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
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