Culture Street

Fiona McFarlane was born in Sydney, and has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy and the Australia Council for the Arts. The Night Guest, her debut novel, has sold into fifteen territories around the world. She lives in Sydney.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

My parents read the entire Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and I before bed, one chapter per night. Dad used to finish our allotted chapter and then sit on the end of my bed privately reading the next one, which infuriated us. I loved The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains my favourite for that first discovery of a secret world beyond the ordinary, and my early understand that you could get there by wardrobe or by books.

The New Poetry by A. Alvarez

My best friend and I found The New Poetry in a secondhand bookshop as teenagers; I think it had a Jackson Pollock painting on the cover. Nearly thirty years after the anthology was first published in 1962, it introduced me to ‘modern’ British and American poetry: John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Anne Sexton (we had a reprint of the 1966 edition, which meant Sexton and Plath were allowed in). It was as if I had discovered a new galaxy.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

I was 16 when I first read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s meditation on writing and women and writing women, and it was as if the world had finally been explained to me. It was tender and angry and beautiful. Woolf’s world seemed impossibly far-off from Sydney suburbia and adolescence and the mid-90s, but, after reading it, I understood that creative independence was possible and difficult and worth working for.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s Lolita – shocking and gorgeous and technicolour and sad and horrific and sweet – was my introduction to a new order of delight in the English language. I was 20, and it broke my heart. I had never read anything so lavish. I remember being particularly astonished by the hilarious, awful, parenthetical efficiency with which Humbert explained the death of his mother: ‘(picnic, lightning)’. This man, I thought (both Humbert and Nabokov) can – and probably will – do anything.

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

Sometimes it’s easy to feel that the writers who mean most to you will always be the ones you encountered when you were very young; after all, there must be a reason I’d read all the other books on this list by the age of 20. But Delta Wedding, the first Welty I read after a friend gave it to me about three years ago, is here as a reminder of the great pleasure of finding a new and important voice a little later in life. Like all of Welty’s work, this is a novel of extraordinary intelligence, insight and beauty.

 

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