Books: A book that changed me

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The Return Of The Native

Thomas Hardy

When did you first read it? I read The Return of the Native when I was 17, full of yearning, and incarcerated in a convent boarding school. I can even remember precisely where I sat with my dogeared Papermac - in my chilly bedroom at the top of the redbrick Pugin building, sometimes leaning out of the window and listening to the pop music drifting up from the youth club in the village below.

I was Eustacia Vye, or so my adolescent imaginings told me. My eyes, like hers, were (at least I hoped) pagan eyes full of nocturnal mysteries, and my soul was flame-like. Like Eustacia, to be loved to madness was my one great desire. "A blaze of love and extinction" seemed the best possible outcome.

Eustacia's burden was coming from the backward and suffocating Egdon Heath. Mine was coming from Worthing. The parallels seemed overwhelming to me.

I even shared her social snobbery. The village boys and girls might be dancing away below me, but I didn't want to join them. We would have nothing in common, I was a person of passion.

What did you like about it? Besides my complete identification with its heroine, the sheer relentless power of the writing. What other writer would start a novel with six solid pages of description without introducing a single character? Like D H Lawrence, Hardy isn't to everyone's taste: too much blighted love and atheistic pessimism. To me, ensconced in a convent thick with incense, confession and church twice on Sundays, a little atheistic pessimism was a welcome antidote.

Has it affected your own writing? Hardy's use of coincidence is often criticised, but to me it seemed less coincidence than ironic counterpointing. Who can forget the power of the scene where Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd temporarily relents his betrayal of Fanny and plants crocuses on her grave, for them to be washed out by an overflowing gargoyle the moment he turns his back? Used in moderation, missed opportunities and acts of goodness that come too late are very powerful tools for the writer and I do, in my small way, try to emulate them.

Maeve Haran's latest novel, 'All That She Wants' is published by Little, Brown at pounds 15.99