The box of books I pack to take to the beach for our three-week summer camping trip is ambitious to say the least. It is ambitious in terms of time (and maybe content); the summers where I devoured up to twenty novels during our beachside hiatus are long gone. These days, reading time is snatched in precarious two-minute lots when one of the other parents has eyes on the kids in the water, or is attempted in the last drifting minutes before I give in to ocean-lulled sleep.
I pack for myself, for my family, and for the friends who frequent the same camping paradise we do. I take infinite pleasure in taking other campers to the ‘library shelf’ – books wedged in an old slab box between two car seats in the back of the Landcruiser. I pride myself on matching camper to book – perhaps a non-fiction, a classic, a new release I’m excited about. This year the box contained some of the books I’d recently read and loved and was eager to pass on: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, Holly Throsby’s Goodwood, Clem Ford’s Fight Like a Girl, Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins, Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog. Others I had been meaning to read for some time, and devoured in those stolen minutes on the sand and in the tent: Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were, Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and the more recent A Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley. It was a pleasure to read these three books outside – the lens of sea and sand, river and bush sharpening the focus on the wonderful depictions of the natural world in each novel.
The last of my summer books, Joan London’s Gilgamesh, moved me profoundly.
There are writers like London, like Georgia Blain, like Joan Didion, who I have only read recently and I can’t believe it took me so long to do so.
I came to Gilgamesh because of another fabulous work: Charlotte Wood’s compendium of interviews, The Writer’s Room. Every time I’ve dipped into the book, I’ve collected up new wisdoms from each writer. I read the interview with London while I was seated at small table in a window overlooking a gorgeous garden during a writers’ weekend recently. It was one of those wonderful writerly moments when what you are reading hums in tune with what you are writing.
Gilgamesh is the story of Edith, daughter, lover then mother, as she crosses from Australia to Europe in search of the father of her child, the shadows of the Second World War drawing in around her. I loved this book so much. Each word is so precise, so perfectly weighted. I oscillated between being traumatised at how good it is (I will never write this well, I might as well give up now), and feeling blessed and relieved to have read such a work.
While I was reading, there were passages that stuck in my chest and bloomed there:
He did know. He felt he was on the verge of knowing everything. He closed his eyes and for a moment he saw ‘the world’ as he called it, which for him was always a street at night in the old quarter of a city, the voices coming from the rooms, snatches of music, the smell of food, the soft, red, dangerous lights. One day he would go there and come to know it and write it all down
I went back and re-read Wood’s interview with London – the idea for Gilgamesh came from a dream. ‘I think it probably only happens once in your life,’ London remarks of the inexplicable gifting of the idea from her subconscious. She knew the dream was significant – the images of dark mountains, the feeling of leading a small child, the mysterious word ‘Gilgamesh’ – and she wanted to find out what its significance was.
Oh, to have such a dream.
But, while I wait, I’ll happily take my wisdom, and my inspiration, from the pages of other dreamers.
Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel Skylarking is based on the true story of Kate and Harriet, best friends growing up on a remote Australian cape in the 1880s, and the tragic event that befalls them.
Skylarking was in Readings bookstore’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2016 and longlisted for Debut Fiction in The Indie Book Awards 2017.