Books·My Life in Books

The books and writers that Irish author Marian Keyes loved reading

The Irish writer, who recently won the prestigious Author of the Year at the 2022 British Book Awards, spoke with CBC Books about the titles she's loved reading over the years.

"I've often said that books were my first addiction."

Again, Rachel is the latest novel by bestselling Irish author Marian Keyes. (Dean Chalkley, Doubleday Canada)

Marian Keyes is a celebrated Irish writer and novelist. She has published 15 novels, including Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Rachel's HolidaySushi for Beginners, Anybody Out There and This Charming Man. Her books have been translated into 36 languages and have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Keyes was recently named Author of the Year at the 2022 British Book Awards. 

Keyes's latest novel, Again, Rachel, is the sequel to her bestselling book Rachel's Holiday, which was first published over 20 years ago. Again, Rachel continues the adventures of Rachel Walsh, who is living an uneventful life with a secure job until a past lover re-enters her world. Rachel's life is upended, and she is forced to reconcile with feelings she thought had long faded. 

Keyes spoke to CBC Books from Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, about some of the books and authors she has loved reading over the years.

The Twins at St. Clare's by Enid Blyton

The Twins at St. Clare's is a book by the late beloved children's author Enid Blyton. (Hachette Children's, George Konig/Stringer/Getty Images)

"The very first book I remember having a profound effect on me was The Twins at St. Clare's by Enid Blyton. I must have been about six, but it was quite literally the saving of me because it started a love of reading that made being alive bearable.

When I found books, I found a safe place — a place I could escape all the things I worried about.

"I was a really frightened, nervous and worried child, and I found being alive baffling and being myself very uncomfortable. When I found books, I found a safe place — a place I could escape all the things I worried about. I've often said that books were my first addiction.

"It started with Enid Blyton and I read everything, anything she wrote. It was like being in a club — you'd swap books with other people in the classroom who were fans."

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 

Daphne du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca won the National Book Award in 1938. (Little, Brown and Company)

"I outgrew [Enid Blyton], and at the same time, I moved to live in a different town and I couldn't find anything to read for ages. Nothing took with me for a long time. I read because I needed to read, but it was very uninformed — as long as the story interested me, I would read it.

"Then, in my early teens, I read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca was a revelation because it took me right inside the head of a woman whose security is non-existent. Though her circumstances weren't mine, her internal dialogue felt familiar, that sense that the narrator had to step very carefully in every situation to keep herself safe. She had no power and no agency, and although I was aged about 12, I related. 

The protagonist of Rebecca had no power and no agency and although I was only 12, I related.

"As a teenager and a young woman I'd always been told that I should read Hemmingway and Updike — all these white men, writing about things that I didn't understand as they had nothing to do with me, but I was told they were wonderful and I didn't understand why. But I read them because I thought I should. It took me a long time to understand that there is no 'should' in reading. I need only read what I love and what interests me, and there is no shame in turning away from a book that doesn't interest me."

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is a novel by English writer and poet Stella Gibbons, published in 1932. (Tara Heinemann, Penguin Classics)

"Cold Comfort Farm was written in 1932 by an English writer called Stella Gibbons. It is hysterically funny ⁠— one of the funniest books I have ever read! It was given to me by a woman I worked with. This was back in the day when I had no money, and I would never buy a book — it had to be saved for shoes, alcohol and eyeliner. I read what people lent me.

I've re-read Cold Comfort Farm several times simply because it is delightful.

"Initially, I didn't really get it ⁠— it is written in a cold, elegant style and I don't do cold, I've subsequently discovered. But then it suddenly becomes hilariously funny. This cold, proper woman ends up living on a farm in the middle of nowhere with her cousins. I've re-read it several times simply because it is delightful. It is a classic ⁠— and a deserved classic."

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Heartburn is a novel by American writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters, Vintage)

"There were two books that I read over and over again, before I started writing myself. One of them was Heartburn by Nora Ephron. It was so revelatory to read books by women — relatable books.

It was so revelatory to read books by women — relatable books.

"What happened to the protagonist in Heartburn hadn't happened to me, but the way she wrote about the whole banality of finding out her husband had been having an affair — it wasn't high drama, it was just banal. I had never really read books that I related to before."

Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch

Fabulous Nobodies is a novel by Australian author and journalist Lee Tulloch. (William Morrow, Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)

"Fabulous Nobodies is about a girl who is 22, living in New York, and she wants to be fabulous. It's about all the yearning that you do when you're that age when you think your life could be fabulous if you just met the right people and tried hard enough.

"She lives in this tiny apartment; she makes coffee from the hot tap. I remember living like that and thinking it was fine to live this way — there is plenty of room in my future for a coffee machine! I moved to London when I was 22, and I lived in a squat, and I loved that fact — I mean, it wasn't squalid enough for my liking — but this book gave a voice to that mindset of that yearning and how you really don't care about creature comforts. 

I wanted to write relatable books of the kind that contrasted so vividly against the Updikes and Hemingways.

"Both Heartburn and Fabulous Nobodies were definitely really influential when I started to write. I wanted to write relatable books that women would go, 'Oh, I see!'. They contrasted so vividly against the Updikes and Roths and Hemingways."

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a novel by award-winning American writer Barbara Kingsolver. (Annie Griffiths, Harper Perennial)

"It was only around the time I got published that I started reading in a targeted way. One book that really influenced me was The Poisonwood Bible.

The book is written in four different voices, and they are all so different from each other.

"The book is written in four different voices, and they are all so different from each other. That was a shocker — to understand that you can't have four different characters, each first-person, and have them all sound the same. I was thrilled by this and keen to investigate it — I treated it like an education."

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nigerian American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Women's Prize for Fiction. (Wani Olatunde, Vintage Canada)

"I was a judge on The Women's Prize for Fiction in 2007 when Half of a Yellow Sun won. I loved that it was an epic story, and there was so much to love in the characters. But it's about the Biafran War and not in a way that glorifies anything— it's impossible not to see how little power so many of us have when I read a book like that.

It was an epic story and there was so much to love in the characters.

"It was such an honour — there was no big disagreements [between the judges] — we were all delighted."

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret Countess is a novel by British writer Eva Ibbotson. (Pan Macmillan)

"Eva Ibbotson was an Austrian refugee who came to England in the 1930s. Her books are the most uplifting, beautiful, funny and charming — I wish everybody knew about her. She is my absolute comfort read. Her book The Secret Countess is a masterclass on creating a character who is just phenomenally lovable.

I would beg people — when life is sharp and pointy — to go to bed with an Eva Ibbotson book.

"I would beg people — when life is sharp and pointy — to go to bed with an Eva Ibbotson [book]. Her books are so humane and they are about the best of people."

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet Chronicles are a series of books by the late British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. (Pan Macmillan, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert)

"Anyone that I have ever recommended The Cazalet Chronicles to has come back to me cheerfully, clutching my hand and thanking me. I love family — I love writing about family and reading about family. I love the weird connections within families that make people stay in contact with each other even when they have nothing in common.

I will never be able to write like her, but it gives me something to aspire to.

"The Cazalet Chronicles are the most involving books I've ever read. They aren't over-written. Elizabeth Jane Howard is just such an excellent writer and great at characterization and dialogue — you can get the entire mood of a group of people just from two sentences of dialogue. I will never be able to write like her, but it gives me something to aspire to."

English novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard has just died at the age of 90. The author of the wonderful "Cazalet Chronicles" was - sadly - consistently underrated. Eleanor spoke with her in 2003.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is a novel by award-winning British author Bernadine Evaristo. (Jennie Scott, Grove Atlantic)

"I was saying earlier how it took a long time for me to read about women like me in fiction — I think it's taken even longer for women of colour to read about themselves in fiction.

It was so glorious to read about all these different women and the lives they lived.

"The vividness of Girl, Woman, Other — it was just so glorious to read about all these different women and the lives they lived."

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

A Ghost in the Throat is Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa's reimagining of an Irish epic poem. (Bríd O'Donovan, Biblioasis)

"A Ghost in the Throat is about a woman who is earthy, keeps having children, lives in poverty and adores her husband. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is translating this epic poem that was written 200 years previously in Irish about a woman grieving the death of her lover, and it's mesmerizing. It defies categorization.

I cannot do A Ghost in the Throat justice, but I would beg everyone to read it.

"She is incredibly honest, completely authentic — I cannot do it justice, but I would beg everyone to read it."

Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey

Really Good, Actually is a novel by Canadian comedian and screenwriter Monica Heisey, due out in January 2023. (Yuli Scheidt, HarperCollins)

'Monica Heisey is one of the writers from Schitt's Creek and this is her first novel [forthcoming in January 2023]. It's about a woman who is 28 and living in Toronto. She is getting divorced and is mortified about being such a young divorcee. She is trying to recalibrate who she is after being part of a couple for a very long time.

Anyone who has ever been young and selfish — which is all of us — can definitely identify.

"It's incredibly funny, but it's also very honest about selfishness, and about being the heartbroken one in a group of friends. I loved it — it made me laugh a million times. It is really warm and I related an awful lot. Anyone who has ever been young and selfish — which is all of us — can definitely identify!

Marian Keyes's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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