A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Carpenter came up with the idea to blog about a book that changed everything he knew about reading and writing, then pass the baton onto others. He wrote, brilliantly, about The Wasp Factory, then nominated David Hartley and myself to continue the chain. David wrote, promptly and also brilliantly, about Frankenstein, then picked Benjamin Judge and Nija Dalal to follow. Benjamin Judge (seriously: who is Benjamin Judge? I’ve read in Manchester three times, and never met him. He’s either a front, Lawnmower Man, or a ghost) then wrote with intimidating speed and grace about Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, which means I’m late and under pressure.
The brief is to write about a book that changed the way I understood literature – that made me realise “what writing could do”. That’s a tough call. My first instinct was also for The Wasp Factory, which had a massive impact on me. But I think, on reflection, that others that hit me deeper, if not harder, and I can’t come close to Dan’s thoughts on what remains an astonishing book. I’ve spent a lot of time weighing up what to write about instead. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is my biggest recent influence, but that was more like rebalancing my compass. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines shook me to my core, and Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series changed the way I thought about stories. Before that, the Harry Potter books got me reading again after a long period of not reading at all.
In the first draft of this post, I wrote 500 words about The Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson. The first scintillating volume of his letters was the inspiration that started me blogging while I was backpacking in Australia; that blog taught me to write (albeit like him), which led to a job in magazine journalism, which led to me writing fiction in my words of my own…
I love Hunter S. Thompson. He remains an inspiration for his sheer, indomitable rage against the greed, corruption, insanity and monstrous terror of corporate government. His prose is flawless, and The Proud Highway was the book that definitively led me to becoming a writer.
But – having written 500 words about Thompson and his letters – I stopped short. A book I hadn’t thought about for years swum into my head, and I knew it mattered more. It’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More) by Roald Dahl. I don’t know when I first read Henry Sugar, but I think it was during the single year I spent in an Edinburgh boarding school while my parents lived in Germany.
I remember almost nothing before the age of 10 or 11, and my time at the boarding school sneaks up on me like spidersilk – fleeting, single strands, flickering with light, then gone. And although I don’t remember exactly, I know that I spent a lot of time in the school library. I know I read King Solomon’s Mines, and all The Hardy Boys books, and a bunch of Stephen Kings. I would have read Dahl’s children’s fiction when I was younger, but I’m pretty sure that was when I stumbled upon his more adult stories.
I rediscovered Dahl when I was in my early twenties. I found all his works in a charity shop in London, and bought the lot. I gorged on them. His stories are consistently excellent, but Henry Sugar is the strongest of many extraordinary collections. The tale of the boy and the turtle, or the mysterious hitchhiker, or the greedy landowner and the treasure hoard, or the title story, all explore the no-man’s-land, the thin threshold between the real and the impossible. They are all perfect stories, delivering just desserts to protagonists and antagonists alike. Another of the pieces, The Swan, haunts me still; Dahl’s tale of bullies brutalising a class loner is gut-wrenching, brilliant, beautiful, devastatingly sad and entirely magical.
Henry Sugar is ferocious. But how does it redefine my idea of what books can do? It didn’t have that impact on me as a child, certainly, because I had no concept of books doing anything other than taking me away – I simply read and read. But in my twenties, on rereading Henry Sugar, the ghost of it flooded back – the sad magic of The Swan sluiced through me, and it was utterly transporting. Where Sarah Waters holds back from explicit fantasy, and Neil Gaiman commits to it completely, The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar perfectly inhabits that edgeland between reality and fantasy. This is important because I see, now, how I’m drawn to that same space in my own work. I don’t want to write like Roald Dahl – I couldn’t – but I’m trying to walk that same tightrope between two places. And in that sense, no other book has so changed the way I think about books – about writing – about reading – about living.