Cressida Connolly is a reviewer and journalist who has written for Vogue, the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Guardian and numerous other publications. She’s the author of four books: The Happiest Days, which won the MacMillan/PEN Award, The Rare and the Beautiful, My Former Heart and After the Party. Her newest book, Bad Relations, is out in May 2022. I was thrilled to include her on my Desert Island Books series, and adored finding out which eight books she chose. From the book with one of literature’s best baddies to the book she comes back to again and again for its wisdom and beauty, here are the books Cressida would take with her to a desert island.
Personality Types by Don Richardson Riso and Russ Hudson
Hilary Mantel said in an interview somewhere that she uses this book when she’s creating her characters and I bought a copy straight away, but I’ve never got around to reading it in full, because it’s 500 pages long and it may well be a bit bonkers. It draws from a concept of Gurdjieff’s called The Enneagram and the authors believe it to be a powerful intellectual tool for understanding ourselves and others. It’d be fun to think of all the people I’ve ever met and sort them into the personality types the book describes.
The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov
Nothing much happens in a lot of Chekhov’s stories, people just go about their business, eating plums or having a cup of tea; but big revelations and surprising thoughts jump into the characters’ heads – and that’d be perfect, for a desert island, because it would encourage me to consider the repetitions of a daily life away from people in new and interesting ways. I love his humanity and how he gets under the surface of ordinary life and straight to the heart of people.
All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou
I was lucky enough to interview Maya Angelou for the London Times, which was an unforgettable experience. She sang songs, told secrets (I had to promise I wouldn’t repeat, and I haven’t) and was just such an extraordinary intelligence and force of personality. She was incredibly courageous, so she’d be especially inspiring if I felt afraid on the island, because she faced her fears head-on. She told me she always cooked a delicious dinner for herself, and laid a table, as if she was her own guest. I always remember that, if I have an evening alone.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I love the first hundred pages of Great Expectations better than almost any other book, but Bleak House has my favourite baddie in the whole of Charles Dickens, a terrible lawyer called Mr Tulkinghorn who lurks like a malevolent crow. He sees it as his mission to discover the secret which poor Lady Deadlock is trying to keep from her husband and he makes an implacable foe. Reading Dickens is the best antidote to feeling lonely because his characters are so vivid and so flawed and human. He’d be a great solace if you were alone on an island.
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
This book has one of the most mysterious scenes of any novel, a moment in a dark Russian forest when pale hands appear through the trees. You don’t know what on earth is going on, whether it’s some kind of religious epiphany, a sacred rite; or whether it’s a silent political meeting of revolutionaries or a hallucination. . .I’d be happy reading and re-reading this marvellous novel, which is one of the oddest love stories ever written. Maybe I’d figure out what the scene in the forest is, eventually.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
I belong to a Shakespeare Club which is me and seven men, most of them writers. We go to Shakespeare plays together and then have a pizza afterwards and talk about the production we’ve just seen. They’ve been going for years – I’m a relatively new recruit – so they have incredible knowledge of all the ways of performing and interpreting Shakespeare, as well as of the texts themselves. On the island I’d read the plays out loud to myself for company and try and learn the sonnets by heart as a way of keeping my brain active.
Friends & Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
This is a story about two sisters who both marry men that the other would have been much happier with. All Bowen’s books disguise the tragedy at their centre underneath the kind of conversation that two people who know each other really well have together. I don’t know why it’s not one of her more acclaimed works, because it’s brilliant. She’s pretty much my favourite writer. I actually stole a scene from this book for my novel After the Party, where a married woman goes to meet an old love in a London hotel, ready for an assignation, and it’s painfully embarrassing.
Poems of Wang Wei translated by G W Robinson
I’ve had this Penguin Classic since my early teens and I come back to it again and again for its wisdom and its beauty. Wang Wei is one of the great Chinese poets of antiquity (AD 699-761), but that doesn’t make him difficult. A lot of his verses are about farewells and missing the people he loves, which is kind of what poetry is for. He writes about hills and blossom and a dog barking down in the valley: reading him collapses time in a miraculous way.
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