A rather wonderful thing happened on Friday morning. I was lounging around in bed, awake, but not yet functional, when The Girl came in, snuggled up next to me under the quilt and said ‘Mum? Something amazing has just happened. I finished my book!’
Her first book, read alone, with no help from a grown up. She’s read the appalling Biff, Chip & Bollocks ones at school, Well Loved Tales at home with me, comics, picture books, that kind of thing. But she’s never sat down with a paperback book with over 100 pages, and read it, for pleasure. Until this week.
So we cuddled, and I told her I was proud of her, and how important it is to read, and how much joy it can bring you. I told her about my first book too. I can still remember the perfect flashbulb memory of it, sitting in my green flowery sundress, on the steps of a Nissen hut on the edge of a field in Fenland, August 1985. I can recall how engrossed I was in the story, and how, having finished it, I closed the book with a snap, coming back to earth, having made the most profound discovery of what reading can be, and how it can take you to places you would never visit. That perfect mindgasm of being somewhere you’ll never go, with people you’ll never meet, experiencing things you’ll never do.
Yeah, I know, Enid Blyton. We all have to start somewhere. And that was the book that kicked it all off. I know she was a racist, nasty, stuck up cow who didn’t like children very much, but I am grateful to her. A while back though, I had reason to curse her for turning me into a bookworm airhead. I don’t know if you’ve seen the thing doing the rounds on facebook lately, where you have to list your top ten best/most memorable books? I was nominated for it, and oh my god, the anguish it caused was unbelievable. There were three or four non-negotiable books that held their place. But the others… It nearly destroyed me. Seriously. Trying to decide between du Maurier and Conan Doyle, McEwan and Rendell, Pratchett and Nabokov. It was awful. Books got selected, deselected, loved again, then rejected. After twelve hours of this, I was SPENT. I could have come up with another twenty books, but I hardened my heart.
Typing up the list on facebook, I started to write ‘Lolita’ as my number ten, when out of nowhere, a book pinged into my head like the facebook messenger chat head (which I just LOVE. Something so satisfying about it). And with more certainty than about any other book, I changed book number ten.
It’s marketed as a children’s picture book. But it isn’t just for children. It’s for anyone. And everyone. I didn’t read it until I was 30. But it changed my way of thinking. The very first page hit me like a kick in the stomach and immediately flooded my face with tears, snot, and possibly some laboured and terrible gasping and droning sobs.
Deceptively simple words. But powerful ones. Because who hasn’t felt like that? Who hasn’t felt that they needed to cover over the sadness, in order to be liked? And to see it written down, to realise it’s not just you brought me more comfort than a fabric conditioner factory.
I managed to get through the rest of the book, wiping my nose on my sleeve as I went, seeing how my feelings were brought to life by short, sparse sentences, feeling the pure and unalloyed truth of the words and pictures, creating the most perfect storm of recognition, sorrow, and solace.
I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it. I could never accurately capture just how perfect the book is, how it tells you things you already know, but this time you believe, because it’s someone else telling you. That it’s ok to be sad. That sadness can be overwhelming. That you’re sad, not bad. That sadness can be like a mist that obscures and distorts. But there are happy times to come.
If you haven’t already, read this book. It will destroy you. It should destroy you. But at the same time, it is the most uplifting book I have ever read.
And candles. There must be candles.