Shelf Life: Anne Enright on the five books that made her

The Booker Prize-winning author of The Gathering reflects on a lifetime of reading, from Alice in Wonderland to what she learned from Toni Morrison. 

Anne Enright on the books that changed her
Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

I must have read Alice in Wonderland about fifty times when I was a child. There was great rereading in it. But you never quite knew what it was. That playful, eluding quality was really important to me. I loved the maths of it, among other things. It’s much more of an intellectual book than an emotional one, but you know, in a really playful way.

I was the youngest in a house of readers, and I started very early. I read everything in the children's section of the library by the time I was seven and had to get them to give me a library card for the grownups section. My Mother came from a bookish house; my father, not so much. But he himself was interested in crosswords and dictionaries and languages. Certainly, Alice belonged more to my father's kind of mindset than to hers.

My mother was quite disappointed that I didn't love Wind in the Willows. That was interesting to me: a regret she had that I was wrong in some way. You could psychoanalyse it. I suppose the episode with Mr. Toad and the laundry woman, when he dresses up, was kind of interesting for a child, but really once it was read it was done. You got it. You never ‘got’ Alice.

Anne Enright for Penguin 2020
Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

'The past tense is too f**king dead to me.'

I read The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje in this horrible little terraced breezeblock room at university. It’s a very hard book to describe, but there’s an astonishing scene at the beginning with a nun who falls from a bridge and by some miracle survives. It’s set in Toronto and it’s about social history, among many other things.

It’s one of those books I read and thought: how did they do that? At the time I was becoming interested in structure and technique, and The Skin of a Lion had a big impact on my first book, The Wig My Father Wore (1995), particularly the use of the present tense.

It made me realise you didn't have to write in a linear way. I've never been able to write a book that happened only in the past tense. It's just too fucking dead to me, you know? If you know all that, why are you writing it down?

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