Rose Tremain: ‘My comfort reads are MasterChef cookbooks’

The author on the teenage thrill of reading Lawrence Durrell, finally understanding Balzac, and the novels of Cormac McCarthy

My earliest reading memory
I was four or five. My nanny was reading to me from Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann, a startling assembly of cautionary tales. A girl plays with matches and burns to death. A cruel boy is bitten by his faithful dog and dies. The sheer terror of all this seemed to make the world a brighter place.

My favourite book growing up
The Adventures of Purl and Plain by Joyce Lankester Brisley is a tiny jewel of a book about small wooden dolls who love adventures. It made me see the world in a new way: a lawn as “The Wild”, the bath as a ski slope, apple pips as food.

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The book that changed me as a teenager
At age 15, my cousin gave me a copy of Justine by Lawrence Durrell. I remember loving the gourmet prose so much I wanted to eat the book. It also made me believe that if I was going to become a writer, I probably had to go far away from Berkshire. I had to find skies “of hot nude pearl” and “a thousand dust-tormented streets”. (Where I was actually sent was to dear, pristine Switzerland.)

The writer who changed my mind
After my Durrell adoration, at school in Switzerland I acted in a dramatised version of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In this unadorned fable about exile and death, I understood that character and strong emotion could be evoked in swift, simple strokes. This was watercolour writing, contrasted with Durrell’s heavy oils. So now, suddenly, aged 17, I wanted to write like Saint-Ex.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I don’t remember it happening. It was just always there. But in my late teens I came especially to admire what William Golding was doing: pushing beyond his own experiences to explore ancient worlds and altered states of consciousness.

The book or author I came back to
I used to struggle with Balzac; too much guff about upholstery and Ormolu clocks before the action starts. Then I adapted Eugénie Grandet for radio and understood better the role description plays in evoking feelings of chill and dread.

The book I reread
Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, her epic novel about the life of Marilyn Monroe. I return to it often, to remind myself that fiction can sometimes deliver to us, living and breathing, subjects that history and biography too often consign to a ghostly vault.

The book I could never read again
It has to be Justine. The writer in me just can’t cope on any level with “schoolboys in naked ranks marching two abreast at dawn, through falling snow thick as meal”.

The book I discovered later in life
The novels of Cormac McCarthy, America’s great poet of the wilderness. In The Crossing, 16-year-old Billy Parham, the son of a rancher, rescues a she-wolf from a trap one winter’s morning and decides to light out from home, dragging the wolf behind his horse across the border into Mexico.

The book I am currently reading
Colin Thubron’s The Amur River. In his habitually calm and elegant prose, Thubron charts his epic journey along the vast watercourse that begins east of Russia’s Lake Baikal and flows for a thousand miles to reach the Pacific Ocean just beyond the Soviet-haunted town of Nikolayevsk.

My comfort read
MasterChef cookbooks. I lost my ability to eat for several weeks in 2019, after an operation. Now, I’m back with the magret de canard and the guacamole. I go to sleep dreaming of tiramisu.

Rose Tremain’s Lily: A Tale of Revenge is published by Vintage (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Rose Tremain

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