Home burning books Burning Books…on Paper—Sarah Gilmartin

Burning Books…on Paper—Sarah Gilmartin

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.