More books, and the darker side of solitude

As will be obvious from my first post in this series, books (and fictions in particular) are important to me … to a very real extent, I am what I read. Today’s helping has no particular theme except that it brings another ragbag of book related ramblings.

Before moving on, let me share an unsolicited testimonial. After some time trying to acquire a digital copy of Zenna Henderson‘s The anything box (another of my teen influences) I found a reasonably priced copy (as opposed to many high-priced copies which I’d seen) courtesy of second hand dealer Marx Books in Lubbock, Texas. The words “courtesy of” are particularly appropriate here: John Marx, the proprietor, sent a personal email acknowledging my $5 order. Mr Marks is (unlike me) a real life Cliff Janeway and it shows. Impressed by book, despatch time, service and communication, I went back today for three more books (the site is very efficient, with an excellent search system to find exactly the book you want) … and received yet another personal email before the invoice, detailing exactly the condition of each book in my order and giving me the chance to cancel if I wasn’t happy with what I heard. I shall certainly be using Marx Books again

When I sang the praises of solitude, yesterday, in this series, I casually said that “Though I wouldn’t choose it, I could probably cope with solitude as a permanent state if I had to”. I was, of course, writing from the comfortable position of having that choice. I am, it has to be admitted, lucky enough to be able to play at solitude, and I have no doubt that I would see it in a very different light if it was enforced upon me. Even in wilderness, I am always a tourist – safe in the knowledge that can return to the safe bustle of city streets or tamed rural agricultural countryside whenever I like.

The difference is well depicted in a fictional setting by Ursula K Le Guin‘s Threshold (aka The beginning place), where solitude is used as a walkabout style metaphor for coming of age. The two young protagonists, both fleeing the constraints of home, seek solitude of different kinds in a timeless land which they discover on the other side of the “threshold” of the title. That solitude allows them to flourish and grow, though each resents the other’s presence. When the place makes demands of them, they find themselves adrift within it and without choice, at which point they not only must find strength in their togetherness but find the return to society their most desired goal.

What has prompted me to this line of thought is discussion of another book entirely: a novel which explores courage and endurance in the face of enforced solitude of a very different and claustrophobic kind.

One of the pleasures of blogging is the diversity of feedback, and especially that which comes as a surprise. Today I received two such despatches from the real. The first was from photographer Judith Acland, who tells me that she is starting Tray Chevalier’s Remarkable creatures on my recommendation. The second, from Jasmine Golledge, was a report from the middle of Emma Donoghue‘s novel Room, read on the basis of my post about it last year: “I’ve been unable to put down the book Room. I’m on page 277 already. Brilliantly written, compelling, heart wrenching – fantastic. Several parts have moved me to tears already, and it isn’t that often that a novel is able to do that. …. So far, excellent recommendation!”

That interim judgment was encouraging. It’s always a nerve wracking business, recommending a book and then waiting to see whether my opinion is shared by the person who has taken my enthusiasm on trust. And a recommendation placed out on the web in full public view is a hostage to fortune. I read Room on my brother’s recommendation, and was glad I had. My mother, who also read it on his recommendation, felt that it was exploitative: the novelist turning a profit on the real suffering of women such as Elisabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch or Jaycee Dugard (a point of view which I can understand and respect). My partner, an English literature specialist with whom I usually share a great deal of common ground in reading matter who  read it on my recommendation, left her copy behind in a Croatian hotel room by accident but without subsequent regret.

Jasmine, however, to my relief, wrote again later to confirm her approval. And since she did so in words which so perfectly encapsulate my own reactions, I’ll end by just quoting them instead of finding my own:

One of the things I loved about this book was the way it drew me in immediately, and I didn’t spot any obvious plot devices that jolt you out of the story and make you aware that you are reading. ( You know the type … where the hardened detective goes home to his lonely house and begins ruminating on his old happy married life before his wife was murdered and he turned to drink, all the while stroking a kitten he rescued from a mine-shaft…).

It was beautifully written, the story flowed naturally and, I felt, didn’t give into the “they escape, the bad guy gets punished, all live happily ever after” tale that most people want. It showed, in very simple but devastating ways, the continued impact in small ways that most people wouldn’t even consider. Jack has to unlearn almost everything he thought about the world, the very nature of reality. The worst and most brutal aspects of humanity, and also the very best. His mother is a hero, and yet attempted suicide at a time he needed her most. The nuances of the ongoing difficulties and complexities of that relationship, and what the boy will grow up having to adjust to and live with, is more disturbing and terrifying than the idea that a man could capture and imprison a woman for so many years. 

We hear those sorts of stories on the news all the time, we cry, we’re shocked, we get angry, and we maybe rant about how the abuser should be hung drawn and quartered or locked up for life. We argue about what kind of monster could do this to another human being, are they just evil, or did something in society or their own childhood make them that way, how did society/the police/the government not see what has happening and stop it. Then we mentally sigh and say, “well, they’re free now, and the bad guy has been punished” – and we move on with our lives. End of story. This novel blows that comforting allusion out of the water. It’s what I feel makes it shocking and disturbing, and yet also what I like about it. It challenged me to think about the minute ways the impact would continue to spread, like ripples on a pond.

-Felix


  • Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable creatures. 2009, London: Harper Collins. 9780007178377.
  • Emma Donoghue, Room. 2010, London: Picador. 9780330519021 (pbk)
  • Zenna Henderson, The anything box. 1966, London: Gollancz.
  • Ursula K Le Guin, Threshold. 1982, London: Granada, 0586054073 (pbk)
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