Sunday Times writer Sally Hawkins chooses Rosemary Sutcliff historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth as the book that changed her life

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The Eagle of the Ninth, original book jacket OUP

Sally Hawkins, who writes for the Sunday Times, was asked to choose a ‘special book’ that changed her life, and explain why it means so much to her.

When I was eight, my taste suddenly moved on from What Katy Did at School and Swallows and Amazons to history. History with boys in it. The Eagle of the Ninth wasn’t the first historical novel I read, but it is one I found myself caught up in all over again, when the film version appeared in 2011. Fifty years on, I found its you-were-there depiction of Roman Britain and gripping plot as beguiling as ever.

I now realise I can trace my academic choices back to this tale of a young man searching for a lost legion — and missing father. Rosemary Sutcliff based it on authentic sources, and this intrigued me. The novel fired my interest in history; it was lurking behind my teenage passion for the First World War poets; and, from there, it was just a short step to my signing up for postgraduate degrees in medieval literature.

Re-reading Sutcliff, I realise just how un-condescending to younger readers her style and vocabulary are: what they don’t understand will just have to be looked up in a dictionary or on the internet. But the story is so compellingly told, they won’t be put off. More important, the book taught the younger me about friendship, courage and integrity. Sutcliff’s heroes are models of how to be good people, but never priggish or unbelievable. I bet George R R Martin read this book before embarking on his Game of Thrones series. The Wall for him is as potent a symbol of the divide between civilisation and darkness as it is for Sutcliff’s young Roman officer.

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