I skipped to the back of Marina Chapman’s The Girl with No Name to count how many pages were left. As I released my hold of the final pages, a scrap of paper slipped out, and fluttered into my dressing-gowned lap. It read:
I’d like 2 read this @ some point! ♥
No name. I put my book down—a rare tangential gesture at this point in the story—to study the handwriting. Each letter, heavily double-drawn, stood alone and slanted to the right, while the baseline was as straight as those in the book. It didn’t belong to any of my housemates. I was quite certain I could recognise their distinctive aptitudes for penmanship. And anyway, two of them had recommended the book—as a ‘must read’.
My brunch companions of the previous day, on the other hand, had collectively condemned the book—based on my sketchy account of Marina’s experience of being raised by monkeys in a Colombian jungle—as a ‘fanciful tale borne out of child abuse’. I ruled them out. The love heart, I conceded, at the risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes, lent itself to the note-writing sign-off of a woman. I managed to contain my speculations over the note, for as long as it took to finish the book.
Marina—a name she chose in her late teens—tells a story of abandonment and isolation so astonishing that it is easy to become cynical. However, the bizarre detail made it impossible for me to simply reject her experiences—of abandonment in the jungle, of living with a family of monkeys, and of poverty and abuse in the streets, brothels and convents of Cúcuta and, finally, of adoption by a family in Bogotá—as mere fantasy. Yet I do wonder, as I do for every memoir, where imagination and embellishment arise and reality fades. But perhaps even more so for this story, as it was authored by a ghostwriter, Lynne Barrett-Lee. That said, it was certainly entertaining, and I have enjoyed the conversations surrounding memory, memoir and reliability, the book stimulated.
Books are not only things to read and discuss, they can also be places to lose and find physical objects. The things I have found in books have added further dimensions to my experience of reading.
While I was living in Amsterdam, my father sent over a care-package consisting of a tube of vegemite and a small pile of carefully selected books. One of them was Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. On opening it, I discovered a bookmark that I must have made for my father in the early 90s. Next to an abstract impression of a fairy I had written, in thick, green texta: to daddy, do you like the poppy fairy? It was drawn on a plastic sheet that, when placed in the oven, shrinks down to the size of a fingernail. This piece hadn’t been baked—probably because my father was reading Levi’s memoir and was in need of a bookmark.
As I became immersed in the dehumanisation that Levi detailed, I also imagined my father, in our small Brunswick cottage, with two indefatigable children dragging his attention away every few pages. The bookmark acted as a time capsule: I knew my father’s eyes had probably been the last person to turn these pages, two decades before.
The things you find while re-reading books, can act as a time machine: connecting you with your own memories, perhaps long forgotten. I recently picked up my copy of Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. I found the stub of my 2011 boarding pass from Cairo to Budapest, which brought back a stampede of surreal memories: the army tanks and burning buildings; the short-lived relief I felt arriving at the terminal only to find myself in a swarm of families desperate to leave; the anxious minutes being shoved by determined fathers trying to collect boarding passes for their families; and, finally, the guilty elation I shared with the few passengers who had managed to get on a plane. And Keret had been in my hand the whole time. The stub, the bookmark, brought me back to the precise moment with its emotions and sensations, in which I was holding that book. I don’t know why I was holding the book all that time. It was ambitious of me to think I’d be able to calm myself down enough to read. Perhaps holding the book was some sort of comfort.
Finding things within books has become such a pleasure that I now deliberately leave my bookmarks tucked tightly into the binding. In Michel Faber’s Under the Skin I’ve left the ticket to Jonathan Glazer’s eponymous film. I saw the film one evening at the Nova, and seriously considered walking out, bored and irritated by this thing that had been labelled a ‘masterpiece’. I couldn’t comprehend the director’s motives—having been told that the novel was an argument for vegetarianism—and found its repetitious tendency insipid. No explanation of a back-story was presented, and very few clues were provided to lead the viewer to appreciate the film’s metaphor and message, if it even had one. I had to buy the novel, and so, fresh from the cinema, I crossed the road and purchased a copy. I had to know what Glazer was reacting to, and I had to know what Faber had imagined.
Having read the book, I now have a great appreciation for the film and its strong theme of alienation; its representation of the protagonist, Isserley’s repetitive, mundane daily routine; its POV camera angles and the use of untrained actors, that created an air of vapid amateurism. These were inspired decisions by Glazer, and reflected Isserley’s state accurately and artistically. The novel provided the detail that I craved in the film, and opened my eyes and mind to the cinematic choices that I would not have appreciated otherwise. I came to appreciate the artworks as creations in their own rights.
Leaving the ticket stub inside the book will remind me or anyone else who picks up this copy, of the intimacy and artistic independence of both these works that ought to be enjoyed alongside one another.
The things moving around the world within books, connecting people with people, or individuals with their former selves and forgotten memories, is demonstrative of the social and cultural connection that literature and reading facilitates. This added layer of mystery and engagement is enough to keep me away from ebooks for a while longer. And for whoever left the note in The Girl with No Name, I’ve added a slim treasure for you to find…
A recent intern at Meanjin, Sophie Lloyd is completing a postgraduate degree in Editing and Communications. She sometimes writes for SensaNostra, an online lifestyle journal based in Europe.
01 Sep 14 at 16:13
Thanks, Sophie, for these thoughts and the reminder of the quiet treasures sometimes left inside books. I like to leave a photo inside a book every now and again, but even that is getting to be difficult now that photos are mostly kept inside mobile phones.
03 Sep 14 at 12:07
Your piece made me think of all of the airline tickets I have left in books during my travels to and from Tasmania. I guess people usually say that books take us places, but it is good to remember that we take books places too. Like every good travel companion, a book will always be there to relive the experience with. Thank you for reminding me of that.