This one’s for my dad who knows that a good book can often temper life’s vast waves. For when I was fifteen and struggling to hold on to the rope that is passing time, he handed me a line, from The Go-Between:
‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.‘
And taking hold, I found within its pages an invitation to escape. A story.
After following her column in the FT Weekend for the past five years (Find it here, it’s beautiful), I recently started to read Susie Boyt’s intricate novel, The Small Hours and realising I was not escaping but reliving, I stopped at page 80, knowing that this was a book for a gentler time.
So I texted my father from Oman: Which book might get me through a moment of not knowing?
He consulted his shelves and offered Irish prose in emerald waters – Nora Webster. Something in it lifted my soul. The connection, perhaps, that literature brings, the drawing together of strangers.
Writing my own novel (after three months of doing anything but) and researching the Spain of the Civil War, has made me wonder what it was that General Franco and his ilk found in books to want to ban them. Maybe they knew that stories can stay inside forever, that once seen, the light on their pages does not easily disappear.
Earlier this week, the father of a girl I used to tutor emailed me.The daughter’s former enjoyment of reading had recently lukewarmed, he said.
“It’s not that she can’t do it, more a crisis of confidence. Are you still teaching?”
It may not be me she needs, I wanted to say, but the rekindling of a good novel. The kind of book whose written prose can somehow listen.
I racked my brain.
If you know teenagers or love books you’ll be aware that YA Literature is huge right now and it has been for a while (Read this).
That’s when I remembered The Go-Between.
Because, although the past may feel like a foreign place, a great book, from any era, can still change things, forever.
For what could make the despot quake and ban, but a story – safe raft of human endeavour, rope of hope that can be picked up again and again – well-furnished escape from oppression: the centre that can be re-found, reading.