Three Thin Books

I'm going to talk about these three books together because I read them all at the same time, they are all very short, and weirdly, they ended up sharing some of the same themes.

Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall by Gabrielle Carey is a meditation on reading, focusing on the intimate relationship between reader and writer. It turns out that Ivan Southall, though he was an inspiration to many young readers and made a point of replying thoughtfully to every piece of fan mail he received, was a bit of a prick to his own family and children and not really a very nice human being. Carey, who adored his books as a child, wrestles with this contradiction and finds her attitude to his work tainted by what she learns about his life -- with fresh eyes, she sees misogyny in his female characters, clunky writing, and simplistic, bullying adult characters, although Southall surely gained his insight into the demands of traditional masculinity and feelings of abandonment from his own sad life history. Ultimately Carey wonders if the intense and intimate relationship between writer and reader can become a substitute for messier real-life relationships -- she's convinced that Southall found solace in writing to and for his young readers, and she also suspects that she herself retreated into books as an escape from reality. I'm not sure how much I agree with this thesis, though there may be some truth in it.

In Sister of the Angels, a Christmas fable by Elizabeth Goudge, featuring the same cast of characters as City of Bells and Henrietta's House, a similar question is raised: who is the 'real' person, the artist who creates wonderful images, or the flawed human being who has sinned? I'm not sure this question even makes any sense, what does 'real' mean anyway, and perhaps we have to accept that humans can be both creators of great art and despicable people at the same time? But because this is Goudge, this is a story of redemption, repentance and rebirth into a new life through the power of creation, which might work for the character of Nicolas Broadbent the artist, but perhaps it's too late for Ivan Southall.

Finally, the adult novel Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, which my husband picked up for me in a street library because we'd watched the recent movie adaptation -- I have to say the book was better than the film! Honestly it did seem to me like a very male idea to invent this 1920s maidservant wandering naked around the empty mansion (while we watch her) -- it didn't sound particularly comfortable to me! But the crossover point with the other two books was the the maidservant character, Jane, who later becomes a writer, falls in love with the works of Joseph Conrad in the same way that Gabrielle Carey fell in love with Ivan Southall's book, and so we came full circle. Mothering Sunday is also an exploration of the intersection of fiction and reality, and the invention and re-invention of the self.

I suppose the more I read, the more likely it is that I'll pick out points of similarity, but I really wasn't expecting these three very different books to each approach this topic from differing angles. Synchronicity!

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