Craig Higginson's life in books

Internationally acclaimed playwright and novelist, Craig Higginson on his masterfully plotted new novel, The Book of Gifts. The books that made him, hosting a literary dinner and recommended reads.

Moving from the lush beaches of uMhlanga Rocks to the stark midwinter wastes of Johannesburg and the rich and strange coral reefs of Mauritius, The Book of Gifts explores the fault-lines between loyalty and betrayal, innocence and accountability, blindness and perception, entrapment and flight. The Book of Gifts dives into the deepest and most hazardous reaches of human consciousness in order to catch the brightest fish.

Selected by Craig, here are five quotes from The Book of Gifts that capture the story and show why you need to read the book.

  • “With Clare, he learns to swim in the sea.”
  • “A gift is never a destination in itself, Andrew told her, but a means to an end – a stepping stone towards somewhere else.”
  • “You know what, Aunty Jen? he says, wiping the blood across his cheek. The violence in my essays, it doesn’t come from my mother. It comes from you.”
  • “I want you to know that I will never forgive myself. You already did that, she laughs, when you played volleyball on the beach … But don’t worry, she continues, I don’t exactly blame you. It’s that we do. We forgive ourselves.”
  • “This is where life begins, he thinks, as he takes another step into the dark.”

If you had to curate a playlist for The Book of Gifts, which five songs would you include?
It may sound a pretentious, but the truth is that I wrote the whole novel only listening to Phillip Glass. His music was literally the soundtrack of the novel – and helped to support not only the structure, the repetitions, but the honed-down style. I listened to his violin concertos, the soundtrack from “The Hours” and the beautiful recordings from the pianist Vikingur Olafsson. I was also listening to a lot of Max Richter – who also provided inspiration for the style and mood of the novel. You could try “The Blue Notebook” and the albums “Voyager” and “From Sleep”.

Five books you read when writing The Book of Gifts or books people can read after they finish The Book of Gifts.
Well they could read my previous two novels, The Dream House and The White Room. I looked at Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, This Must be the Place at the recommendation of my editor because we were doing similar things structurally. I also liked Maggie O’Farrell’s autobiography, I Am, I Am, I Am. Also read Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels at the time and really admired them, although they weren’t a significant influence.

The book you give as a gift?
Usually a book I’ve bought to read myself – and then I give it because I think the person would like it. As a result, I’ve bought Half a Yellow Sun three times and given it away three times and am yet to read it. But if I were actually to choose, it may be something like Pablo Neruda’s Selected Poems (Picador).

Books that made you…
All the books I’ve ever read.

Is there a book you wish you had written?
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy is pretty amazing.

Five books you would recommend to a stranger?

  • Breath by Tim Winton
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  • Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
  • The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch

But I could list fifty more.

Which books do you find yourself returning to and why?
I recently returned to For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemmingway and All the Pretty Horses and was again blown away. Then I returned to A Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez and couldn’t bear it – the way he was constantly trying to exoticise his own culture – which I think is a characteristic of most magical realism and the reason I often find it a bit fake.

The book almost everyone you know has read but, you haven’t?
The Hillary Mantel books. I didn’t get very far with Wolf Hall. But there are many.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited (dead or alive)? And based on any of your books, where would you host the dinner?
I would like to meet William Faulkner, James Joyce and William Shakespeare. It would have to be an early dinner since they would probably drink too much and become irascible. Since The Book of Gifts takes place in part at The Oyster Box in Umhlanga Rocks, we could meet there – on the veranda – with the lighthouse in the background, and the sound of the sea.

Watch Craig Higginson as he talks about The Book of Gifts, its characters, his writing process and overall inspiration:

The Book of Gifts is available on eBook here:

The Book of Gifts

by Craig Higginson

Book cover for The Book of Gifts

What is the cost of giving a gift? What is the cost of receiving one?

At eleven years old, Julian Flint prefers to remain invisible, safe inside the architecture of adults provided by his mother, his uncle and his aunt. But when his mother, Emma, a celebrated sculptor, takes them all on a family holiday to a hotel by the sea, he meets the captivating and irreverent Clare and everything he thought he knew begins to shift – setting off a chain of events that will determine each of their fates.

From the award-winning author of The Dream House and The White Room comes Craig Higginson’s most gripping and nuanced novel to date. Moving from the lush beaches of uMhlanga Rocks to the stark midwinter wastes of Johannesburg and the rich and strange coral reefs of Mauritius, this masterfully plotted novel explores the fault-lines between loyalty and betrayal, innocence and accountability, blindness and perception, entrapment and flight. The Book of Gifts dives into the deepest and most hazardous reaches of human consciousness in order to catch the brightest fish.

The Dream House

by Craig Higginson

Book cover for The Dream House

A farmhouse is being reproduced a dozen times, with slight variations, throughout a valley. Three small graves have been dug in the front garden, the middle one lying empty. A woman in a wheelchair sorts through boxes while her husband clambers around the old demolished buildings, wondering where the animals have gone. A young woman – called ‘the barren one’ behind her back – dreams of love, while an ageing headmaster contemplates the end of his life. At the entrance to the long dirt driveway, a car appears and pauses – pointed towards the house like a silver bullet, ticking with heat.

So begins The Dream House, Craig Higginson’s riveting and unforgettable novel set in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Written with dark wit, a stark poetic style and extraordinary tenderness, this is a story about the state of a nation and a deep meditation on memory, ageing, meaning, family, love and loss.

The White Room

by Craig Higginson

Book cover for The White Room

South African playwright Hannah Meade arrives in London for the opening night of her new play. She has arranged to meet Pierre, the student she was in love with when she taught English in Paris. During their time together, they lied their way towards truths they were too young and inexperienced to endure. Perhaps this time they will have a second chance.

As the reader is drawn from contemporary London back to Paris on the eve of the war in Iraq, the mystery of past events is brought to vivid life in a series of dramatic, intriguing and deeply moving encounters. Written in layered, stark prose, The White Room lays bare many of our assumptions about language, identity, memory, loss and love.