Diving in

I’ve just read two books in two days. I haven’t done this for a long time. I haven’t felt that unforgiving impulse to just drop into the words and story and let everything else hang loose. I realise, living in a house where I am the only reader of fiction, that the dive under the water, that glorious feeling of submersion as the waters close over my head, is actually quite a harsh withdrawal; can be seen as almost an act of aggression. What made this happen? Kay came back from holiday with three books and a pile of Guardians that she brought over to me. I read the papers, fast and selectively in the morning and at the end started to leaf through the first book.
‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson. It pulled me in from the first sentence. On the cover a snapshot– a red headed little girl with narrowed eyes and swollen lids – looks out over the sand, on the back cover a kindly man crouches beside her. Inside the story that child smoulders and observes, bites the lip and straightens her shoulders. Nothing is going to make her weep. It is a devastating book at the level of human experience; the tragic experience of a defenceless little girl at the mercy of an enormous mountain of a woman who has no human milk of kindness flowing through her. On the other hand though – it is a book about how resistance and language can shore up the ruins, how things can be overcome. It is possible to sing when locked in the coal shed, to make up stories sitting on the cold step locked out of the house. Out of this furnace has come the transmuted words, the hammered prose, the savage eye and the cold analysis that has made Jeanette Winterson such a celebrated writer.
I remember loving ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ when it came out, though I never saw the film. It was such a robust story, it had its touches of comfort and compassion – Elsie, the church, the moments of family unity – and it was funny and irreverent and fierce. Much of the content of this book relates to early childhood too but this is a bleak account, a wrung-out story devoid of comfort. Jeanette is not the only loser. Here as I read the story of the monstrous Mrs. Winterson I also find myself sad for her, for her angers and oblique angles, for her inability to compromise, her inability to relate to the misery of the child. I think of the feeling that I have for an animal – a kitten or bedraggled small dog who is unloved and ill-treated. For the wince that occurs when I see a mother slap a toddler, drag a reluctant screaming child, shout abuse into a quivering face – although every mother has known that moment where you are only a step away from such actions too. In her inhuman stance there is a human streak that demands recognition – and Winterson gives that recognition in her reflection on happenings.
This book is funny too; has its raw wincing moments of humour. It is also reflective and analytic about the process of adoption, the loss of mother, the size of the gap between what might have been and what is. This makes the whole story resonate and images, words, sentences have been running through my head all day.
What I read next also had its bleak and sad moments but in a more removed way. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ is set partly in America and partly in India. The American setting contains paler, more cameo-like stories, precise men, frustrated women who move carefully through an unaccustomed culture. They come to terms, or not, with the divide between themselves and the self they have been or could have been in India.
The stories that are set in India are more sharply defined; something hard and angular in their surfaces. They are set in slums, up steps that require endless cleaning, in dusty landscapes. They contain both humane and harsh realities. The women who survive on the margins, who fade gradually or who unexpectedly revive and buck the system; the men with their burdens of family and responsibility whose day dreams are abruptly shattered by sudden insights into situations that were never going to include them.
After reading this book I can’t shake off my own  memory of the old, deaf bible woman in Andrha Pradesh, in hospital where they wanted to amputate her leg. My friend Charles insisted that I ‘ransom her’ when I arrived and we went to the hospital before visiting his house. Amputation was cheaper than treatment and he had insisted that they waited until I arrived before doing the operation. ‘I can’t hear, what would I have done if I also couldn’t walk?’ she said.
Charles and his wife Joyoti collected waifs and strays, orphans and small girls who were severely under nourished, children unable to stay on at school because their family could not support them any longer. I stayed in his little house where the children slept in rows on the dining room floor, where we sat on the floor in a circle to eat. Once in a while, when he knew I was coming, he hired a Land Rover and we took all of them to the beach to play on the sand, paddle in the blue sea and eat lemon rice and chicken from the huge bucket we carried with us, using banana leaves for plates.
In India, if you are open to what you see, the marginal, strong and vividly portrayed people of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are there all around you. I was carried away into the noise, the smells, the chaos and jostling poverty of down-town India. Beautiful, restrained and carefully crafted writing and true, clear stories that truly reflect several parts of Indian life both at home and abroad.
How do I feel after my reading? Well I need to read both books again – coming up for air this time, not just diving in and gulping down. I want to read both of them slowly for the language, the metaphors, the thinking behind the scenery; not just to be gripped and pulled along by the story. All sorts of pictures, words, bits of India have been jostling in my head during the day. I want to sit down and write about them tonight. I think about my own experiences and how I might also write about that. Books are so powerful, writers need them – they are like food and drink, they are philosophy and sophistry, they are funny, endearing, frightening and make us weep all by turn.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Diving in

  1. Reader/writer – two sides of the coin. Your idea that to bury yourself in a book can be seen as an act of aggression startled me, but I realise the truth of it. Fortunately, we are both readers!

    From the way you describe the Winterton book, it is an autobiography rather than fiction. Or have I got that wrong?

  2. 6vicky7

    loved this Brigid. Sometimes I feel reading fiction is a bit transgressive – although I read lots of biography and memoir … Yes, a book is the most extraordinarily perfect invention! x

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