almost every year since: Susan Cooper’s chilling, compelling stories about the age-old battle between good and evil, light and dark, are as haunting now as they ever were, and two decades later they’re still among my favourite books. If I had to pick out one volume it would possibly be the second, which gives the quintet its title; or perhaps the fourth, the intensely melancholy, eerie The Grey King. But they’re best read altogether, late at night, one after the other – ignore the ugly, garish modern edition covers and go to Abe books for the Puffin originals.
The Weather in the Streets Rosamund Lehmann
This is the book I wish I’d written. It’s an intensely evocative, utterly searing tale of a love affair in 1930s London. Passionate, desolate, tender, wild; rather than merely reading it, you feel it on your pulses. Lehmann gets right inside the mind of her heroine, charting every nuance and oscillation of her moods – it’s a completely immersive, and eventually heartbreaking read. I was completely exhausted and exhilarated by the time I first finished reading it. Lehmann like her contemporaries – and my other favourite writers – Elizabeth Bowen and Willa Cather, is a real stylist, and her control of form and syntax is superb, so the novel is technically as well as emotionally brilliant. The Weather in the Streets is actually a sequel to an earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, but it’s not essential to read them in order.
Invisible Cities Italo Calvino
I think this is the best book about writing that I have ever read: along with Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With The Wolves, it’s required reading for every would-be writer. It’s ostensibly a series of conversations between the explorer Marco Polo and the emperor Kubla Khan: every time Marco Polo returns from his travels, he describes another city he’s visited or encountered. Under the surface, however, it’s about storytelling and memory and desire, about life and death and love. “Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” Doesn’t that take your breath away? It’s effortless and perfect. My best friend gave Invisible Cities to me when I was suffering a period of doubt and despair and heartbreak, and it was deeply, profoundly consoling; it made me want to write again.
Nervous Conditions Tsitsi Dangarembga
I have great affection for this book, which I read in my first year at university, when I was starting to write my own first novel (Where They Were Missed pub. 2006). It’s set in Zimbabwe – or colonial Rhodesia, as it then was – and it’s a coming-of-age story told by Tambudzai, a young girl who gets the chance of an education when her brother dies in a road accident. The book manages to reflect and refract the politically complex issues of colonialism, patriarchy, culture, class, and the associated layers of oppression – through the intensely personal. It was a real inspiration and lesson to me in how such things could be done: so surely and deftly, with such lightness of touch.
The End of the Affair Graham Greene
The last place in my quintet of books appears to be a toss-up between troubled men: Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy and Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger were all jostling for pole position. I almost went for JG Farrell’s Troubles, too – so sharp, so funny, so heartbreaking, with its unlikely tragic-comic hero the Major. But The End of the Affair wins – just – simply because it’s what I’ve just finished reading. At less than 200 pages long, it’s a slim, spare masterpiece. I felt very encouraged reading it, because I would dearly love to write a 400/500 page brick of a novel like Half of a Yellow Sun or To the End of the Land, but I’m beginning to fear I’m just not that kind of novelist: I always pare back until the story is as spare as it can be. It’s also, I realise, the second book in my selection that’s about a doomed love affair: that must be because I’m currently writing a book about the long-term mistress of a married man, so tales of that sort are at the forefront of my mind.