On The Shelf – CATH BARTON

Cath Barton is a prolific writer and has appeared on our short- and long-lists numerous times. Her July 2020 shortlisted story Radio Times was included in our first short story anthology. She describes herself as a “writer, hill walker, photographer and (still, occasionally) singer”, and says she is “always on the lookout for the quirky and the magical in life.”

Here, in the very first of our On The Shelf series, she tells us her top five books that she couldn’t be without on her bookshelf…

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

 This is a children’s book, and I first read it when I was young, still have the copy which my parents bought for me when I was seven – I’m guessing my age, because this fits the date of the reprint, but it’s plausible. The Wind in the Willows is, though, a book for children of all ages and I still love to read about Mole saying ‘Hang spring-cleaning’, the litany of his picnic with Ratty and, later, when they are walking together in the snow, him finding his old home calling to him, with its statues of Garibaldi ‘and other heroes of modern Italy.’ And then there’s the wonderful chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in which the animals encounter the numinous, a chapter omitted (because deemed unsuitable for children?) from some editions and often forgotten; I’m glad it’s there in mine.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

 The sub-title of Animal Farm is A Fairy Story, but its animals are very different from those in The Wind in the Willows, the theme sombre. Orwell was expressing his views about the dangers of Stalinism, but the wonder of the book is that its message is as relevant to today’s politics worldwide, its warning as clear and as necessary. For me that message about the corruptive and corrosive nature of power is all the stronger for being told in the condensed form of the novella, a form I particularly like for my own writing. And Animal Farm has that rare thing, a perfect ending: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

 Four Quartets by T S Eliot

There is, I realise as I write this, a link between my second and third choices, though it is entirely serendipitous. When T S Eliot was an editorial director at Faber & Faber he rejected Animal Farm, praising the writing, but baulking at publishing something so politically sensitive at the time. Nevertheless, I have to have Eliot’s poetry on my bookshelves. I might have chosen an anthology, but none of the ones I own contain Little Gidding, the work by Eliot which I return to again and again, for solace; I read from it at my mother’s funeral. So I’ll have the Four Quartets of which it’s the last. I love Eliot’s musings on life and death and the circularity of everything; his learned allusions are largely lost on me, but the music of his verse is peerless. And we writers need to read poetry, even if we don’t write it; we need its rhythms and cadences, because prose needs those too, and poetry (and music) is where we learn them.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

 I first read this book soon after it was first published in an English translation, in the late 1980s. I returned to it last year, in our own plague times. Love in the Time of Cholera was my introduction to magical realism – in a story of love unlike any I had read before, in time out of time, in an unnamed decaying city. I love the fairytale quality of the settings, the dreamlike quality of the action. If I had to chose just one book it would be this one, for reasons I can’t articulate because they are beyond words, about deep feeling and a connection with something beyond myself. When I look at my book choices, I see that they share something of fable, certainly something outside the everyday.

Himself by Jess Kidd

This is also true of my fifth choice. Himself is a very recent book, so how do I justify including it in a such a small selection? Because it is – actually like all my choices – unique; I know of nothing else like it. A young man returns to the Irish village where he was born to discover what happened to his mother. So far so conventional. But he finds a larger than life accomplice who might have been spawned by Dickens, and an extraordinary cast of local characters. This is a crime story which is also a (very unusual) ghost story, which is also (at times) very, very funny. I’m always recommending Himself to friends.

You can find out more about Cath and her writing on her website.

Follow her on twitter.

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