Shelf Life: Gemma Whelan

The actress and Penguin Classics Audiobook narrator shares five books that have shaped her, from childhood favourites to parenting guides to a novel so good she took it on holiday twice.

Interview by Sam Parker
Gemma Whelan for Penguin 2019
Gemma Whelan for Penguin 2019

I always loved to read out loud in class when I was a kid. I’d be sat there thinking: ‘ooh, in a couple of paragraphs time it’s going to be my turn!’. It wasn’t just the performance element of it. I loved reading quietly, too. Do you remember Point Horrors? I used to devour those. I’d go to my Mum and Dad’s spare room upstairs, open up the sofa bed and get nestled in all the pillows and the duvet for the whole day. 

'It’s so evocative […] It was like I could taste the whole scene.'

The Secret History is very atmospheric, which is also why I loved The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997). That was another one my Mum gave me when I was younger. It’s so evocative. Like that pivotal moment at the cinema with the orangedrink lemondrink man… the stickiness of it, I could feel it. It was like I could taste the whole scene. I haven’t read it for years, yet there are certain things that have stuck with me, like all the beautiful names and the descriptions of the locations.

It’s written with such irreverence at points too, yet there’s such weight to what she’s saying. It’s a heady book in many ways. I’ve read The God of Small Things twice, both times on holiday. It’s a novel that, for me, needs that time and space so you can spend a whole afternoon with it. Where was I? Majorca with my Mum!

Gemma Whelan for Penguin 2019
Gemma Whelan for Penguin 2019

My final book is George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl (1981). I love anything by him but that’s my favourite. Why? Because of Grandma! George’s Grandma just made me hoot. She’s this old, bow-legged mess, but she’s sort of on his side. She’s gnarly and trying and I like her. I wouldn’t mind playing her, but maybe I need to be a little bit older first.

Gemma Whelan book picks

The other thing I love about George's Marvellous Medicine is the mess. I always loved making potions and mixtures when I was a kid. My Mum was brilliant, she’d let me just throw together a bunch of old currants and some flour and whatever and we would put it in the oven regardless of what horrendous thing we’d made. 

Even today, when I read Dahl my mind really fizzes with the joy of every word. He’s a man who treated his readers with intelligence and the child was always the hero and you, as the reader, were the hero too. It felt like he was on your side that it was you against the grownups.

Now I’ve had Francis, it’s difficult to read as much as I did because my concentration is shot, but she’s beginning to sleep more so I’m slowly getting back to reading properly. My dream scenario? I would be in bed with a million pillows and a big fluffy duvet, a lovely little side lamp, maybe a cup of tea, and silence. Just beautifully-lit silence. Yeah, that’d do.

Gemma Whelan is the narrator of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell in the Penguin Classics new audiobook series

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