For our first instalment of Top Shelf—a Q&A with book lovers that offers a peek inside their reading lives—we sat down with Jacqueline Maley to find out what gets her going in the literary department.
A senior columnist and author herself, Maley knows a thing or two about what makes a good read. From biographies on 19th-century marriages to life-changing Swedish novels, let’s just say our to-be-read pile is looking rather substantial after our chat.
And if you haven’t read Maley’s brilliant 2019 debut novel The Truth About Her, you will want to add that to the pile too.
A book you recommend to everyone:
I did Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. This book is a fascinating account of five revered Victorians – from Charles Dickens to George Eliot – through the prism of their marriages (or in Eliot’s case, her non-marriage, which was very scandalous at the time). It is full of intricate detail – for example, art critic John Ruskin was so icked out by his wife’s pubic hair he never had sex with her! Apparently he didn’t realise women had pubic hair, because he had only ever seen the female form in statues.
Rose’s project is to write biography by exploring the most intimate and domestic realm of her subject. And because that realm is where women of the 19th century were confined, it is ultimately a feminist project. It’s such an interesting book! I have pressed it on most of my loved ones, including my (very conservative) 98 year old grandfather. We disagree on many things, but we both love the Victorians.
I have pressed it on most of my loved ones, including my (very conservative) 98 year old grandfather. We disagree on many things, but we both love the Victorians.
A book you hated but everyone else loved
I did not get the hype about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I found it miserable, overwrought and silly. Having said that, I read the whole thing, and quickly. So probably it’s me who is silly.
A book you return to or have re-read
My best friend and I embarked on an in-tandem re-reading project during the last lockdown. Everyone had their coping mechanisms, right? That was what kept me sane(ish) – re-reading Austen and the Brontes. Jane Eyre is my favourite novel of all time, but I was interested to note that on an adult re-reading of it, I found Rochester somewhat controlling and scary. My 19-year-old self just thought he was passionate.
A book you think more people should read
Carnality by Swedish novelist Lina Wolff. It’s not often you read something that makes you reconstitute your idea of what the novel is, or can be, but this is one of those books. Utterly original, dark and compelling. I am on a Swedish jag right now – the novels of Lena Andersson are also excellent.
It’s not often you read something that makes you reconstitute your idea of what the novel is
How do you choose what to read?
I read book reviews from all over the world, and I subscribe to various literary newsletters. I take the recommendations of friends and my local bookseller, and I keep an extensive list of things I want to read. When in doubt I go back to a literary giant I haven’t yet read – recently I have gotten into Philip Roth. He’s out of fashion but I can confirm he definitely knew what he was doing in the writing business.
Five words that sum up your approach to reading.
Indispensable, freedom, pleasure, communion, comfort.