Friday, April 06, 2007

The Sixpenny Book

The Sixpenny Book

There are some books I've read in the last year that I will hold up as some of my all time favourite reads. Zadie Smith's On Beauty which with its scope and depth seemed to me to be as close to a 21st century version of that great friend of mine the 19th century novel that we may ever get. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go which was haunting, and beautiful, and confusing and ultimately I may never quite get over reading. John Banville's The Sea which I - finally - got round to reading some time after its Booker win which reminded me painfully and profoundly of Woolf and which was the novel more than any that had me reaching for my notebook to copy out snatches of the almost poetry of its pages. And then there was Ian McEwan's Saturday which I devoured in a couple of sittings - overwhelmed by its narrative, by its urgency, by the thought that how we live now may finally be getting its deserved attention.

But I honestly can't quite remember the last time I inhabited a book in the manner I inhabited the one I finished on Wednesday night. This was not marvelling at its language, at its beauty, at its theme, or its urgency. It was living the novel, speaking to the people within it, having them in your head after the book had been put down. It was being 8 and reading Little Women. Being 11 and reading Jane Eyre. Being 14 and reading Pride and Prejudice. Being 18 and reading Vanity Fair.

It was not wanting to breathe in case the magic broke.

100 pages in we'd spoken about the book, half shouting over the bar table.

"I'm beginning to wish I'd read this book when I was 12 or 13".

"At 12 or 13 you wouldn't have understood. You'll understand now".

It made me wonder what was looming in the narrative. What part of the magic that was swimming in my head that I wouldn't have understood.

50 pages from the end I knew what the conversation had been about. And when the final sentences came, utterly right and perfect and heartbreakingly beautiful I recognised them in a way I wouldn't ten years ago. There would have been only the unmediated despair then. Now I saw them as the only way the book could possibly end, the only true way.

"Your book made me cry" I say, perched against the reception desk.

"I really didn't expect the ending" comes the response.

"No I didn't either; you should have warned me that it would make me cry" I mock berate.

"But if I'd told you you wouldn't have loved it as much".

"True" And I know I should say more, as befits the situation when someone has let you peek into a little of who they are by telling you to read one of their favourite books. Especially when their affection for the novel is prefaced by the fact that they're mildly embarrassed at loving it given that they are "not a fifteen year old girl". But how am I to articulate all that I saw in those pages? How am I to comment on how much of myself I saw within them? The bit that every little girl who has kept a diary, peered at the world through Austen and Bronte and been hopelessly, uselessly, in love will recognise.

"I adored it. Every single word". This will have to do. It is as much as can be said. At least for now.

As I'm sure Cassandra Mortmain would have come to realise herself.

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