Alison Hoblyn has spent most of her life as a visual artist, although she has written many factual pieces for magazines and a book on painting techniques, which she also illustrated. The Scent of Water, her first novel, published in November 2005, was set partly in Tuscany and partly in England. Although it's a contemporary story of the literal and spiritual journey of an artist, it also explores the ideas behind the Botticelli painting Primavera and uses some words of Marsilio Ficino, a Renaissance philosopher. The audio version of the book (published in January 2007 by Oakhill Publishing Ltd) is on CD and in downloadable format. Alison is now working on a second novel, set mainly in India. Here she recalls some favourite books.
Alison Hoblyn on books that have left their mark on her
I note that I am not alone, amongst the Writer's Choice contributors, in my inability to single out a definitive book or author. However, I almost see a thread of commonality in my choices - the word 'see' being the important one.
To really secure my attention, the books in my early life necessarily had pictures to accompany them; the one that excited me most was Rudyard Kipling's self-illustrated Just So Stories. I can't say I remember the content of the stories entirely but I do remember the cadence of the words - their teetering surrealism aligning perfectly with the slight menace of the black and white pictures. No matter how often Kipling's salutation 'Best Beloved' was invoked, I was not comforted but more discomfited (in a way I enjoyed as a child) by the contained danger that lurked within the tales. My favourite tale (and illustration) was 'The Cat that Walked by Himself'.
Apart from the pictures I also liked the sense of the places set up in the stories. Setting has always been important to me and in my own writing it is the place, rather than the people, that generally gets me started.
The sense of place in Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier is very strong, although it has a feeling of fleetingness that mirrors events in the life of the highly romantic protagonist (Augustin Meaulnes). As he searches for the unobtainable, he steps over the threshold of adolescence to manhood. The story becomes even more poignant when you know that it is the only novel of a young man killed, shortly after its creation, in the First World War. In the book the metaphor of a 'Lost Domain' is used; it is a place that, once left, cannot truly be revisited. I read this book first in my teens and keenly felt the eerie mystery of the setting, and empathized with the yearnings of the characters. But when I tried to re-read it in my thirties, I was disappointed and could not conjure up the sensations again. So for me a good book not only has to be an engaging story but needs to have perfect timing; to arrive at the confluence of personal experience and the prevailing zeitgeist which allows it to become transcendent.
For a year I have been casting about for inspiration for my next novel, and two recent books that turned up with great timing were The Colour by Rose Tremain and The Sea by John Banville. The former attracted me because of its title. Maybe with my art background I expected something different; The Colour turns out to be gold, the gold sought by prospectors in New Zealand in the 19th century. I liked the gentle pacing of the novel with its sense of time unfolding. It suits the slow process of seeking gold and gives the reader time to look carefully at images, ideas and language. Tremain is masterly at imbuing an ordinary object with an almost numinous symbolism. There is a tea-box which is hidden by the main female character, Harriet Salt, away from the eyes of her husband. While he stubbornly works on a useless claim site, she fills the caddy with her meagre but real discovery of gold. The compiling of this secret cache (in an under-filled box) embodies the lack of shared thoughts and desires between the two of them. There is, at times, a bleakness to the landscape that suits the relationships, but I finished the book with a sense of real lives, unsentimental, but capable of hope. It was not so much a book about a search for gold but a search for things that have value and meaning in human life.
The Sea by John Banville is beautifully paced too. I was slowed down by the beauty of the language - phrases are crafted like poetry and yet manage to keep away from the precipice of pretentiousness. The story is simple; no hugely clever twists of plotting to take our energy away from word appreciation - although there are surprises that come like a particularly high tide. And with that setting, how could he lose? All of us must have some association with a seaside resort - and he kept it just generic enough for me to fill in my own images. In the territory of Le Grand Meaulnes Banville steps back into adolescent memories of place and people and weaves these into a present which is full of longing.
I marvel at the rightness of the language, but although I know that there must have been arduous redrafting to hone the sentences, I couldn't feel the weight of the labour. It reminds me of a Picasso lithograph, where the lines are joyfully spontaneous but perfected through all the years of practice that went before. And as in the art I admire, I can't help looking for evidence of this craft in anything I read.