Three Books With…Melissa Barbeau, Author of THE LUMINOUS SEA

We asked Melissa Barbeau, author of The Luminous Sea, to name three books she considers essential titles, the books that come to mind first when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read. 

Dear Missy Marston, author of Bad Ideas and fellow Briny Books-er (Briner?), you are right. What an impossibly hard task to come up with a list of three essential books. Books have been pulled from the bookshelves. Books are all over my writing desk, books are all over the floor. Kurt Vonnegut and Karen Russell and Jeannette Winterson and Moby Dick are pulling at my sweater. I have cheated (just a little bit) but here, finally, and for completely arbitrary reasons, are my three:

The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

The book that changed my life. I read The English Patient in my very early 20s and it shifted my worldview on what writing could be. I had grown up a voracious and indiscriminate reader—Madeline L’Engle, Harlequin romances, Nancy Drew—but this book took my breath away and made me say, oh this. This is what writing can be. It’s the book that started me on the road to being a serious reader and it made me believe that writer is a thing I could be. It’s luscious. 

With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.

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100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

A very close finisher over Márquez’s book of short stories Leaf Storm. Solitude is a masterpiece of magic realism but I picked it because of all those yellow butterflies. The yellow butterflies have stayed with me like no other image from a book. All that colour and movement flitting towards me. I feel like I’ve caught them inside of me somehow.

The brilliant, bestselling, landmark novel that tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.”

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A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

My very most-battered book. It is funny, conversational, sly, and a brilliant treatise on writing and the conditions necessary for making art. Ultimately, though, it is Woolf’s attempt to answer the simplest question: “Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” This is a book about the poverty of women and is every bit as relevant today as the day it was written.

A Room of One’s Own, based on a lecture given at Girton College, Cambridge, is one of the great feminist polemics, ranging in its themes from Jane Austen and Carlotte Brontë to the silent fate of Shakespeare’s gifted (imaginary) sister and the effects of poverty and sexual constraint on female creativity.

Bonus Books!

I could not leave this list as it is without mentioning the canon of Newfoundland writers. To write from this place is to write from a deep tradition of storytelling—it is absolutely essential to my craft and to my identity as a writer. Start anywhere! Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Kathleen Winter, Jessica Grant, Sharon Bala, Andy Jones, Megan Gail Coles. I always have Straight Razor Days, Joel Thomas Hynes’ book of raw and elegant poetry, close at hand.