Book Of A Lifetime: Coming Through Slaughter, By Michael Ondaatje

My book of a lifetime? Easy. 'Coming Through Slaughter' by Michael Ondaatje. I discovered it just as the cement was setting around the idea of making the dream, writing, an actual career (to the horror of my coal-miner father, who, when hearing of my vaultingly ridiculous ambition, responded - "waste of time, books".) Ondaatje's slim, early tome was introduced by a university lecturer, a failed and depleted writer himself, and it entered my world like a depth charge of possibility. I've carried my battered Picador paperback around for decades; the pages, now, are almost greasy from being thumbed, flipped, dog-eared and scribbled upon.

What is it? Not sure exactly, and that's what makes it so damned exciting. It's an account. Of the life of jazz musician Buddy Bolden, a cornet player in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century. Not an area of interest for me generally, but my God, you're entranced by this world that Ondaatje creates. It's a daring, audacious little book that defies categorisation - experimenting with fiction and non-fiction, photography, and dramatic changes of tense and voice. Bolden was known for his dazzling improvisations and there's something of that energy in it.

This book has been like a prod over the years: to not necessarily take the easiest path; to write with energy and honesty; emotional truth. And beauty, always that. It's also deliciously grubby and vulnerable and ultimately - what all great novels are - moving. Heartbreaking, in fact. Don't all writers want to conjure up a book that wrenches the heart at some point? It's taught me several lessons as a writer: the importance of a strong narrative to propel the reader forward and the need to evoke some kind of empathy with the protaganist. 'Coming Through Slaughter' moves me deeply.

It's fearless, dangerous writing, something I'm addicted to and aspire to in my own work. Over the years, I've recognised it in books by Anne Carson, Michel Houellebecq, Marguerite Duras, Dave Eggers and Ali Smith. It intrigues me, now, that this is an early work by Ondaatje. There's something so youthful and captivating about the energy, when you're roaring through life, addicted to the new, to risk. I want to keep recapturing that exhilarating, effortless feeling in my own books, but it's so hard, as the years go on, as life closes in around you and you have to think about mortgages and sellable books; about making a living out of this crazy life. But I've tried to go back to the fundamentals of its audacious energy with my new book, 'With My Body'.

So all I can say is thank you, Mr Ondaatje, for this bewitching tome. It's been like my tuning fork over the years - very different to my own writing, but your book sets the bar for me in terms of energy and daring and risk-taking. All I need is a paragraph from its deliciously audacious pages to get me in the mood, and I'm off and racing.

Nikki Gemmell's new novel, 'With My Body', is published by Fourth Estate

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories