Reading lists

What I’m reading: Lisa Jewell

The author of The Family Upstairs and Ralph’s Party opens up about the books she’s been delving into since lockdown.

Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell reading list
Photo: Andrew Whitton

Since 1999, when her first novel Ralph’s Party became the bestselling debut of the year, Lisa Jewell has published an impressive 20 novels and earned widespread fandom that includes the likes of crime writer Ian Rankin and actor Sarah Jessica Parker. In the 2010s, she shifted from writing fiction about relationships to darker, psychological thrillers that dabble in the macabre.

Her latest book, The Family Upstairs, is no exception, throwing readers headfirst into a twisted story of murder, then holding them rapt with her usual mix of suspense and nuanced, deeply human characters.

We got in touch with Lisa to find out what she’s been reading in lockdown, from new obsessions to all-time favourites.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

When lockdown began and I knew there’d likely be no summer holidays this year, I decided to plunder my reading pile for the books I’d been saving to read by a pool. One of these was My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. I saw someone online already raving about this book late last summer, and immediately put in a pre-order for it. I pulled it off the reading pile on one of our recent sunny weekends and read the whole thing in two days on a beanbag in my front garden. My next-door neighbour popped her head over the wall and said that she really wanted to read the book, so I lent it to her and we had a mini book club session over the wall about it the next day. It lived up to all the hype; I love a book with densely hued grey areas, and this has those in spades. A young girl who has had what she views as an epic romance with her middle-aged English teacher from the age of 15 to her mid-twenties is forced to re-evaluate the entire relationship – and indeed, her entire life – when the teacher is sacked for abusing other girls at her old school.

Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold

I’m obsessed with coronavirus, obsessed with the global reaction to it, obsessed with the numbers and the patterns and the politics and the pathology ­– all of it. I wrote a book a few years back partially set in London in 1919. Foolish me, I’d thought that the setting would be all post-war good times and glamour. My friend, a fellow author, sent me an email after reading an early copy, saying, erm, what about the Spanish flu? I had to very quickly go through the book dropping in mentions of the epidemic where I could. But even then, I had no idea what it had all actually meant for the average Londoner. So when the same writer friend said she’d just read this and loved it, I ordered it immediately. It’s as gripping as a thriller for someone with my current obsessions. Watching the slow and shocking creep of something across the world that nobody really understands from the current perspective is morbidly compelling.


Sleep With Me by Joanna Briscoe

Now on to two of my favourite psychological thrillers of all time. I started reading Sleep With Me, as I read pretty much all books, in bed, at night. I had a baby and a toddler at the time, and reading was not something I found time to do, ever. Sleep With Me had the honour of being the first post-motherhood book I ever brought downstairs with me from my bedside table, because it had me so tightly in its grip. I can still remember pulling a chair over to the hob so I could keep reading while I stirred something with my other hand, and being supremely grateful to CBeebies for keeping my young children distracted while I raced through the last few pages. It’s the story of a rather brittle young couple, newly engaged and living in Bloomsbury, whose lives are turned upside-down by a strange girl called Sylvie they meet at a dinner party. I love books where strangers appear from stage left and subtly infiltrate and sabotage normality.

The Stopped Heart by Julie Myerson

This one would have passed me by if I hadn't taken part in a book club with two other writers for an Apple promotion. We each selected a favourite thriller and then read each other’s choices, and this was one of them. It is the most extraordinary blend of family drama, domestic noir and ghost story. It centres on an old farm cottage in the country. In the early 1900s, it is occupied by a rambling family of many children, where the teenagers take care of the babies and money is scarce and knees are speckled with dirt. One night a man with violently red hair appears in front of the cottage during a storm, moves in and slowly tears their lives apart. In the modern narrative, a grieving couple move to the same cottage a hundred years later, trying to find peace in a world that has taken everything away from them. The two stories coexist side by side, joined here and there by echoes and shadows, the invisible filaments of two desperate families, twisting and untwisting across time.


The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell is out now.

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