Three books that changed me as a young(er) reader

CW: I mention suicide in this post.

My eldest nephew recently turned 11, and knowing he’s a ravenous reader, I asked my partner what he liked to read as an older kid or younger teen so I could explore some new options.

‘The Wheel of Time series,’ he offered, without much hesitation: easy-to-read high fantasy with plenty of dragons and battle scenes.

The first instalment is now sitting on my dining table, ready to be wrapped and delivered. (The thing is gigantic. Good luck, little man.)

Thinking about books for kids, however, has prompted me to reflect on some of the books that had a real impact on me as a younger reader.

Some of my favourite books from when I was around the same age as my nephew included The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a little purple book of short stories all about mother–daughter relationships, which I think I might have ordered from the Scholastic book club catalogue.

Every Christmas holiday, when my family travelled back to Australia on furlough, I loved to visit the local library in my grandparents’ tiny town and borrow as many Nancy Drew novels as I could. My friends and I chomped through a steady diet of The Babysitters Club. (And why were we always reading about horses?)

I can see now how the types of books I read had a direct influence on my nascent writerly self. I remember — acutely, uncomfortably — writing a ‘mystery novel' for my Year 5 teacher as a gift; I used to make up stories for my siblings about a bunch of very small people called ‘the Shrinkies’.

But if I had to name some books that really shaped me as a slightly older reader — books that opened or blew my mind, books that influenced me as a writer — these are the three that spring to mind.

1. The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Recommended to me by my Year 9 English teacher, The Convenient Marriage represented my foray into the regency romance genre, a phase I’m yet to outgrow. As questionable as this admission may sound, if you’ve ever read a Heyer novel, you’ll know how addictively atmospheric and witty they are.

I actually remember very little about the plot of The Convenient Marriage, aside from the protagonist Horatia Winwood’s expressive eyebrows. What I remember most is the language, the delightfully twisty plot lines, and the exquisite attention to detail that brought a distant and unfamiliar era to life with bustling intensity.

Heyer herself acknowledged the novels of Jane Austen as her inspiration, and like many of Austen’s heroines, Heyer’s are likewise headstrong and recalcitrant — outspoken debutantes who can be only superficially tamed within the misogynistic 'marriage market' that signifies both the setting and central tension in most of the novels. Ploughing through my mother’s yellow-paged collection instilled in me a sense that, as a woman, I could somehow write my way out of the status quo, and that frivolity is often a façade giving way to something much fiercer.

More than that, though, The Convenient Marriage persists as a treasured example of a teacher’s kindness and personal investment. As a desperately shy and unhappy teenager who felt largely invisible both at home and at school, a personal reading recommendation from a respected educator was affirmingly special. I still can't look at a Heyer novel without also thinking of my English teacher's embroidered jumpers and quiet command of an unruly classroom. Every teenager needs a teacher like that, someone who can say: 'I see you. I think you'd enjoy this story.'

2. The Underwharf by Gaby Naher

The Underwharf, first published in 1995, was literary agent Gaby Naher's debut novel, and I plucked it off the Toowoomba City Council library shelf primarily because I liked the cover!

Having read Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi a couple of years before, perhaps I was keen to sink my teeth into another Australian YA novel — this time something grittier and more literary. But there was just something hypnotic about the crop-top-clad young woman stretched behind the magazine-cut-out title that lit up my teenage brain: I was drawn to its dark glamour, the late-90s grunge aesthetic that I remember seeming alien and exotic against the metal library shelves.

Set in Sydney and London, The Underwharf straddles the unlikely realms of mother–daughter intimacy and the contemporary publishing scene, centring on Sophia, the daughter of an ambitious literary agent (surprise) who is haunted by the anonymity and absence of her biological father. Sophia prefers the company of her grandmother, Nella, and spends weekends scavenging the harbour shores with her best friend, Sammy.

As a character, Sophia could not have been further from the reality of my own life at the time: she reads tarot cards at the Camden Markets, seduces her mother's assistants, and peppers her speech with what I would have called 'colourful language'. But I connected with her hunger for identity and self-worth, something more tender and accommodating than the spiky maternal censure we did have in common.

It was only much later that I realised the extent to which Naher infused both her novels with painful autobiographical detail. I've read all of her books, including her memoir, The Truth about my Fathers, and I wonder why she didn't keep writing (she still operates a literary agency out of Sydney); The Underwharf was my first encounter with Australian literary fiction, strikingly similar (but superior, in my opinion) to Nikki Gemmell's earlier novels, which I also devoured in my early 20s. Reading The Underwharf in my senior high school years felt like a series of interlocking 'I didn't know you could do that!' moments: sentence fragments, non-standard punctuation, vivid sensory detail, and difficult, sometimes aggressively unlikeable, characters.

I wanted, in some ways, to be Sophia, but I wanted to write, in most ways, like Naher.

I still do.

3. The Interpreter by Suzanne Glass

When I got my first job after high school, I'd sometimes roam the local shopping centre after work: Donut King was conveniently close to the QBD bookstore, and I'd scan the tables for bargains, cinnamon doughnut in hand, still chuffed by the novelty of being able to buy whichever titles I liked.

The Interpreter was another novel I picked out by its cover. I'm pretty sure it set me back all of $5.00, but I've re-read this book so many times in the intervening years that the wash per wear must now sit at zero.

The story unfolds from the perspective of two characters caught in an unlikely impasse. Dominique, a simultaneous interpreter, overhears a conversation between medical researchers at a conference in which one discloses some information about a promising advance in HIV intervention. She is immediately hamstrung: she's bound by the oath of confidentiality, so she cannot pursue or share additional information, yet she feels compelled to find out more because a close friend is dying slowly and painfully from AIDS.

When Dominique unknowingly strikes up a relationship with the scientist in question, neither knows what the other must keep secret. Dr Nicholas Manzini has also stumbled into his own critical dilemma, tugged in dubious directions by his pharmaceutical employer. But although the narrative is premised upon the inevitable tension between ethical frameworks and uniquely personal circumstances, it's also a story about voice and agency, the limits of language, what happens when communication does not (or cannot) achieve what we want it to.

Suzanne Glass was herself a trained interpreter, and as an aspiring linguist, I was fascinated by these glimpses into the real world of interpreting and translation. But the book struck a personal chord, too. Only a year earlier, a friend of mine had killed himself, revealing in a hand-written letter that he'd been diagnosed with AIDS and couldn't afford to access experimental antiviral treatment as an American without health insurance. At the time, effective management of HIV/AIDS was still years away; I felt Dominique's heartbreak along every crack.

The Interpreter was also a lesson in the poignancy of truth — mindfully excavated — unpretentious writing that is elegant because it is precise. It was in the pages of this book that I first came across the French saying le coeur connait ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas: the heart knows reasons that reason cannot understand.

And did you know that vertigo is not the fear of falling but the fear of wanting to fall?

I can't wait to read The Interpreter again once I've worked my way through some new books on the bedside table.

Which books would be on your list?