Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Best Book Ever Written.......... Miriam Halahmy

This autumn I was invited to the Havant LitFest, Hampshire, to run a workshop for teenagers and to give a talk about my Y.A. novels, Hidden and Illegal, which are set on Hayling Island, near the festival venue and opposite the Isle of Wight. Once I had agreed the organisers then asked if I would like to be on a panel the night before where I would have to champion the best book ever written.
So – what to choose? The Bible? – a bit obvious. Crime and Punishment? Yes, but even Dostoyevsky muttered to his wife that he had rushed it and should have done a good edit. Ultimately I had to choose a book and it had to be one I could talk about enthusiastically. I chose A Town Like Alice, by Neville Shute.

Here are my reasons :-

Langstone Mill - Neville Shute wrote here during the war.
  •  Neville Shute wrote for a period of time in the Old Mill, at the top of Hayling Island, five minutes from the venue for the LitFest. One of the books he completed there was Pied Piper, a very unusual war story. Shute is a much loved local literary figure so I had a local connection.
  •  Shute wrote 23 novels but Alice is the only book based on a true story.
  • The true story is the remarkable account told to Shute by a young woman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese along with a group of around 80 Dutch women and children during the occupation of Sumatra. Their story is particularly unusual because the Japanese never settled them into a camp. They simply made them walk round the island for two and a half years until less than 30 were left alive.
  •   The main character, a young woman called Jean, says in the novel, “People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had. They don’t know what it was like not being in a camp.” The entire novel pivots around this heart-breaking statement.
  •  I don’t want to spoil the book for you so I won’t say any more about this part of the story.
  • However, if Shute’s great novel had only dealt with the war story then it would not be my choice for the greatest novel ever. But the war story is only the first half of the book. The second half of the book is set in the remotest part of the Australian Outback. This is a wonderful and fascinating contrast. The book was written in the late 1940s and Shute knew the country very well. At that time Australia was a very different country to the modern high tech place it is today. Shute gives us a wonderful picture of life in the Outback and shows how the Australians established their towns – a town like Alice. He really makes the reader want to leap on a plane and go there.
  •   By bringing alive two such contrasting settings and placing at the heart of his novel a wonderful love story, Shute has written a classic and a book which I have enjoyed re-reading again and again.

It was therefore easy for me to stand up and champion my book but I have to say, all the other books were brilliant and so well presented that it made for a marvellous, stimulating booky evening.

From left to right : Sarah Butterfield, me, David Willetts, Lynn Pick, Mark Waldron, Naomi Foyle
Here are the other books :

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Larson – presented by Sarah Butterfield, professional artist.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume – presented by David Willetts, MP for Havant and husband of Sara Butterfield.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giona – presented by Lynne Pick, local resident and artist.
Biggles Takes it Rough, by W.E. Johns – presented by Mark Waldron, Editor of The News, Portsmouth. Mark stated that his first Biggles book started him on the road to becoming a serious and committed reader but without his local library he wouldn't have had access to books at all. For the Dickens centenary celebrations in Portsmouth this year he read the entire works in 14 months – so he has come a long way from good old Biggles and all because of the library.
Queen of Heaven and Earth by Wolkstein and Kramer – presented by Naomi Foyle, poet and author.

Sarah Butterfield won – which was wonderful ( although we all thought Biggles was looking like the front runner)
The audience loved the whole process, which included questions and comments to the panel and a voting system – marbles in jars. ( The better half reckons I came second...but who knows!)

It was an inspiring way to spend an evening on books – many of which were lovingly falling to pieces and a reminder that if we had all stood there with our Kindles it just wouldn't have smelt and looked and felt the same.

What would you have chosen as the best book ever written?


heather Kilgour said...

Where the Wild Things Are.

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting mix of titles. I've never read A Town Like Alice - on reflection, because of a long-ago cover image - so I am now feeling intrigued.

Best book ever written? Very sorry but I think there are so many good books that It's impossible to choose. What mood? What moment? What kind of language and vocabulary does one feel like reading at the moment? Does a strong plot win over an enticing voice and descriptions you could drop into? Mrs Indecision here so I'm opting out of that question, Miriam.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Good choice Heather! And yes, Penny, it was a bit of a tough call but really a lot of fun on the night.

Emma Barnes said...

I've read and enjoyed A Town Like Alice several times, and it's a fascinating read, for all the reasons you describe.

I have to admit I haven't read any of the other titles so you would probably have won my vote!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Ah - thanks Emma - but I have to say everyone was so completely passionate about their books and gave such wonderful talks it would have been a very hard choice.

Lynne Garner said...

What a hard thing to do - champion just one book. A Town Like Alice is not a title I've ever read but from your it is one I'll add to my list.

Ann Turnbull said...

I can't answer that question either, Miriam. But I read A Town Like Alice several times during my teens and twenties and absolutely loved it. It fascinates me that it ought not to 'work', because of the way it falls into two halves, and yet it succeeds brilliantly.

madwippitt said...

What an impossible question! What a dilemma!

Belmont Schools said...

No doubt in it to say that "The Best Book Ever Written.......... Miriam Halahmy" .The entire novel pivots around this heart-breaking statement.Good one.

Miriam Halahmy said...

A dilemma yes - but also such a fun challenge - in the end we were all just completely passionate about our books. Its a great way to get people fired up about reading - maybe it should become a schools challenge. I bet the kids would love it!