I’m 11, 16, 21, sprawled across Nanna’s dusty rose velvet couch with my head resting on her lap watching Midsummer Murders or A Touch of Frost. Hetty Wainthrop Investigates. Inspector Rex. Her lap is the easiest place to relax, my safe space since I was a kid. I learned about fairytales rocking on her knees. I learned obsession from her, the art of getting lost, and the art of reading.
Crime stories—better if it’s a series, better still if it’s British or Scandinavian (although recent Australian contributions by Emma Viskic and Jane Harper have similarly hit the spot)—have always been my go-to for time-out reads. Compulsive, addictive and, most importantly, not relevant to my own writing and reading, I can lose myself in a good cat and mouse chase for hours, even days on end.
I have a stash of well-worn memories that I recall when I think about my love of books. The texture has faded but when I set my mind to it I can bring back the feeling of paper, softened by age. I remember the library counter, the shelf near the beanbags where they kept the Archie comics. I can hear the clicking handle that turned to crack the window three inches ajar. But I can’t remember what I felt as I was reading, or what Nanna did while I read on the grass. I can never remember the names of the characters; only the pleasure of reading.
A year or so ago I read Resurrection Bay, a page-turning thriller that traipses across suburban and rural Victoria, and I wanted to call Nanna and tell her how much the broken hero, Caleb Zelic reminded me of the broken male detectives of those shows we watched—those abrupt, insensitive, dogged men who somehow always solved he case. (These stories began my obsession with crime, but they did not begin my feminism).
This week, when I should have been reading, I’ve instead found myself lying prostrate on my own brown leather couch with my head on a pillow watching Happy Valley and The Bletchley Circle. This week, when I should have been reading, I’ve found myself wondering why for the first time. Why do I wrap myself in these stories? What am I looking for? I’ve felt the weight of my crime obsession because now I’m doing it alone, without her.
To be clear, Nanna’s still alive, but dementia and distance have erased the relationship we once had. She remembers me, but I doubt she remembers those moments of closeness I treasure. She knows me now as a series of facts that she checks for accuracy whenever we speak or when I come up in conversation. How’s work? (fine, busy) How’s the boy? (getting big too fast) How’s your husband? (good, but no longer my husband).
I’ve got no business binging anything this week. I’ve got marking to do, and the first week of school lunches to pack. I did read an article called ‘Signs You’re Parenting Right’, and the outcome for me wasn’t great. An endless pile of ‘work’ reading—PhD, judging, reviewing—waits for me each night when I turn my lamp on. But I can’t crack any of the pages. Can barely drag myself off the couch. A thing I read: ‘exercise is good for depression’, but in my exercise class by body feels compelled to meet the floor. To be honest, I would rather fall into another crime story, to have my attention arrested by the sirens, blue flashing lights and a good murder or kidnapping.
I also want to be distracted from the memory of her thumb stroking the hair behind my ear. I read an essay on dementia and doors. It explores motherhood and childhood and regression, ageing and fear. It makes me cry.
I’ve inherited so much of her. Her obsessions with weight and ugliness. Her piles of books. Her clinical perspective. I tell myself that if I lived in Adelaide I would go and read to her every day. When she first started showing signs of dementia I was reading Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. My granddad had died. I was newly separated. I was learning, as an adult, what it felt like to grieve. I told myself that if I was there I would go and read this to her and it would give her some kind of relief. I told myself that I would call her every day and read parts to her so that we could both remember. It wasn’t long after telling myself that this would be the call I’d really do it that I stopped being able to have a decent conversation with her on the phone—when she walked away from the phone while we were talking she didn’t realise that I couldn’t follow her. She would get upset and I would get upset. There was no time to read.
Whenever I’m in a bookshop I look to see if the latest Jasper Fforde has come out yet, years after she stopped asking when it was due. The things I read now are so different to the things we read together. I don’t want to see surly old men playing the hero, be witness to them probing the broken bodies of dead women, discovering the killer and saving the day (but not the woman).
I gravitate to stories where women are more than an object of display and horror. More than mother of, wife of, recently divorced and so on. I want books that break me apart. I recently read Islands by Peggy Frew, and lost myself in the messy complex lives of women who were more than mothers, more than desire. I’m reading about bodies, about women finding their way in the world. I’m reading about mothers and families. When I read crime now I’m looking for something different in the sharp-tongued, dry-witted women. I’m reading Witches by Sam George-Allen, and finding a new sort of power in the communities women find themselves in. I’m still looking for her. I’m looking for me.
Bec Kavanagh is a Melbourne writer and academic.