Dedications: Laura Barnett
Who’s the person that introduced you to your favourite book? Or a particular genre? Whose recommendation still affects your reading habits today and how has that shaped who you are? As part of a new series, we’ve been asking these questions to authors. First up, Laura Barnett, author of our current Fiction Book of the Month, The Versions of Us, writes about her librarian mum.
I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I, and my mum, and anyone else in my family, can remember. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in a waiting room at St Thomas’s hospital in south London - I had a lot of issues with my eyes as child, and was forever in and out of hospital - staring out at one of those startling sunsets we sometimes get over the city, and writing a poem about it on the back of an envelope. I’m pretty sure my mum still has that envelope somewhere.
The debate about nature versus nurture - whether we are born with the interests and character traits that define our lives, or whether they arise from the circumstances in which we find ourselves - is too huge for me to touch on here. But looking back, it certainly seems clear to me that my own early circumstances must have had a lot to do with my desire to write; and central to those circumstances, of course, was my mum.
My mum was a librarian, and our little flat was absolutely spilling over with books, many of them still wearing their sticky plastic library covers (Mum was forever bringing remaindered books home from work). Both my parents are bookish - my dad is a writer, and we still love nothing more than talking about books - but they separated when I was five, so at home, my mum and I were a tight twosome, and reading together was one of our greatest shared pleasures.
Mum was not a conventional librarian - Mum has never been a conventional anything - but a community services manager, in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t get to the library: housebound people; young families; those in prison or in psychiatric hospital. She was passionate about her work, and still is, even now that she’s retired, and the majority of the services she worked so hard to set up have, heartbreakingly, been quietly dismantled. Central to that passion was her belief that books change lives: that anyone, anywhere - from a lifer in Brixton Prison, to an elderly, isolated widow in London’s East End - can have their horizons expanded by reading.
She communicated that passion to me from a very early age. Under her tutelage, I read voraciously and widely, devouring everything from Enid Blyton to Tolkein (Mum wasn’t a fan of the latter, but she indulged my short-lived obsession with hobbits and dwarves).
When I was older, she passed me some of the classics she most loved - Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Brave New World - but displayed no snobbery at all about what I might prefer to read. I can only remember her drawing the line once, at the Point Horror series that so gripped my friends when we were teenagers. “Try this instead,” she said, handing me a copy of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Mum had first read the novel when she was pregnant with me, and it was after the central character that I was named).
Now, as an adult, I am so grateful to my mum for fostering my love of reading, and for encouraging my own desire to write. I have dedicated my first novel, The Versions of Us, to her, in an attempt, however small, to thank her for opening a door to me into the world of literature, and showing me how rich and strange and wonderful that world can be.