Welcome to Desert Island Books, a weekly series where I speak to authors, writers and journalists about the eight books they’d take with them to a desert island and why.
This week my guest is Seán Hewitt, a book critic for The Irish Times and teaches Modern British & Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin. In 2020, he was chosen by The Sunday Times as one of their “30 under 30” artists in Ireland, and his debut collection of poetry, Tongues of Fire won The Laurel Prize in 2021, and was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, and a Dalkey Literary Award.
If you’d like to buy Sean’s collection of poetry, or his memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, please consider doing so from Bookshop.org – an online bookselling platform specifically designed for the benefit of independent bookshops. You can follow Seán on Instagram, here.
The Ante-Room by Kate O’Brien
Kate O’Brien is of Ireland’s massively underrated novelists – a queer Limerick woman who wrote passionate, beautifully-crafted fiction. This, my favourite of her novels, is set over three nights in a house where the matriarch is dying. Over the course of these nights, a nurse falls in love with a brother who has syphilis, a sister falls in love with her sister’s husband, and the boundaries of who gets to love, and what society allows for lovers, are examined with brilliant, intense empathy.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
My favourite of the epic poems – Milton writes in a compulsive, visionary and radical way. Particularly amazing in considering the sexuality and gender of angels, and Satan as a sympathetic hero.
The Golden Bough by James Frazer
In this monumental work, Frazer collects the various mythologies and folk cultures of the world and tries to make sense of them. It is compendious and baffling. A book that is wracked with problems (troubling meta-narratives on race, the ‘primitive’, the ‘civilised’ West), and yet one also stocked full of fascinating beliefs, including tree worship, fire festivals, animism, and the various gods of world religion.
Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats
It’s hard to pick a modern poet, but for the range of his voice, the movement from folk ballads and songs to intensely-wrought modernist lyrics, Yeats is (for me) unparallelled. I find him baffling and captivating. Try “Sailing to Byzantium”, or “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Probably the first modern novel I fell in love with – I didn’t know a novel could break my heart like this, or could be written in such a unique, original, revelatory way. Poetic, experimental, and at the heart of it the story of a family and forbidden love. From the very first page, you know you are in the hands of a master.
Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020 by Carl Philips
Poems of pure elegance, incisiveness, and sensuality, these are some of the finest modern lyrics I know. Carl Philips, a queer African-American writer, has a sort of luminous music that cracks open the possibilities of language, atmosphere, weather and masculinity. A book to lose yourself in and to re-emerge from re-made.
No Name by Wilkie Collins
I rotate Wilkie Collins’s four best novels (The Moonstone, The Woman in White, Armadale and No Name) each year, but at the moment my favourite is No Name. I’ve described it in the past as a sort of Victorian Kill Bill: a pair of wronged sisters, left without their inheritance, hunt down the man who has robbed them. Over about 700 pages, the brilliant machinery of Collins’s plotting moves with breathtaking drama, humour, and wickedness.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
A book I first read as an undergraduate. It seemed then like a book I had been waiting my whole life to read. Semi-autobiographical, it follows the story of John Grimes, and is steeped in the hymns and preaching of the Pentecostal Church in the USA. It is also a brutal and passionate vision of repression, sexuality, and liberation. A perfect novel.