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. 

Now I’m a parent myself, I’ve been reading The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)  by Philippa Perry (2019). A lot of it is about not repeating the mistakes your parents made - that we can all make. In a very overcrowded field of parenting advice books, it’s managed to cut through. [Perry] is just very candid and clear and erudite, without being patronising. It makes you question your responses to things. You wouldn’t exactly call it a page-turner, but I enjoyed it a lot.

One novel I’ve loved since my teens is The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). It just sorts of hooks you in. From the first paragraph I was intrigued. I love a good mystery where the author is always one step ahead and you’re never gonna work it out, but with The Secret History you know what’s happened from the start - it’s a mystery in reverse.

I read it just before I went to university, so I think I found it alluring for that reason too: these slightly older characters who seemed really cool and unreachable. I remember wanting to be part of their world, and wanting to visit them every night when I read. I couldn’t wait to get back to the book and find out more about them.  

When I eventually did get to university, I studied BA Performing Arts majoring in dance. I did all sorts of things like stand-up comedy and learning how cameras work. I loved it, but it didn’t really feel like the cool, baggy-trousers-and-cigarettes, reading-poetry-on-the-lawn stuff I’d imagined. Although at least no one got murdered.

'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!

Each Peach Pear Plum by Allan and Janet Ahlberg (1978) is a book my auntie gave to me, who I adore. She gave it to me specifically because of [my daughter] Francis and because she read it to her children. She can still recite it and now, so can I. It’s so rhythmic and so perfect to read to a child.

It’s the illustrations, too: every time you find something different. Jack and Jill’s in there, Robin Hood. Tom Thumb. Mother Hubbard. Cinderella. You get a lot of bang for your buck with Each Peach Pear Plum! I don’t have the exact same copy as my Auntie’s. We’re not that romantic, unfortunately. But there’s a sentimental family tie there. Francis loves it. She always wants to look for the bears. 

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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