From Cinderella to Patrick Melrose: the best books about new beginnings

Tales that show we can start afresh are what we need at this time of year – so Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun, shares her favourites

Tales of recovery and of new beginnings – from Cinderella to A Christmas Carol or Matt Haig’s recent bestseller Reasons to Stay Alive – are powerfully attractive. They lead us to believe that we can make things afresh and, at the start of a new year, that is what we need.

I had a baby last Christmas and subsequently much of my reading over the year has been about becoming a parent. Memoirs by Rachel Cusk, Anne Enright and Rivka Galchen all have passages of insight and identification but the best was Expecting by Scottish journalist Chitra Ramaswamy, on pregnancy, her own and in literature. She’s a beautiful writer and this book – which moves from an Edinburgh loo, through Sylvia Plath and Susan Sontag, to the Hebrides, to Anna Karenina, to the birthing pool and operating theatre – was my treasured companion in the early secretive days of pregnancy; it reassured me that you can make the move into motherhood without losing your intellect. I’ll be giving copies to expectant friends.

The other excellent parenting title I read was psychologist Charles Fernyhough’s The Baby in the Mirror, in which he closely observes the first three years of his daughter’s life and combines this with what is known scientifically about child development. I particularly enjoyed a deconstruction of a game of I-spy, characteristically forensic as well as affectionate.

I only came to the Patrick Melrose novels, the first of which were published in the 1990s, after watching the excellent 2018 TV adaptation, but Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn is brilliant: he has such a singular voice – terrifying and piercingly funny. I’m fascinated with the shadows that childhood can cast, explored in this case through the abuse of Melrose, a cipher for St Aubyn. It shows how the building blocks of a personality are laid and has an unbeatable ear for the particular wrong-headed attitudes and monstrous characters of its upper-class setting – laced with a complicated affection for them.

Another novel, more recently published, is All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison, set in 1933 in a rural East Anglian community, looking at what led to the beginning of the second world war. “Farming, folklore and fascism” is how the author herself flippantly describes it. It is precise and moving on agricultural practices and tradition, and the natural world, including a subplot about the endangered corncrake. Protagonist Edie is at the beginning of adulthood and negotiating her choices, with temptation from the glamorous Constance FitzAllen, a dangerously alluring character.

In 2019 I will celebrate eight years sober. In The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison, one of the most accomplished and challenging essayists around, explores the topic at (quite some) length. It is not your average recovery memoir – it takes a step back and examines dominating narratives of addiction and recovery and the myth of the tortured artist. Anyone considering using the new year as a prompt to change their drinking habits will find much to consider here. Jamison fights, as I have, to write about what comes after getting sober – not the drunken backstory but the reality of a positive new start: “I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.”

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is published by Canongate.


Amy Liptrot

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