Bernie McGill is a novelist and short story writer from Co Derry. Her book The Watch House was nominated for the Ireland/European Union Literature Prize in 2019. Her new collection of short stories, This Train is For, has just been published by No Alibis Press.
We are not in the world by Conor O’Callaghan, dance moveby Wendy Erskine Run away by Alice Munro, In other words by Jhumpa Lahiri, A shock by Keith Ridgway Clara and the sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Your book of the year?
So far, The promise by Damon Galgut. Set in South Africa as the country emerges from apartheid, it focuses on four members of the Swart family and follows their lives over a period of 40 years. It’s beautifully and soberly written: my kind of family saga.
Your favorite literary character?
I have a weakness for Merricat Blackwood by Shirley Jackson We have always lived in the castle. She is socially awkward, unwavering in her outlook, fiercely loyal to her sister. She’s unhinged, sure, but bright and funny and a winner with it.
The first book you remember?
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It would have been a school reading book, Ladybird or Penguin, in which the father smoked a pipe and the mother wore a ruffled apron and they lived in a house with children with names like Dora and Dick. I had nine siblings.
My dad was a mason who smoked 40 Kensitas a day and my mom was in tatters. Reading these books was like reading about extraterrestrials.
A book that changed your life?
Dairy by Anna Burns. She writes about the unrest in Belfast, about what happens to a fear-based society. How this experience normalizes the abnormal, how it distorts relationships, how it silences and belittles women.
She blasts the “whatever you say, don’t say anything” mantra that so many of us lived with in fear of offending. His writings confirmed to me how important it is for us to acknowledge our experiences, however offbeat they may seem, and to do our best in writing to be courageous.
The book you couldn’t finish?
The crimson petal and the white by Michael Faber. It started well. I was intrigued by the direct address, by the invitation to the 21st century reader to enter the seedy underworld of Victorian London, a world that comes to life in vivid sensory detail.
It’s a very polished piece of work but at times I found the reading experience uncomfortably voyeuristic, and eventually the narrator made me digress too much.
Your comfort Covid read?
The hall of wolves Hilary Mantel trilogy. I galloped through the first book during lockdown and immediately followed up with Bring up the bodies and The mirror and the light. These are masterful works.
Mantel takes us into the inner world of Thomas Cromwell, then slips into the first person plural, inserting the reader into these gigantic crowd scenes, coronations and executions, making us feel complicit in our presence. The transitions are expert, fluid, absolutely envious.
The book you are giving as a gift?
Snow and construction on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas: a witty, subtle, calm and beautiful read.
The writer who shaped you?
I didn’t read Margaret Atwood until after I left Queen’s. I didn’t realize there were brilliant writers who also told a good story.
Which book would you most like to be remembered for?
The last, I guess. I hope it is also the best.