Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is Australian author Ashley Hay.
Ashley, who lives in Brisbane, has just had her second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, published in the UK. (I reviewed it last week.) Her first novel, The Body in the Clouds (2010), was shortlisted for categories in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
She has also written four narrative non-fiction books (The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabelle Milbanke and Lord Byron; Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions; Herbarium; and Museum: The Macleays, Their Collections and the Search for Order) and contributed to many anthologies and magazines including The Monthly, The Bulletin, Best Australian Essays and Heat.
She is the former literary editor of The Bulletin.
Without further ado, here are Ashley’s selections for Triple Choice Tuesday.
A friend recently described her return to certain favourite books as “comfort re-readings” and I realised that the one book I re-read, for comfort, is Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, his lyrical telling of the life of Buddy Bolden, an early jazz musician Buddy Bolden.
The book’s opening section — “His Geography” — carries me through its words in a kind of rush, and I probably read it alone three or four times every year. In 1997, Willem Dafoe interviewed Ondaatje for Bombmagazine and he talked about writing this opening sequence last of all in the manuscript, “almost like a big landscape shot, with buried clues you can pick up later”. I love this both as a reader and as a writer — it makes sense to me in terms of the poetry of this particular passage and the mechanics and craft of a writer’s technique.
I had a child in late 2008 when I had almost finished my first novel, The Body in the Clouds, and was working on the drafts of my second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife. I was ready for all sorts of things to change with the arrival of a small person in our family, but I’m not sure I’d expected the totality of motherhood. The first thing I registered was how little time there was for other things. I was used to reading fairly constantly — reading for work, reading for pleasure, reading just to see the way someone had chosen to set words onto a page. Now there hardly seemed to be ten minutes in the day for reading much at all (apart, perhaps, from by A. A. Milne or Oliver Jeffers or Dr Seuss). Then a friend gave me a copy of Emily Ballou’s The Darwin Poems and I realised that poetry was the perfect thing to read in the time that I had — I probably hadn’t read much poetry since I’d left university almost 20 years before.
I loved Ballou’s spare yet imaginative evocation of Darwin, his world, his ideas, his relationships: I loved this book of poems in particular. But I also loved that it led me back into this form of writing — back to poets I already knew, and out to discover new people, young and old, who are fortunate enough to be able to write in this perfect and often crystalline form.
There’s a poet, and a poem, at the heart of the plot of The Railwayman’s Wife, and I wonder now whether, in part, these sprang from the poetry I began reading after my son was born — and still concentrate on reading now, more than five years later. I wonder how much my reading and writing life came to depend on its often concentrated and delicate perfection.
In late 2011, the distinguished Australian novelist Rodney Hall published a book of fictions called Silence, an extraordinary and exquisite suite of short and very short stories that, in Hall’s words, contain “echoes, intonations and structures of reason” borrowed from writers as diverse as Dickens, Beckett and Henry James. They also take inspiration from moments and incidents as diverse as the Myall Creek Massacre, the Japanese invasion of Korea, and the later life of the Australian poet and conservationist Judith Wright.
I nominated Silence as one of my books of the year for as many places as I could in 2012 — these stories, I said in one selection, formed “a burnished archeology of various kinds of hush, stillness and pause,” ranging from “the unexpected quietude of war to the dreams of birds, the end of the Berlin Wall and the death of Captain Cook.” What I wanted to say then, and now, was read these — everyone should read these. They are masterful pieces of writing, rich and complete, and there are images from their 29 different parts that I still carry at the forefront of my imagination, two years after I first met them on the page.
Thank you, Ashley, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
What do you think of Ashley’s choices? Have you read any of these books?