I was watching a news report about all of the people stuck on cruise ships as a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus and while I was mainly sympathetic towards those whose holidays had been ruined and lives were put on hold while they were locked in their cabins, I also felt a twinge of something else. I wondered, did that mean that they got to spend the whole time in bed? Forced to have no contact with other humans? Hmmm, that would be quite nice for a week or two, I thought, before snapping out of it and reminding myself that it would actually be horrible. Unless, of course, they had a huge pile of books with them …
I blame What Katy Did, for this strange response to what is clearly a terrible situation. I read the book, which told of a young girl who had an accident and was confined to her bed for months, in those formative mid-childhood years, and loved it. I can’t even remember exactly what happened, but I do recall a girl whose exciting and imaginative life went on, but from the comfort of her bed. She was brave and resilient, and all in a comfortable recline. It left quite an impression on me.
Thinking about the cruise ship wasn’t the first time I’ve realised that the book by Susan Coolidge had warped my thinking. A couple of years ago, I was told in hushed tones about a young mother being forced to take bed rest for months in the lead up to the birth of her second child. Wow, I thought, that would be nice. Even the prospect of having an ‘incompetent uterus’ that led to the extreme measure, and the unappealing prospect a shared hospital room, didn’t deter me from feeling a tiny bit jealous. I imagined all of the books that I could read, and all of the television shows I could watch, in that time. A valid excuse not to cook, clean, exercise, shower – what’s not to like about that?
Again, Katy was to blame for this warped response.
It’s strange how books can romanticise some of the most unromantic, uncomfortable and, realistically, awful situations.
It also happened when I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while I was at university. Suddenly, those grim, rundown motels that you pass when you drive through wastelands on the outskirts of cities seemed to be imbued with a seedy glamour.
In my mind, they changed from being places where I would not trust the locks or the cleanliness of the sheets, to places of endless possibilities. They had, after all, been sanctified in a literary classic. (Obviously, a night spent in one of these establishments, staring at a mouldy ceiling and jumping at every rattle of the flimsy security door, would quickly remove any mistaken sense of glamour or romance.)
This effect might have been behind Kylie Jenner’s decision to hold a soiree in the style of The Handmaid’s Tale, where partygoers dressed in white bonnets and maroon gowns and capes. It didn’t escape the attention of critics that the book was about the very unglamorous theme of the cruel and often violent subjugation of women. But I’m with Kylie – somehow books create glamour when there is none.
Like visual artists, writers can help readers see places, situations and people through new eyes, bringing beauty to something that might previously have been considered barren, and casting a rosie hue even on a cruising disaster.
They can bestow beauty on unlikely settings – in The Dry, it was a struggling farming community where a family was murdered. Here, somehow, the striking beauty of the place shone through, despite the action in the foreground.
Similarly, in The Choke, a desperately sad story of a neglected child who was living in poverty in the bush, the setting on the banks of the Murray River maintained its beauty. In many ways, that beauty contrasted the awfulness of the situation the girl was in, and offered her the little comfort that was available to her.
And perhaps there is also a sense of nostalgia involved; readers remember a book fondly, and the intense feelings and enjoyment it evoked. That enjoyment colours the reality of the setting or the circumstances, however tawdry, brutal or boring.
With this in mind, I’m sure my husband will be buying me books about camping next, hoping to make the idea of drop toilets and burnt sausages a little more appealing.