When I’m in the midst of writing, it’s almost impossible to read fiction. Either my mind drifts away to my own story (at which point I return to the laptop) or my eyes snag on every sentence, in praise or criticism, deconstructing its pros and cons until coming to the conclusion I have absolutely no idea about anything. If the novel is especially good, I’m demoralised. Why bother? I think. I’ll never write anything as worthy. So it’s best to avoid fiction when writing it.
Fortunately/unfortunately, I haven’t written for the past few months. With the absence of deadlines, my ‘free time’ has been unexpectedly, delightfully, free. I’ve had whole weekends to play with (what do people do with weekends?) so I’ve taken advantage of a temporary licence to read.
I’m currently three-quarters through The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a book that refuses to be rushed. I pad lightly across each page, tiger-like, poised to each movement and sound. The characters and details are rendered superbly: a deathless man; the butcher’s deaf wife; the Magnificent Fedrizzi. There are stories within stories, colourfully and delightfully told, and it’s the kind of book I’d like to return to some day, but like Robert Frost’s paths diverging in a yellow wood, I know I never will. There’ll always be other novels to explore. As a teenager I would re-read treasured books countless times, but that was because my pocket money and knowledge were limited; my loyalty endless.
I wish I could read faster, but when I open a book, my whole body slows down as I let the prose find its rhythm. Sometimes I forget the story altogether, luxuriating in the words. Sometimes, having finished a book, I’m left not with a grasp of the narrative, but a visceral sense of it. A memory of how it made me feel.
I recently read a book in one day: Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. It’s labelled as a young adult novel, but I’m not so sure. Like The Little Prince, it’s more than that. Patrick Ness writes the kind of prose that shocks you with originality. His dialogue, especially, is beautiful. I loved his Chaos Walking series, so this stand-alone novel has been waiting on my bookshelf for a couple of years. It’s the tale of a boy who’s mother is ill. Already burdened by too many responsibilities, he is surprised to be visited by a giant tree in the night, telling tales and making demands. The magic realism weaves a dazzling thread. I cried at the end—a rarity. The last novel that made me cry (apart from my own) was The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Another novel that had been calling to me from the to-read pile was Tim Winton’s Eyrie. I’d been putting it off, to be honest. The timing had never been right. Aware of the tone and the content, I hadn’t been…ready. I hadn’t felt in the mood to invite Tom and his seedy bleakness—complete with unexplained carpet stains—into my own loungeroom. It’s not that I need unblemished stories in my life, but sometimes—this year, especially, following a tragedy in my family—I crave escapism. I’ve needed beauty. Kindness. Wonder. Something other than despair.
Tim Winton is a master, and while his prose is beautiful, Eyrie’s settings and characters are anything but. It’s Fremantle at its ugliest; people at their worst. And it’s all so entirely believable and sensory that I felt as if I inhabited the place: for the entire week of reading Eyrie, I felt hungover, as if Tom’s state had become mine. I found myself yearning for a plate of vegetables and a long, soapy shower. I felt dirty. Itchy. For a while I wanted to throttle Tom, but then I wanted to abandon him. I realised I wouldn’t have the patience for Tom in real life, so it tested my commitment to stick with him through the 424 pages. I finished the novel, took a long, soapy shower, ate some vegetables, and felt much better about my own life. Which is probably not a bad outcome. It’s left me thinking about the ideas of family legacy, heroism, resilience and individual purpose. What am I here for? Does any of this matter? (Can anyone recommend a book with any of the answers??)
I try to alternate Australian with international authors; fiction with non-fiction; adult with young adult. A charming young adult novel I read recently was Every Day by American writer David Leviathan. The concept is intriguing: the narrator wakes up every day in another teenager’s body, which he (or she) inhabits for only twenty-four hours. The beauty of the novel is not only the concept but the emotional truths it offers. I can imagine teenage girls falling in love with the character, and it’s the kind of book I wish I’d read as an adolescent. The story isn’t without its flaws, but it’s lyrically told, and it certainly captivated me.
After finishing The Tiger’s Wife, I’ll probably read All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld (a recommendation by a bookseller), A Cure for All Diseases by Reginald Hill (a recommendation by an author friend), and Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (recommended by a teenager). I’d like to read The Goldfinch, but it’s a big commitment, time-wise. I also have a couple of young adult novels to read in preparation for some festival panels, which is always a pleasure.
There are plenty of other books in my to-read pile, and I’ll choose according to the whim of the moment, revelling (rebelling?) in my licence to read for as long as it lasts. What a privilege it is to have unread books lining my shelves, books that vibrate with potential, waiting until the time is right. What a pleasure it is to read, to live another’s life, however dirty or sad or hopeful or magical. Like everyone else, I wish there were more hours in my days, more days in my life, to read. I wish I had time to read the classics. I wish I remembered more of what I read. But I’ll do my best, and let the words find me; become me.
AJ Betts is a Perth-based author, teacher, and speaker. Her third novel, Zac & Mia, won the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize for young adult fiction (the Ethel Turner Prize), the 2014 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, and the 2012 Text Prize. Her other novels are Shutterspeed and Wavelength.
10 Sep 14 at 17:00
I love the way you write, AJ. You convey your joy and intelligence through it. – Emily