Author of Dinner Party, Sarah Gilmartin reveals which books she would save from the flames if her house was on fire.
A book from your childhood?
I don’t remember very much from young childhood but one experience that has stuck with me is being off school sick with scarlatina when I was around six or seven and reading The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl.
I remember the weirdness of the fever symptoms and the magic bits of the book sort of blurring together. And when I was finished, I went back to the start and read it again.
A book that you return to?
I’ve read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant a number of times over the years and I’ll read it again in the future.
It’s a story of an American family – the Tulls – from four perspectives, that of a difficult mother and the three very different children she raised. Tyler has such a way with perspective. She writes extraordinary stories about ordinary lives.
A book that taught you something important?
Very late to the party, but I’ve just discovered the English author Gwendoline Riley and her books are a revelation.
The way she documents fraught relationships with such cool detachment is really interesting. And her descriptions of character – and caricature, the masks people wear – are fearless and exacting.
Here’s a taster, from her latest novel, My Phantoms: “Her keyed-up look: fixed on something; fastened on something. A horrible persistence. A sort of mulish innocence. She was mulish, when she wasn’t completely biddable, and each mode always at precisely the wrong time. Like a mime’s recalcitrant prop: the door that wouldn’t give until it did and sent you sprawling.” Shivers.
A book that was your salvation at a difficult point in your life?
I had Covid in January and lost my sense of taste and smell. Seven months on, it’s still an issue and I struggle with that from time to time.
I recently read Steve Biddulph’s Fully Human, which considers the different ways we engage with the world. It’s helped to give me a bit of distance and a new take on things.
Biddulph is a Tasmanian psychologist with 40 years of experience and he really makes you think about how much of life is spent (read: wasted) either regretting certain things or chasing after others. It’s one of those books that is smart, scientific and, crucially, easy to understand.
A book that makes you laugh?
John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky is a riot of a novel that charts the treacheries and backstabbing of the creative writing world. It’s also about the universal reach of good stories and the loneliness of a career that can appear very enticing from the outside. A clever, funny novel that wears its serious themes lightly.
A book you associate with a particular life event?
I read The Remains of the Day when I was travelling with three friends around the world in 2007. It set myself and another girl off on a Kazuo Ishiguro binge – whenever we hit a new town, we looked for a book shop and bought another one of his novels.
Something of your own work that you would save?
I’d save Match, the ten-minute play I wrote for the Short + Sweet Festival Dublin in 2019. It was a real buzz, to hear an audience react to something you’ve written. Scary, but brilliant. Barry John Kinsella and Lynette Callaghan were the actors. They did a great job so can I please save them too?
A book you are reading now?
I’m reading Intimacies, the short story collection from the Belfast writer Lucy Caldwell. It’s a very fitting title. Caldwell brings you extremely close to her characters, their trials, small joys, the connections that sustain them through the days. I’m half-way through and trying to read slowly to make it last.
A book you’d leave to burn?
With apologies to readers with good taste the world over, it’s William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It’s my own fault: I tried to speed read it in college for an exam – impossible. I went back about ten years later and still couldn’t get into it. But maybe enough time has passed to give it another go … maybe.
You can save one non-book item: what is it?
Our life-sized toy dog Judge. He’s very cute, and he hangs out by the front door, which is pretty handy in this scenario.