Welcome to Helen Irene Young, author of The May Queen.
I followed the brief and chose 10 books I loved – ones I adored in fact; that made me feel all mushy inside. But loving a book isn’t the same as being influenced by it, is it? That first list got an edit and what replaced it are books that left their mark on me, for good or bad. Ones that challenged me to think, that I cannot let go of, long after the last page has been surrendered.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Read his short stories (Tenth of December is pin-sharp) and this. In fact, gobble up everything he’s ever written because this man is brilliant. This, his first novel, breaks the mould on how you think novels should be structured and that’s good. That’s very good. Towards the end, there’s an outrageously fine monologue from one of Saunders’ chief players. Read it and see if you agree.
- Loving by Henry Green
Richard Skinner (Course Director at Faber) oh-so-casually suggested I should read this. I then went on to amass everything Green had ever written, but this, I came back to. It is beautiful and artful and downright dirty in its use of language to place you (the reader) at the thick of it. Characters here are fragile and life is full of humour and regret, as we know it is. His narrative style is a gift.
- How to Be Both by Ali Smith
My first Smith experience was with The Accidental some years back and I read her again recently with Autumn (the gorgeous Hockney-covered hardback). However, How to be Both is my favourite. It is both brilliant and bazaar (I sense a pattern developing here). The book can be read front-to-back and back-to-front so that the narrative is transitory. The texture and feel of it, especially in the Renaissance half, is poetic and true. It’s like one of those songs that never ends and so prepare to be unsettled, but lovingly so.
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Narratives which conform to type aren’t really my thing (says the author of an historical fiction novel – meh) but this terrified the bejesus out of me. I wanted to put it in the fridge (like Joey from Friends did with his copy of The Shining). The sense of isolation, the POV (is the killer the narrator as with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?). We’ll never know. That final cry: “You!” is terrifying. Waters gives nothing and everything away. The murderer could have been any one of them; it could be any one of us.
- Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
I could kiss the toes of Virago for reissuing Elizabeth Taylor. Slowly, over the years, I’ve been collecting her backlist and this is arguably one of her finest. Mrs Palfrey and her unannounced arrival at a forgotten hotel on the Cromwell Road one rainy night, tells you everything you need to know about Taylor. Inside this book her wit is killer and her detail on the sadder more mundane aspects of human existence are written large. Her characters have the Chekhov about them.
- The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier
I have a bit of a weakness for anything set during the English Civil War. Du Maurier undertook painstaking research for this one, pouring over battle plans to get each of the settings for her Cornish skirmishes absolutely correct. I admire that. As do I her heroine, Honor, who has to be one of the few triumphant, physically disabled female leads to emerge from the literature of the 1940s.
- The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser
My one concession to non-fiction is this delightful chunk of a book from Antonia Fraser. Again, the focus is on women of the 17th century. From milkmaids to countesses, Fraser chronicles what women got up to and how they lived during the Civil War period. For the truly nosy, it makes for fascinating reading.
- Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
One of the most harrowing images I’ve ever taken from literature comes from this book. Picture this: a black WWII GI returns home to the US, only to be found murdered. He has been tied to a tree with his mouth struck open. ‘Why?’ he seems to ask. Baldwin’s big hitter was Giovanni’s Room but this earlier novel has a different type of weight. Its themes also feel somewhat topical once again.
- Music & Silence by Rose Tremain
There is an erotic scene in this novel which I cannot un-see now that I have read it. In it, Queen Kirsten is seemingly entertained by her twin male servants in the way that a pig might be cooked above a fire (blushes whilst typing). There’s also Tremain’s ability to conjure up claustrophobic court life in Denmark and the fairytale reality lived outside of it. For me, Tremain’s historic fiction is effortless and forever reinventing itself (recent work, The Gustav Sonata is proof if ever it was needed.)
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
I think this is the cleverest of García Márquez’s books (it’s a novella – gasp!), harking back to his experience as a young reporter in Bogotá. It’s fresh and immediate in style. It takes a real murder case (one which the author knew of from close quarters) and reconstructs the events that led up to the killing. It’s non-linear and frantic, which fits the theme. Santiago Nasar’s death is tragic because it is avoidable and by the end of the novella you’re left wondering why none of the other characters tried to stop it.
She lapped in spirals beneath the sheen, feeling the tug of water rush against all of her. When she next surfaced, she couldn’t remember what it was to be on land. Seeing her clothing on the bank as things belonging to another…
It all began beside the mill pond. Honest, fair and eager to please, fifteen year old May has a secret, and not of her own making. She wears it like an invisible badge, sewn to her skin, as though Ma stitched it there herself. It rubs only when she thinks of Sophie, Pa or the other name that’s hidden there; that no one knows about.
Caught in an inevitable net of change, May joins the Wrens, leaving her Cotswolds home for war-torn London and the Blitz. As a dispatch rider, she navigates the city by day and night, surviving love and loss throughout a blackout of remembered streets and wrong turns. Night after night the bombs drop and like those around her, she takes cover in the shadows when they do. But May is waiting for a greater shadow to lift, one which will see the past explode into the present.
A tale of one girl’s search for love and belonging, The May Queen goes to the heart of what family means and finding your place in it.
Helen Irene Young is the author of The May Queen and a digital editor. She attended the Faber Novel Writing Programme and splits her time between London, Wiltshire and Colombia, when she can get there. The May Queen is her first novel.