Wednesday 18 May 2016

My Life In Books ~ talking to author Essie Fox

My Life in Books is an occasional feature on Random Things Through My Letterbox
I've asked authors to share with us a list of the books that are special to them and have made a lasting impression on their life

I'm thrilled to welcome Essie Fox to Random Things today.  Essie writes historical fiction and has published three novels with Orion, her fourth is due to be published later this year.

I reviewed her third novel, The Goddess and the Thief here on Random Things in December 2013, her earlier books are The Somnambulist and Elijah's Mermaid

My Life In Books ~ Essie Fox

I read so much, and always have, and now - well, I'm not so very young and there have been a lot of books. But whenever I think of my first love I always come back to the same one ...

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley  I was six years old, and the sun always shone. Every day during the summer months my mother took me down to swim in the river with the pebbled 'beach' that ran through the fields behind our house. So, when I went to the local library and pulled this book down from the shelves, it really seemed the perfect thing.
Reading again more recently (when I featured many of the themes in my novel Elijah's Mermaid) I realised just how 'sermonising' and pompous much of the story is. But, I think my copy had been abridged, and it had the most beautiful illustrations that transported me into another world. I'll never forget how entranced I was when reading the early chapters about a little chimney sweep who falls asleep in a river while trying to wash himself clean again. I'm sure that transformation scene led to my lifelong obsession with water, and magic, and fairy tales.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis  I've just realised that my first and second choices are both books about Christianity. But perhaps that's not so very strange. Although I don't go to church any more I was raised in a very religious home.
I first read the Narnia books when I was ten or eleven years old. Again, I remember a summer, but this one spent lying on my bed reading through every book in the series and never wanting to come back out and live in the real world again. (I had the same feeling in my late teens when reading Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and then as an adult when I read Pullman's Dark Materials - and again with the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. It seems that once I fall in love with an author's writing I tend to go off on a binge and devour every single word in one enormous lovely glut).

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh  I'm about sixteen or seventeen now .... and studying for my A levels, and this novel was one of the set texts. I've never forgotten it. Reading Waugh's other novels too took me to worlds I'd never known - in a particular time, and class, and also in social behaviour. The characterisation is wonderful, and as to the final scene in this book ... I have never forgotten the horror I felt at the plight of its central character.
It's not my favourite Waugh novel. That would be Brideshead Revisited. I still remember seeing the wonderful TV dramatisation with Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and the beguiling Diana Quick. Well worth watching - and reading - again today.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte  People often fall into two camps - either loving Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I enjoy both now, but when I was in my teens the passion and utter rebellion found out there on the wild and windblown moors were the only things that mattered. My tears and rage when Cathy dies. My horror when Heathcliff digs up her grave. What a dark and gothic world it  is. So many levels to be exposed in this unfolding box of tricks.

A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving  John Irving is another author who I just can't get enough of. There is something about that American 'voice' which draws me more and more these days. From the orphans in The Cider House Rules, to the bear in Hotel New Hampshire,with Garp, and A Son of the Circus too - Irving rarely puts a foot wrong. You simply can't help but fall in love with the people who inhabit his stories. He has such a gift to draw you in, creating unique voices that will make you laugh amd make you cry.
But as with so many favourite books Owen Meaney is the one when I still remember how I felt all the way through reading it. And there is one scene in particular when Owen Meaney is still a boy, when he's up in an attic with his friends and the way the sun slants through the roof, lighting his head up from behind  - and he has these enormous, sticky out ears which are suddenly glowing, turned bright red. I see it so clearly to this day. It still makes me giggle. Must read again!

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson  My first Kate Atkinson was not the last. The past few years I've been enthralled and awed by the writing to be found in Life After Life, and A God in Ruins. But this one really hooked me, with the childhood descriptions in the novel somehow echoing my own. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, and then to come to one dreadful scene ... when I actually gasped so loudly that my husband asked if I was all right. To this very day, it's still a shock.

Affinity by Sarah Waters   I love all of Sarah Waters' books. But the darkly claustrophobic themes found within Affinity harmonise so perfectly with the novels that I like to write. It also has a brilliant end, with a twist I never could have guessed.

Wise Children by Angela Carter  Where to start with Angela Carter?  Another enormous influence and inspiration on both my reading and my writing life. I adore her magical realism, with allusions to fairy tales and myth - not to mention Shakespeare's plays. For ages Nights at the Circus would have been my natural choice here. But I recently read Wise Children again, and I think I love it even more now than I did the very first time around.
It's the story of two septuagenarian twins who were born on the 'wrong side of the tracks' and who once had a career in the music halls, while their natural father played a part in the more aristocratic acting scene. It is without doubt a sheer delight from the opening scenes to the very end. And I have to mention the Audible version, narrated by Eileen Atkins too. Bravo! A treat for everyone.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf  These days - as I grow older - I definitely relate much more to books concerned with aging, and also to the passing of time. By their very nature such stories can be depressing, but in Our Souls at Night I found such a beautiful and bittersweet celebration of what it means to live.
Haruf takes two elderly neighbours (who have both lost their spouses), who then find love and solace in each other's company - until other family members unexpectedly intervene; one to the good, one to the bad.
Kent Haruf's 'voice' is remarkable. So authentic and beguiling. Another American author with an every day story of normal folk that transcends into something so much more.

Essie Fox ~ May 2016

Essie Fox was born and grew up in Herefordshire. She now divides her time between Bow in East London, and Windsor. After studying English Literature at Sheffield University she first worked for The Telegraph Sunday Magazine, then for the book publishers George Allen & Unwin - until moving on to art and design; a career that lasted twenty years.

Essie became a published author in 2011. She has appeared at various festivals, contributed articles for the national press, and lectured at the V&A. She also created the popular blog The Virtual Victorian, and much of the research she does for that website goes on to feature in her books, which are dark Victorian novels, published by Orion Books.

The Somnambulist was featured on the Channel 4 TV Book Club, was shortlisted for the Best Debut Novel at the 2012 National Book Awards, and has been optioned for TV/film by Hat Trick Productions. Her second novel, Elijah's Mermaid has received many excellent reviews in national newspapers and magazines.  Her third novel, The Goddess and the Thief was published in December 2013.

In November 2016 Orion will also be publishing The Last Days of Leda Grey, an eerily mysterious novel in which an old woman remembers the time when she once starred in a silent film.

For more information about Essie Fox and her writing, visit
For news about tours and events, visit
To read Essie's popular Victorian blog, visit
Follow Essie on Twitter @essiefox



  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Essie. And I am off now to order a coy of 'Our Souls at Night'!

  2. It's really interesting to see which books Essie chose - thanks so much for this great feature, Anne! I, too, loved The Water Babies and after chatting with Essie about it when she blogged about the book, I went back and re-read the unabridged version and felt the same way. I later found the version I'd been given as a child and it was abridged and full of beautiful illustrations. I'd also choose Affinity as my favourite Sarah Waters novel. It never quite gets the attention her others do but it's quietly devastating.

  3. Great to see your choices, Essie, and I too love Affinity and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But have never read any Angela Carter. Something I will remedy soon!