Each year, I record the books I read in the back of my diary. When a friend asks for reading recommendations for, say, a kayaking holiday in Vancouver, I just photograph the page and offer the numbers specific to that person’s taste and to a kayaking holiday in Vancouver: 2, 4, 17, 26 etc. No other words needed. This year I’ve recommended West by Carys Davies a lot. Also Robbie Arnott’s Flames, Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck, and Madame Zero by Sarah Hall. I get heaps of book recommendations from people on Twitter. A person I’ve never met says: ‘You would love this’. How do they know me so well?
On a Monday in March this year, at 39 weeks’ pregnant, I went into hospital to be induced. On the whiteboard the midwife had written ‘Time to meet baby!’ But I had a feeling—based on experience—that this was going to take days. So I’d packed a book. My husband and I waited, tucked up in our hospital room. That first day, I read Robert Lukins’s excellent, atmospheric The Everlasting Sunday. No baby. My student midwife brought in a stack of books. On Tuesday, I read Claire Aman’s clever and heartfelt Bird Country. On Wednesday, two books and forty-eight hours later, Theo was born. My sister visited, bearing flowers and M&Ms. She brought me Roxane Gay’s incredible essay collection, Bad Feminist. On Thursday, I read it and patted my beautiful baby’s head and thought one thousand times how lucky I was. On Friday, I was still in hospital. Krissy from Avid Reader emailed: I’d been uncontactable, and did that mean the baby was here? Avid had copies of my book that needed signing. Still in pain, but also on a high, unconquerable: What is sleep? What are regular clothes? What is food that isn’t M&Ms or stewed fruit? I got my husband to collect the books and bring them to the hospital. It was Friday night and outside there were lights in the big palm trees. In my memory, the baby is asleep. I sat up in bed, wheeled the table close to my deflated belly, and signed copies of my book, itself not yet 10 days old.
This year I wanted to read a book per week. I’ve had a lot of breastfeeding time, a lot of sitting time. When you recline in your Poäng beside the cot you mustn’t sleep because you’ll crush the baby. Instead, here are some things you can do: Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, amplify all the fears you have for your family and the world, read a book. Podcast on with headphones in rates the highest for eye contact, vital for baby’s development.
Baby: Look at my mother loving me; our eye contact is unbreakable and deep.
Me: How do I become best friends with Maeve the lamppost in ‘Everything is Alive’? Reading is a bit harder. Lying in my lap and using his spare arm that is not tucked under my body, my baby son whacks at the books. Last week when I’d had enough of him slapping the open pages of Normal People, I tucked it above his head, between the bars of his cot, which I use like a little bookshelf. Without missing a beat—without stopping the flow of milk for one second—he reached up and plucked out my bookmark, flapped it about then dropped it on the floor. Very encouraging.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People is an exceptional love story about two rather ordinary young people. It takes place in the first half of this decade, in Ireland. When the book starts, Marianne and Connell are at school together where Marianne is an outsider and Connell is sporty, popular. He watches as Marianne argues in class with their teachers and seems to avoid caring what anyone thinks of her. Rooney’s capacity to open the book with such a simple scenario is enviable: in the kitchen after school one day, a pair of teenagers have a strange conversation that propels the next few years of their lives. I also love Rooney’s empathy for her supporting characters, drawn so authentically: Lorraine, Joanna, Peggy, and even Rob who gets only a few lines but whose trajectory is vital to the plot, and also heartbreaking. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is difficult to describe. Marianne says Connell is ‘wholesome like a big baby tooth’, a line that for some reason I found so beautiful I had to put the book down for a second.
Normal People made this year’s Man Booker longlist, and I recently finished one from the 2017 list, a book I wouldn’t have typically picked up. I’d popped into my local bookshop in August.
‘Just browsing, Fiona, thanks. I have wayyyy too many books.’
‘Of course,’ she said. Then: ‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, all right,’ I said, ‘Which book?’
‘This one,’ she said.
A thirteen-year-old girl goes missing and the residents of an English village search for her, and then at some point they kind of… stop searching. The pleasure in Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is the fine predictability, like a carriage return, of each chapter beginning with new year’s eve in the village. What might irritate others about this novel really charmed me; he flits between human and non-human worlds without warning. McGregor’s attention to rhythm is gorgeous, with intrusions like this: ‘The river turned over beneath the packhorse bridge and ran steady to the millpond weir.’ At Brisbane Writers’ Festival, Michelle de Kretser spoke about sentences, and the beauty of well-crafted, rhythmic writing on the ear. I wrote de Kretser’s advice and McGregor’s sentence down in my notebook.
Along with the notebook in my handbag is After the Carnage by Tara June Winch, a great short story collection I’m savouring. News of another hurricane bearing down on Florida, and I think of Lauren Groff’s unsettling collection, Florida, which I read on holiday last month. I sought out more of Groff’s work and bought Fates and Furies, knowing it only as the novel Barack Obama liked. It sits—I’m about twenty pages in—on my bedside table. Beneath it is the beautiful looking Fingersmith by Sarah Waters that I borrowed from the library, that I’ll renew, that I’ll surely have to return before I finish it. This is a book-size problem at this point in my life, not a Sarah Waters problem. With no more hospital stays in my foreseeable future, my book-a-day habit is probably behind me.
Laura Elvery is the author of the short story collection, Trick of the Light, shortlisted in the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards. She lives in Brisbane.