I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher’s horror my father gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way.
One beloved novel was Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii – I had no idea no one reads him now, or that he’s accused of being the worst novelist to ever have disgraced the page. I simply was content to dwell in his Victorian ideal of a mythic past, safe at a double distance from the confusion of the world outside my door….
Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice.
The effect on my writing has been profound, and inescapable: I soaked it all up, and now I’m wringing it out. My obsession with rhythm and beauty comes, I’m sure, from memorising the King James Bible’s peerless prose, and having grown up in the shade of sin and the light of redemption I suppose it’s no surprise that my debut novel After Me Comes the Flood has been called uncanny, sinister, strange (though I never intended to write that way – it’s just how my eyes were put in).