My 20s were perhaps the most exciting reading period of my life. When they began I was studying literature at university, including two amazing units on American literature which ignited a love of American fiction which continues to this day. It was also a period when I went beyond ‘the canon’ for the first time and began reading more widely and according to my own interests; when I first encountered absurd/surreal fiction; and when I discovered some of the writers whose work I still admire in my forties, including Ann Patchett and Jonathan Franzen. Being pre-kids, I had so much more time for reading then: for a year I worked in ‘Zone 3’ which meant two hours a day on public transport—a year in which I read more than 100 books. It was impossible to narrow all the books I read in my twenties down to a top 10, but I managed to get it down to 20. These are not necessarily my favourites, but the ones that seem significant to me, even now.
Playing with Language
Jeanette Winterson was the first writer I came across who played around with words and notions of truth in storytelling. I was swept away by the prose in The Passion, and the ideas. I remember writing this quote in the front of my diary:
It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again, that the time is now and the place is here and there are no second chances at a single moment.
I went on to read everything she had written to date, including her memoir, and a book of essays on art, something I would never normally have picked up. She lost me at The Stone Gods and I ‘ve never gone back to her.
The Virago Book of Women Travellers
Aged 21, I travelled alone for the first time and it was terrifying. I felt vulnerable and ill-equipped to be alone. My boyfriend sent me a copy of this book of essays and excerpts from women writing about their travels. How much courage that book gave me! To read about the intrepid adventures of other women heartened my soul. Afterwards, I wrote to the editor, Mary Morris, and she wrote me the most gorgeous letter in reply.
After Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, I read every one of his books, including his memoir and poetry. His prose was utterly intoxicating to me, and his stories resonated very deeply with me on an emotional level. I felt the same about his Canadian counterpart Anne Michaels, and her devastating and beautiful holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces.
Scandi Crime Time
Before Scandinavian crime became a THING, there was Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It’s very rare for me to read crime but Smilla was the only English-language book in the bookshop I went to in Budapest, so I didn’t have much choice! I was instantly enthralled, luckily, absorbed by the density of the language and the intricacy of the plot, and went on to read all of Hoeg’s books, as well as re-reading Smilla many times.
No list of mine would be complete without some speculative fiction and Frank Herbert’s Dune is, to me, a masterwork within the genre. The level of thought behind the plot is astounding—he makes Machiavelli look like an amateur! And the world building – holy moly – the guy wrote an entire geology of a made-up planet! The book is so dense with information I had to read EVERY SENTENCE twice. It was hard work but so worth it. I’ve read it again since, and will probably go on reading it for the rest of my life. A much more contemporary spec-fic book which really grabbed my imagination was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I love her sharp wit and the terrifying near-future scenarios which seem entirely plausible, if not inevitable.
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the most WTF books ever. I mean what the hell is going on with the well? And how can he keep cooking spaghetti through it all? I consumed all Murakami’s weird and wonderful books in a super-fun surrealist binge. Quite different and yet equally inexplicable is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, in which what seems like a relatively stuffy premise—a famous musician returning to his hometown—becomes like a fever dream. Still my favourite of Ishiguro’s books.
In my mid-twenties I read Ann Patchett‘s fourth novel Bel Canto and fell madly in love. I’ve read it six or seven times since, as well as reading her backlist and everything she has published since. Her books don’t always quite hit the spot for me—her latest, Commonwealth, I found really disappointing—but there is something about her human observations which resonates deeply with me, and her prose is beautiful.
Art-World Psycho Drama
Siri Hustvedt‘s tale of two artists, their partners and children, over many years takes a hugely unexpected turn about half way through and turns into another book entirely.What I Loved is exciting and dreadful and it kept me up at night even on the second and third read.
Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion is a quintessential sixties book, somehow turning a sordid trip to Mexico for a backyard abortion into a light-hearted romp. His book are very much of their time and seem slightly quaint now, albeit in a ‘far-out’ way. This is perhaps the least adventurous of his books; some of the others are more experimental and perhaps better, but this was the first of his I read, and keeps a special place in my heart for that reason.
Who knew you could write a whole book about things like what fillings different family members like in their sandwiches? Don DeLillo knew! Way before anyone else. His 1981 novel White Noise still blows my mind and I discover something new every time I read it. Through DeLillo I discovered that a book about nothing could actually be a book about everything, a formula that worked brilliantly for Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, the novel that blasted him into super-stardom, and also for Dave Eggers, in his debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, though his book was memoir and needed a bit of tidying up, quite frankly! Zadie Smith also experimented with this style in her least-loved, but my favourite of her novels, The Autograph Man.
My brother bought a copy of Lily Brett’s In Full View for my mum for Christmas. A few days alter mum brought it on a family holiday. She had already started reading it and read a section aloud. later I picked it up and started reading and my brother did the same. Pretty soon we were fighting over it – as soon as someone put it down someone else picked it up! At that time I rarely read non-fiction and the topics she wrote about including marriage, parenthood, her struggles with eating disorders and even ageing were not subjects I would have ordinarily been interested in at that age, but Brett’s candid and funny style is so warm and relatable, she could write about anything at all and it would be compulsively readable.
At age 21, I studied creative writing at university and one of my ‘readers’ contained an extract from Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy. I immediately went out and bought a copy. Part-memoir, part-fiction, this beautiful book is the story of a woman coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness in her childhood. At the time, the book resonated with me as a daughter. Many years later, as a mother with post-natal depression, it resonated even more deeply. I think it is a rare book that can grow with you like that.
Having spent most of my childhood in England, I wasn’t raised on Australian literature, and didn’t really begin to discover it until I started university and read Helen Garner and Kate Grenville. My favourite Australian fiction from that period of my life is Peter Carey‘s wonderful and really quite heartbreaking epic Oscar and Lucinda, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Even writing about those books for my PhD thesis didn’t kill my love for them and that’s really saying something!
Your turn: What were the books you loved in your twenties? Have any of them stayed with you or are there some that make you cringe now? Have you read any from my list? Let me know in the comments.