The storyteller: Romola Garai kicks off Stylist’s Book Club

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Helen Bownass
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From Point Horror to The Female Eunuch, actress Romola Garai knows the power of literature. Which makes her the perfect person to kick off Stylist’s Book Club

Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Neil Bedford

When people talk about their book club, wine is often mentioned. Romola Garai is no exception. “I had a group of friends who would come over to my flat every month and we’d discuss a book – one time 25 people turned up,” she tells me over lamb wraps and cups of tea. “Nobody ever really read the book, because everybody was in their 20s, but they’d turn up with wine... Somebody once chose an Ian McEwan book [The Child In Time], where the main character has a baby and we had a drunken debate about whether it was a realistic depiction of having a baby. No-one there was a mother! I was like: ‘It was really moving and beautiful’. Everyone else was like, ‘What the f*ck are you talking about, it’s ridiculous? [It’s like the author’s] never even met a woman’. It turns out they were right...”

If there is anyone whose book group we wished we were part of, it’s Romola Garai’s: she’s gobby, whip smart, well-read, fuss-free, feminist and funny. So as Stylist launches its inaugural book club this week (see the end of this article for details), there was no question who should talk through the literature that’s had a significant impact on her life and the 10 titles all book groups should read – although she laughingly apologises for the “very serious, very worthy books I’ve picked”.

Despite the disbandment of Garai’s own book club, she’s a big fan of group reading. “One of the saddest things is finishing a great book and not having anyone to share it with,” she laments. “Or finishing a terrible book and not being able to bitch about it! [Book groups] make you a more open reader. You’re more inclined to finish books too. I feel very sad that my book group fell by the wayside.”

Reading has pulsed through Garai’s (pronounced Gary) veins since her childhood growing up in Hong Kong then Wiltshire through to the English degree she started at Queen Mary University – she left after a year “when the acting thing happened” – and completed via Open University. Unlike many – me – there was less Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield beaming down from her childhood bookshelf, though. “My dad used to read me books he liked at bedtime – Rider Haggard adventures, Boy’s Own then he progressed onto Dickens. I know it sounds pretentious, but in my teens I was into Graham Green. And the Brontës obviously.” I’m relieved to discover it wasn’t all high-brow. “I loved Point Horror books,” she laughs. “Although once you’ve read 200 you realise there’s a formula, and that maybe Shelly shouldn’t get out of the car.”

Books have also featured in some of Garai’s most defining acting work including Emma (2009), Atonement (2007) and I Capture The Castle (2003), while our photoshoot takes place in between rehearsals for her role in The Miniaturist, a BBC adaptation of Jessie Burton’s best-selling book set in 17th century Amsterdam. However, her current project is a TV original that takes the 34- year-old into new territory. Born To Kill is a fierce and compelling psychological thriller starting on Channel 4 next week about a teenage boy, Sam, with psychopathic tendencies. Garai plays his mother, who embarks on a relationship with the father of Sam’s love interest, the troubled Chrissy. It’s not an easy watch, and quite a departure from her usual roles, so what appealed? “I wanted to do more contemporary work and with the exception of things like Happy Valley, those shows are not very good,” she says. “In terms of the gender politics they’re not great. I thought this was unusual, it’s not a ‘whodunit’. It’s a way of showing male violence, whether its genetic or environmental, that I didn’t think was exploitative. I’m not worried about it being controversial, I guess I’m the kind of person who would invite that to a certain extent. What worries me is if people said, ‘That was exploitative or sexist’. I would feel ashamed to be part of something pushing a message I wasn’t comfortable with. Or if the violence made Sam a kind of sexy anti-hero.”

Any discussion with Garai, who lives in London with her husband Sam and two children, is equally thoughtful, far reaching, and challenging (in the good way). On books alone our conversation covers colonialism, the genius of Arabesque by cookery writer Claudia Roden, trans politics, Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty – she liked it but preferred Booker longlisted Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh – and, surprisingly, Men Are From Mars. Women Are From Venus. “That’s the most misogynistic book I’ve ever read,” she says, her voice rising. “It made me want to set my house on fire.” It’s not the only book that upsets her. “50 Shades Of Grey made me feel very angry. It wasn’t the sex that bothered me, it’s the gift giving. There’s no way it wasn’t advocating a form of prostitution. I walked away from this book and cried that this is what people think feminism is now. Needless to say, lots of people read it in my book group and didn’t agree.”

Chances are Garai’s following suggestions won’t be quite so divisive – I’ve already bought four of the books she recommended for my own book group. So set up a Book Club WhatsApp group, stock up on wine and clear a space on your bookshelves…

Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens (1848)

This is one of the very few books Charles Dickens wrote with a female protagonist. It’s about a father grieving for not having a son and a daughter living with that grief. It’s also about capitalism. I haven’t got the words for what a genius I think Dickens is. He was a passionate writer about poverty and social inequality. It makes you realise how saccharine and neutral our societies have become.

The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer (1970)

I tried to read this when I was too young, about 12 – although any reading was encouraged by my parents. I wasn’t brought up in a gendered household. When I was 15, I came back to it. There’s a chapter about romance – and I had read a lot of romance fiction – that was like somebody going ‘you are a f**king idiot’. The whole raison d’être of Greer’s book is women are raised to please and she will never be that. She doesn’t take any of the s**t. It’s such an angry book, and so funny. It’s a book that does not apologise for itself.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1996)

There was no way I wasn’t including a Margaret Atwood book. I studied Alias Grace for A Level, it’s a historical novel about the murder of a man and his housekeeper in Canada. It’s about storytelling and women’s relationship to violence and psychoanalysis and how women have been severely denigrated by psychoanalysis. There are passages that are burned on my brain – there’s a bit where [Dr Simon Jordan] talks about a dress being like a living plant that’s eating [the person wearing it]. It’s just f**king amazing.

The Island of Dr Moreau, HG Wells (1896)

In my family I was the good girl who wanted to please. My [three] siblings are not like that; they’re clever, they’re rebels. At 11 my younger sister said, “I want to be a vegetarian.” She never ate meat again. This is one of her favourite books. It’s about challenging man’s relationship with animals; it’s really scary and really dark. It’s also short. I cannot believe that somebody would pick up this book and not be completely hooked.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)

At Queen Mary we did a course in post-colonial literature and reading about colonialism from the perspective of colonised voices was a complete eye opener. Things Fall Apart is a magnificent novel about the horrific violence colonialism wrought in Nigeria. It made a big impression. I’ve got hoards of cultural guilt. I think why I have always been very engaged in issues to do with refugees – also because my family were immigrants to the UK [Garai’s family were Hungarian Jews] – is because Britain as a society in the industrial revolution was built on slavery and then colonisation. And there are millions of people in the world who are still living in countries decimated by colonialism and there hasn’t been any acknowledgement of that.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)

I think if I had to recommend only one book from the list, I would pick this one. Gilead is about a town and an older man at the end of his life. I’m not a person of faith but it’s a really beautiful book about that. What I also like is it’s also about how hard it is to love people in your own family sometimes. About how family is a unique thing because they’re people you don’t choose, and how your relationships can be so difficult with people that you’re expected to love in very prescriptive social ways and how you overcome those things.

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark (1970)

This is going to sound horrible and name droppy but I was recommended this book by Ben Whishaw on a job [The Hour]. He’s obviously a good judge of character because it blew my mind. Spark’s novels are so brave and original. She’s been overlooked by history in a way I feel is very sad. This is about a woman – and without giving away the twist – you think she’s going to be the victim of a killing and then you realise she is maybe not going to be the victim and might have some part to play in some violence. It’s about sex and complicity and consent.

Under The Skin, Michel Faber (2000)

I like books that play with genre; that aren’t straight dramas. Under The Skin is really dark... it feels like science fiction but also like a rape revenge story. It’s got a female protagonist but she’s not really a woman. It’s about sexual violence and threat and what it means to be human. At the end the feeling I got was that being a human is frightening. That the threat of things going wrong and the possibility of connection and of love is a frightening thing. I think Michel Faber is the best English language writer in the UK, he’s a genius.

The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (2009)

I felt I should include a title that wasn’t a novel. I guess you’d call it popular science. It’s about equality. I read it about eight years ago and the authors predicted what would happen with Brexit and Trump long before it did. On a minute level it makes you realise you quantify happiness. If you have too much it takes you as far away from happiness as if you have too little. What they’re basically saying is people are unhappy when they’re comparative. If you have societies with very wealthy people and very poor people living next to each other, that’s bad for everybody.

The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (2002)

I’ve read Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy which I liked, but not nearly as much as this book. This is exploding with pain and frustration. It’s about a woman who in the first sentence basically says, ‘my husband left me’, and what happens next; essentially she goes mad. It’s all first person with a lot of continuous narrative. I don’t think I’ve been so viscerally moved by a book. I couldn’t make the kids’ tea, I was in a weird mood because it got under my skin. It was like I needed to wash because it was so full of sadness.

Stylist launches a book club: the ultimate reading list

Ever walked into a bookshop to buy something to read and found yourself staring bewildered at the shelves? Or wasted precious holiday reading time on a tome that wasn’t worth using up your luggage allowance for? The new Stylist Book Group is here to cut through the words and recommend books that will challenge, inspire, inform and entertain.

Every Sunday afternoon we will recommend a book on Instagram (@stylistmagazine) from Stylist staff, our favourite authors, celebrities, politicians and cultural tastemakers. They’ll be books you can read alone, as part of your book group, or with us – please do share your thoughts and recommendations as you go with #stylistmagazine. Happy reading.

Born To Kill starts on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 April at 9pm

Photography: Neil Bedford
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