When I was growing up in the Witterings in the 70s and 80s I was lucky enough to have a library at the end of my road, a small single-storey building which serviced our village and those in the surrounding areas.
Often my younger sister and I would stop off at the library on the way home from primary school, filling time before Mum and Dad returned from work. We loved to quietly stroll along the rows of books, taking them down, pointing out pictures, whispering, eager to discover new authors and books yet to be found. It was in my local library that in my late teens I first discovered, amongst others, John Irving, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon; wonderful writers that might otherwise have passed me by.
Since my debut novel Glasshopper was published in 2009, I’ve hosted a wide variety of readings and talks at libraries across the South. As a ‘new’ writer, my publishers have encouraged me to participate widely at literary events, to introduce my writing to a public that, let’s face it, may not even know I exist amongst the 100,000+ new titles being released every year. Having now attended a good number of talks and festivals, I find it’s often the library events that attract the most interested readers, the discerning booklovers keen to find out more: When did you start writing? Is your novel based on a true story? Who are your favourite authors? Where do you get your ideas . . . ? Libraries are the natural gathering place for inquisitive readers, and in turn, a welcoming place for writers to visit and talk about their books.
So, I was delighted when Felicity Masters, Community Librarian at Chichester library, invited me, along with two fellow authors, Jane Rusbridge and Gabrielle Kimm, to join her at an audience-participated panel discussion of the six books shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011. I happily accepted the invitation, and my towering reading pile grew a little taller.
I started with Room by Emma Donoghue. I’d already bought the book, swept up like many by the impressive publicity surrounding it – it’s been shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes, was featured in the Richard & Judy Book Club and the TV Book Club. It was a compelling story with a strong voice, one which remains in the memory long after you’ve finished reading, and it’s no wonder to me that it’s attracted so much interest. But I won’t linger on Room; after all, I’m guessing we’ve all heard of it by now.
The next book on my list, and the one I draw attention to as particularly worthy, was Grace Williams Says it Loud by first-time novelist Emma Henderson, a book and an author I’d never previously heard of. Henderson’s debut novel tells the story of Grace, ‘a woman mangled in body and mind’, charting her experiences in a British mental institution from the 1950s to the 1970s. Strangely, it’s another story about incarceration, albeit of an entirely different nature to that of Room. Whilst Grace cannot ably speak to the outside world, Emma Henderson gives her a voice, and it is through this inner monologue that she shares her emotional world, her thoughts, dreams and desires. Grace Williams Says it Loud is not an easy read. In fact, it is at times quite harrowing, made all the more unbearable by the fact that Grace has been placed in the institution by the people who love her, following the arrival of a new baby in the family. But, regardless of Grace’s limitations and suffering, this is, above all, a love story. The back cover copy, in large swirling text, says simply, ‘This isn’t an ordinary love story but then Grace isn’t an ordinary girl’. By the time I was a short way into the book, my awareness of her disability became muted as her strong narrative led me through a story delivered in lyrical, unflinching prose.
Our local library service continues to provide a valuable and vital service to society, continually introducing readers to new books and authors every day. I’m delighted to have been introduced to a brave and beautiful novel, and to a new writer I will now follow with great interest.
To find out more about the Chichester Library Orange Shortlist Panel Night, click here.
Isabel Ashdown is the winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition and author of Glasshopper (Myriad Editions – Best Books of the Year, Evening Standard and Observer) and Hurry Up and Wait (out on 16 June).