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Books offer shades of grey … and a far brighter palette

In a recent podcast, author and the enviably-titled Director of Books at Booktopia, John Purcell, spoke about the way books helped him see life in colour, rather than in black and white. The line struck on a truth about the role that literature can play in the lives of readers, and how books can change their view of the world.

It seemed particularly relevant as I read Toni Morrison’s extraordinary Beloved, a story about love, loss and retribution, set in mid-1800s Kentucky. The setting of the book is far removed from regional Australia in 2019, yet many of its themes resounded strongly with me, particularly that of motherhood. Morrison’s account of Sethe’s love for her children in the most awful of conditions, was haunting, and reminded me of the strong and rare love a mother has for her children.

In Beloved, Morrison wrote of the pain of resisting the urge to love her children too much, given the likelihood that the ‘little men’ who had purchased them as slaves could harm them.

“Little men, some of them, big men too, each could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire – well now, that was freedom.”

Each time I put down Beloved, I wanted to hold my children close, and I appreciated more acutely the great privilege of motherhood, particularly in a time and place with such freedom. Rather than spend the days at home looking at my children through the black and white lens of cleaning up after, bathing and cooking for my children, I saw them through the lens of Morrison’s words, in vivid colour.

Books can also make readers more aware of the strength and nature of romantic love, reminding them that the extraordinary exists within the ordinary.

In books like The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary and so many great literary love stories, readers are reminded of the strength and wonder of love, whether it is requited or even possible. In the busyness and distraction of the daily rush, these love stories are a reminder of the colour of romantic love and yearning.

It is not just human relationships to which literature can bring colour. Places can also be transformed through the lens of books, becoming imbued with mystery, romance, beauty, and wonder.

Big cities can become romantic, full of opportunity and discovery, as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; they can become complex, divided, a little ridiculous, and multilayered, as in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities; they can become cold, impenetrable, and uninviting, as in The Long Road Home.

Recent crime novels such as The Dry, Wimmera and Resurrection Bay have drawn on the barrenness of rural Australia, highlighting its eeriness as well as its beauty. I wonder how many Australians have looked at their hometowns with which they were so familiar differently since reading such books.

History and current affairs can also be made vivid through a literary lens. While news stories and text books might offer one version of the big events of today or yesterday, books take the reader deeper into the story, touching it with colour, personality and life. Again, Beloved, along with books like Twelve Years a Slave and The Underground Railroad evoke a time of slavery that illustrates the horror of such a system in a way that is almost visceral.

In Primo Levi’s writing, along with more recent books such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the reader moves with the writer into the Concentration Camps endured during World War II. It seems unlikely to me that neo Nazis or Holocaust deniers could behave in such a way if they understood the experience of prisoners in such intense colour.

Similarly, it would be difficult to support war of any kind after reading such accounts of World War I or II as in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

More recently, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire reveals the terrible reality of a family touched by terrorism in its interior, and creates in the reader empathy, where beforehand there might have been little for such a character. When a boy at the centre of the novel ignorantly pursues a path into ISIS, the loss and desire to see him return felt by his sisters is unexpected and persuasive. I wonder whether readers of this book might have seen this year’s case of the returning ISIS wife differently if they had immersed themselves in the story of Aneeka and Isma.

Like Purcell, I love how literature helps me see the things I know so well in an entirely different light, giving my love a brighter hue, helping me appreciate the many shades of the landscape and changing my understanding of the past from black and white to vivid colour.

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