Having a baby recently has caused me to read in a different way. Not in a metaphysical sense—I don’t think I can claim any great new insights or sensitivities as a result of motherhood—but in a purely physical way, my reading has been transformed. These days, the only chance I get to read is while breastfeeding, and I’ve not yet mastered doing that with a paper book in hand, so my reading for the last seven months has been limited to e-books, read one-handed on my phone (largely in the chair pictured, the comfiest one for feeding).
I’ve just started re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is a revelation every time. McCarthy is a flawed writer; his depictions of female characters are often troubling (or simply absent), and his baroque language sometimes reaches absurd levels of portentousness and convolution. Despite these issues, he is, I think, one of the great contemporary novelists, and certainly one of my favourites. I read him with that double-edged feeling that plagues writers when reading the greats: admiration (you can do that with language!) and despair (but everyone else, including me, might as well give up writing immediately, because McCarthy is just so good!). Blood Meridian’s ‘the judge’, the monstrous, mysterious polymath, is one of fiction’s genuinely terrifying figures. The final lines of the novel have are the raw material of many of my nightmares: ‘He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favourite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.’
Given that I suffer from nightmares, and hate horror films, it always baffles my husband that crime fiction remains one of my great pleasures. I’ve just finished Jo Nesbo’s latest Harry Hole novel, Police. It lags a bit at the start, until the delayed entry of the charismatic Hole, but then races along nicely, with a tricksy and satisfying final scene. I’ve been really gripped by the Hole series, though much like the serial killers that it describes, it seems to have escalated in violence (though it never reaches the apocalyptic extremes of Blood Meridian).
I also recently enjoyed Poppy Gee’s Bay of Fires. It was marketed as a crime novel, but I found the crime elements the least convincing aspects of the book. The novel does, however, provide some thoughtful psychological portraits, and a wonderfully authentic depiction of coastal Tasmanian life. Although I now live in London, I grew up in Tasmania, and the details in Gee’s novel rang absolutely true: the shacks with faded Ken Done curtains; tracks through the dunes to the beach; eskies and fishing reels.
Because we’re currently visiting Tasmania, I’m revisiting Margaret Scott’s Collected Poems. In particular, I’ve been savouring ‘In Tasmania.’ I teach this poem to my poetry students in Chester when we’re examining the role of place in poetry, so I spend some time with this poem every year, in England—but it’s a notably different experience to read it again on its home turf. Its final lines, in their rhythmic brutality, evoke so much about the unforgiving nature of Australian landscape and history:
There are no seasons here. Only no end
of days which make of time a beating drum,
calling some ageless, ruthless brute to come
in nightmare from a wilderness of waves
and stalk this place of unremembered graves.
The cover of Scott’s collected poems is a painting of Fortescue Bay by Paul Boam, an artist born and raised in England but moved to Tasmania in his mid-twenties, about the same age that I moved from Australia to England. Reading Scott’s poetry this week, I’ve been thinking of another Paul Boam painting: his image of the Taroona cliffs, which hangs in our living room in London (the bottom half of it is visible in the photo). It was a wedding present from my parents, and hangs above our couch like a portal between Tasmania and England, and between the two decisive stages of my life.
I’ve just finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the final novel in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. This is young adult fantasy at its best. I didn’t particularly enjoy the contemporary, ‘real world’ elements of the books (I found myself irritated by the teen-speak, which felt a bit mannered) but as soon as the book stepped into the fantastical otherworld of Eretz, I was utterly hooked. Taylor writes lyrically and with skill, and the story is unashamedly romantic. The ending of the finale was perhaps slightly rushed, but it’s still a luscious book. The trilogy is like a hyper-lyrical version of Pullman’s Dark Materials novels—perhaps not as complex, but with interesting things to say about faith, and a rollicking good story. I think it’s a series I’ll return to.
Because my reading is currently limited to half-hour chunks while breastfeeding, I’ve found myself reading fewer novels, and more blogs and online articles. The most recent one to make an impression is Gene Weingarten’s ‘Fatal Distraction’. This article won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and I can see why. It’s a fascinating exploration of a macabre topic: the phenomenon of otherwise devoted and diligent parents who accidentally leave their children to die in hot cars. I’ve felt torn about this article—on the one hand, I want to recommend it to everyone I know, because it’s an exemplary piece of writing: sensitive, engaging and terribly moving. On the other hand, the material is so heartbreaking, and some of the details so ghastly, that I’m not sure I actually want to inflict them upon my friends. As McCarthy writes in The Road (one of my all-time favourite novels): ‘Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.’
The other dramatic change to my reading since the baby’s arrival is that I now spend a lot of time reading children’s books. My son loves Lynley Dodd’s various Hairy Maclary books, and so do I. Dodd’s skill with rhyme and rhythm means that her books are a pleasure to read out loud, even for the hundredth or two hundredth time. One of the most reliable methods of inducing a smile from my baby remains Dodd’s masterfully phonetic rendition of an angry cat’s hiss: ‘EEEEEEOWWWFFTZ!’
I’d forgotten about the element of darkness present in the best children’s books. Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree is a truly bleak exploration of depression and despair, brilliantly evoked by the illustrations, and offering a glimpse of hope in only the final two pages. Best of all is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The wild things’ declaration that ‘we’ll eat you up—we love you so’ seems as profound a depiction of the nature of love as I could hope for.
Francesca Haig is an author and academic. Her poetry is widely published, and her novel The Fire Sermon (the first in a trilogy) will be published in 2015 by Harper Voyager (UK) and Simon & Schuster (US), and is being translated into more than twenty languages. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Chester.