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Tom Benn: Books That Changed My Life

BY Tom Benn

15th Mar 2023 Meet the Author

Tom Benn: Books That Changed My Life

Tom Benn, winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2022 and author of Oxblood, shares the books that changed his life

For sanity’s sake I’ve narrowed my choices below to prose fiction rather than struggle between poetry, plays, graphic novels, non-fiction, and hybrid forms as well. Other books also showed me new ways of being and seeing, with their clarity or intensity of vision, expression, or wisdom. Dangerous, generous books that revealed to me things about myself I couldn’t reach before they threw down the right words to climb.

The following three novels managed all that. But they also held for me at one time the most profound and pernicious truths. They succeeded most in making me complicit in their desire to speak and listen; to understand and be understood.

My Silver Shoes by Nell Dunn

My Silver Shoes by Nell Dunn

I almost picked Dunn’s masterpiece of vignettes and ventriloquism, Up the Junction; but this sequel to her other 1960s’ classic, Poor Cow, is of equal yet unsung genius. Working-class female experience is again presented without condescension or romanticism.

"Dunn eavesdrops on the long littleness of life with a sweet, scorching love"

Given Dunn’s own privileged background, she risks something here, really lays herself on the line. Returning protagonist, Joy, now a middle-aged mother, cleans houses and lives in a London tower block, inconvenienced by but loyal to her elderly mother next door, whose physical and mental decline is observed with the unflinching truth of comedy.

We’re on a continuum of horny dreams, dashed prayers and chitter-chatter. Dunn eavesdrops on the long littleness of life with a sweet, scorching love.

Jack’s Return Home aka Get Carter by Ted Lewis

Jack's Return Home aka Get Carter by Ted Lewis

A pioneering marriage of US hardboiled crime fiction and the British post-war working-class novel. A revenge tragedy too, with a sadomasochism to rival Titus Andronicus. In Scunthorpe, a town ringed by the hellfire of its steel works, antihero Jack Carter descends to its criminal and spiritual underworld to learn the truth about his brother’s death.

"A pioneering marriage of US hardboiled crime fiction and the British post-war working-class novel"

Lewis undermines his hypermasculine lone-wolf narrator by exposing his impotence. Guns and cars only extend his manhood so far. Those at the top of the food chain stay alive by making the exploited exploit one another in this gangland thriller about cost-benefit ratios and supply chains. Objectors end up maimed or dead—as do the local sharks and hyenas. A Marxist exposé of capitalism narrated by a fascist. These tensions contain multitudes.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The most gripping, moving novel ever written in English. A sordid soap opera in which language is a freshet of feeling and sensation, and history a living force. Every conditional truth concedes to its own shadow in this fractured telling of a fractured family: the downwardly mobile Southern whites of the Compson clan.

"The most gripping, moving novel ever written in English"

We circle events from different perspectives and altitudes, piecing together what, how and why. Moving from chaos to clarity, first through the mind of the mentally disabled Benji, who slips across time by any sensory association to his kindly, exiled sister, Caddy. Then we hear from their siblings: suicidal Quentin, and bitter, spiteful Jason, before receiving the rebuking grace of their black "help", Dilsey, in the judicious third person.

A morbid, funny psychodrama of petty betrayals, obsessive fixations, and hypocrisies of race, region, gender, and generation. 

Oxblood by Tom Benn

Tom Benn won the 2022 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award for his novel, Oxblood.

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