I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise

Dear Anne, Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect. Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother…

Look at the colour of it

Dear Ali, It takes us only a few paragraphs of Autumn (2016) to recognize your characteristic marks: experimental writing; a collage of literary references; a narrative propelled through voice and voice alone; a narrative that mingles past and present, as if they were one thing, happening at once; and, finally, the creative reframing of contemporary…

I’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

We are more porous than we know

Dear Emily, Although centred around a murder, your debut novel Idaho (2017) does not revolve around the questions of who might have done it or why; yours is much more a book about atmosphere; a collection of first impressions and lost tracks, crossed through by the motif of loss. In the middle of summer, on…

Trespassing on one’s own ground

Dear Monica, The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive. When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with…

It has a fascination of its own, that bend

Dear Lucy, At first, I felt skeptical about your novel Anne of Green Gables (1908). Anne seemed too chatty, too imaginative, too eager to please – too good to be true. Or perhaps I simply should have met her earlier, as a child of eleven, and on her own terms. But, gradually, so as it happened…

That loud music of the wild geese

Dear Ethel, Your novella Hetty Dorval (1947), about a childhood affection that gradually turns into a confrontation of good and evil, had a puzzling effect on me. It is a ‘tale of two readings’, as two confluent rivers, colliding. The story opens in the 1930s, when the mysterious Hetty Dorval moves to Lytton, a small…

The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats

Dear Elizabeth, Do you know this feeling we have when we quite unexpectedly understand why a particular book is a classic? When we understand what it means; when we suddenly get to know what it feels like. Have you ever felt it? When a book draws from a tradition it so thoroughly understands that it…

Home is a place in the mind

Dear Maeve, If your novella The Visitor (2000, originally written in the 1940’s) had a face, it would be one of a trapped animal, diverted from its burrow, silently showing its teeth to its predator. A strange and moveable mask that would convey a mixture of fear, loneliness, and ferocious anger. The story opens with…