Desert Island Books with… Helen Matthews

Desert Island Books

Today I have marooned author Helen Matthews on my isolated atoll with only five novels and one luxury item standing between her and madness. Let’s see what literary companions she has chosen, shall we?

Thanks for inviting me, Julie. I’ll be happy on the desert island for a while but please send a helicopter drop of more books after I’ve been there a couple of months.

I’m drawn to the darker side in my own writing and in my reading choices: flawed characters, unreliable narrators, unexplained deaths and hidden secrets. As well as psychological thrillers, I also read what I’d call ‘state of the nation’ novels by the likes of John Lanchester and Jonathan Coe, plus I try to keep up with literary fiction and books shortlisted for major prizes. When it came to choosing my desert island books, I was surprised to find I was drawn to thought-provoking books and some classics.

Book One – The Siege by Helen Dunmore

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Leningrad, September 1941.

Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

I discovered Helen Dunmore in the early 2000s, initially through her psychological suspense novels. Long before Gone Girl made the genre as popular as it now is, Dunmore was writing atmospheric twisty novels that stripped away layers from the characters to expose the darkness of their hearts. In her novels the bad guys don’t necessarily win: Your Blue-Eyed Boy; Zennor by Darkness; Mourning Ruby and With Your Crooked Heart are all dark reads, but they’re Iiterary in style with breath-taking imagery that gives a visceral satisfaction to the reading experience. Dunmore was a poet and writer of short stories before she turned to longer form but, later, she focused on historical novels. For my desert island book, I’ve chosen The Siege, set in Leningrad in September 1941 when Hitler’s troops surround the city and put it into lockdown. The novel is meticulously researched and depicts a level of human suffering we can scarcely imagine – boiling up shoe leather to make soup and, the ultimate sacrilege, using books to make a fire. The characters, a young couple, Anna and Andrei, and Anna’s father, are so psychologically real you feel as if you are with them, experiencing their suffering and terror along with their will to survive. The book has mini-epic qualities so there’s plenty to reflect on when I’m on the desert island.

Helen Dunmore died, aged 64, on the same day as my mother in June 2017 and I read her moving final poem ‘Hold Out Your Arms’, in which she reflected on her own death, at Mum’s funeral.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/06/helen-dunmores-family-reveal-poem-written-in-the-authors-last-days.

Book Two – My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante 

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From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, comes this ravishing and generous-hearted novel about a friendship that lasts a lifetime.

The story of Elena and Lila begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else, as their friendship, beautifully and meticulously rendered, becomes a not always perfect shelter from hardship.

Ferrante has created a memorable portrait of two women, but My Brilliant Friend is also the story of a nation. Through the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante gives her readers the story of a city and a country undergoing momentous change.

When My Brilliant Friend was published a few years ago the author’s identity was a closely guarded secret. There are four books in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels including Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of a New Name, and The Lost Child. The novels became word of mouth best sellers and have since been broadcast and filmed but I’ve not felt the need to watch the film because the books were so vivid. The novels are deceptively simple and tell the story of best friends, Lena and Lila, growing up in poverty in a working-class district of Naples in the 1950s. Both girls are extremely bright and must battle to get an education. Against a background of violence, prejudice in post-War, politically turbulent Italy, their lives pan out quite differently. The friendship between the women spans decades, yet we know from the opening of the first book that Lila has disappeared and read through the quartet of novels, desperate to unpick what happened to her. In putting the spotlight on her ‘brilliant friend’, Lila, the narrator, Lena, draws us in while her own story, equally transformative, emerges more slowly. Reading this novel was an immersive experience and I can only compare it with the joy I felt as a child when I first discovered the thrill of reading.

Book Three – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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The heroine of Tolstoy’s epic of love and self-destruction, Anna Karenina has beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son, but feels that her life is empty until she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike, and brings jealousy and bitterness in its wake.

Contrasting with this is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.

A long time ago, when I was reading English at Liverpool University, I remember a professor telling us that Anna Karenina was the perfect novel. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his reasons why! He also thought, in his opinionated way, that War and Peace was flawed. On the desert island I’ll need some massive epics to keep me engaged so I’ll pick up the challenge and decide for myself if this is the perfect novel. Choosing a nineteenth century classic rather than a serious contemporary novel is interesting. Why didn’t I go for Hilary Mantel? I’ve enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies and have yet to tackle The Mirror and the Light but I can’t explain why that didn’t attract me.

Anna Karenina is superficially a love story that turns sour and ends in tragedy but it’s a universal story that still has resonance today. In many countries and cultures, twenty-first century Anna would be treated equally cruelly for leaving her husband and abandoning her son (thought that wasn’t her intention) to be with her lover, Vronsky. The world Tolstoy depicts is teeming with the vanished world and culture of pre-revolutionary Russia – a world that can only be explored in the pages of a novel and in the imagination.

Book Four – Beloved by Toni Morrison

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It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her love. Told with heart-stopping clarity, melding horror and beauty, Beloved is Toni Morrison’s enduring masterpiece.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a harrowing story because it reflects the reality of a black woman’s experience in slavery. Even after escaping to Ohio, Sethe, the main character, still isn’t free. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead baby, and by guilt, and her life is still unbelievably hard. The book made a profound impression on me when I first read it many years ago so I think it will be interesting to reread with a new perspective on the legacy of slavery from, for example,  the Black Lives Matter movement. In Britain, we used to smugly pretend to occupy some kind of moral high ground due to leading the movement to abolish slavery, but we can no longer turn a blind eye to how the likes of Bristol’s Edward Colston masqueraded as a philanthropist, while making his fortune as a slave trader. Novels like Beloved challenge us to be more empathetic and to better understand the legacy of slavery and how it still has an impact today.

Book Five – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Elizabeth Bennett has a keen mind, a sharp wit, and no desire to marry for convenience. When she meets Mr Darcy, her first impressions are far from favourable, and he shows little interest in her. Nor do their opinions improve with further acquaintance. There seems to be little hope of romance; indeed, it might be impossible unless they can confront the flaws in their own natures. Perhaps their first impressions were mistaken?

Profuse with her inimitable wit and charm, Pride and Prejudice is one of Austen’s most beloved novels, and stands among literature’s greatest love stories.

With so many books and so little time, I’m not normally a big re-reader but I make an exception for Jane Austen. I’ve read all her novels at least four times but, if I have to choose one, it will be Pride and Prejudice. The superb characters and calm predictability of the plot with so many setbacks along the way to the happy ending, will soothe me when I’m alone on the island.

I live in Hampshire not far from the village of Chawton, where Austen spent her last years and wrote her greatest novels. Her mother and sister, Cassandra, are buried in the local churchyard but Jane’s grave is in Winchester Cathedral. We think of the Austens as a well to do, middle class family but, in fact, they were downwardly mobile. Jane was born in the rectory at Steventon, where her father was the vicar. After his retirement, the family moved to Bath and lived in rented apartments that were far from grand. After the father’s death, the Austen women became increasingly impoverished and moved to Southampton where one of Jane’s brothers supported them. At last their fortunes changed. Another brother,  Edward Austen, had been adopted when he was a young boy by wealthy relatives, who had no children of their own (that was a thing back then). Part of the deal was that Edward changed his name from Austen to Knight. He inherited two vast country estates, one in Kent and another in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, described by Jane as ‘the Great House’. When Edward came into his inheritance, he offered his mother and sisters a substantial house in Chawton where they settled for the rest of their lives. During her lifetime, Jane actually received two marriage proposals and turned both of them down. She and her sister, Cassandra, were incredibly close and I’m guessing that Jane understood perfectly well that, if she got married and had children, her time wouldn’t be her own – she’d never be able to write. Cassandra took on Jane’s share of household tasks so her sister could devote herself to her writing. Isn’t that amazing? Every author needs a Cassandra in her life.

My luxury item

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I’m a keen cyclist so would love a bike to ride around the island.

About Helen Matthews

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Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her first novel, suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival, and was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Façade was  published by Darkstroke Books in September 2020.

Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.

She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.

Helen’s latest novel Façade is psychological suspense and was published on 17 September this year by Darkstroke Books. It’s dark and twisty family noir and  reviewers have said they couldn’t put it down. You can buy the book here.

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A drowned child. Estranged sisters. A once-perfect home.

Silence echoes louder than truth.

When seventeen-year-old Rachel’s baby brother drowns and her older sister, Imogen, escapes to live abroad with Simon, her musician boyfriend, Rachel must face the family’s grief and disintegration alone.

Twenty years later, Rachel is a successful businesswoman, with a daughter of her own, supporting her parents and their elegant Georgian home, The Old Rectory, that shackles them to the past.

Simon’s sudden death in Ibiza brings Imogen back, impoverished and resentful. Her family owes her, and she will stop at nothing to reclaim what she believes is rightly hers.

The rift between the sisters seems permanent. While Imogen has lived a nomadic life, filled with intrigue, in Spain and Tunisia, Rachel’s has appeared stable and successful but, behind the veneer, cracks are appearing. Now, she is vulnerable.

As the wall of silence and secrecy crumbles, danger stalks Rachel’s family. She must re-examine her baby brother’s death, find out what happened in Tunisia, and fight to hold onto everything she’s achieved –or risk losing it all.

Façade is a gripping tale of loss, guilt and danger.

Connect with Helen:

Website: https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com/

Facebook: Helen Matthews

Twitter: @HelenMK7

Instagram: @helen.matthews7

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