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If only we knew each other the way we know our favourite book characters

I didn’t really think about Bob Hawke much before he died. I was a young child when he was prime minister, and I had an impression of him as a larrikin with an unmistakeable hairstyle and a private life that seemed to be  a little too public.

But since he died, I have started to see a different side to Australia’s 23rd prime minister. In the past few weeks, his colleagues and friends have spoken of him with such fondness as a man of ideals who spoke the truth and lived with joy that it is hard to continue to consider him in the one dimension that I did beforehand.

It made me realise how often it is that we only really know the best of someone, their large or small achievements, and how well they are loved, after they have died. While beforehand, they might have been another acquaintance or friend, it is when you attend a funeral and hear a eulogy that it is possible to know them properly, perhaps as they would like to have been known.

It is only then that we see them through the eyes of those who loved them most, and come to an understanding of why they were so well loved; why their partner chose them among the many other fish in the sea, about the little daily acts of love they carried out for their children, and of their many moments of remembered kindness and grace.

It is an intimacy that comes late in life, but is achieved far earlier in literature, when the reader comes to know characters completely within a few hundred pages. It is one of the things I love about reading, that books not only let me see the truths of characters who are like me, and who live similar lives – books like Normal People and Liane Moriarty’s book reveal familiar social and emotional truths – but also, of those whose lives are different to my own.

Often, writers expose the beauty of those who are different in some way, who society rejects, by enabling them to see their inner lives. In Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens wrote of a ‘Swamp Girl’ named Kya, whose parents abandoned her to abject poverty in swampland on the fringes of a US town. It is hard for the reader not to be on Kya’s side as she struggles to survive on her own, and as she faces the prejudices of the townspeople. If only they understood her backstory.

Similarly, in The Choke, Sofie Laguna wrote about a girl with dyslexia, who lived a lonely and traumatic life in a shack on the Murray with her grandfather, and was occasionally visited by a violent and destructive father. Few of her neighbours, teachers or classmates sympathised with her situation, unlike the reader who knows of her inner life and struggles.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeywell wrote with affection of a socially inept and troubled woman who remains friendless for most of her life, until one character sees beyond her initial strangeness.

And in Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf wrote about an elderly people who were not caricatures or invisible, but complex and fully formed people, although treated with distain or condescension even by family members.

Writer E.M. Forster explored the idea that it is impossible for people to understand or truly know each other outside fiction:

“In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know eaczzzzzzzzh other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.”

While it might be appealing to know those around us as well as we know and understand characters in fiction, whose flaws and struggles are transparent and so, can be understood and forgiven, there is a certain practicality in knowing people just slightly, or in only really knowing a certain few who are the closest, whether parents, partners or the closest of friends. There are only so many people who we have the capacity to love, or even to know, well.

But in a book review in The Age on the weekend, Pat Sheil quoted a county coroner in Shanksville, where a plane crashed into a disused coal mine on 9/11 as saying, ‘‘You’ve got to remember that everyone that dies, that’s somebody’s favourite guy, whether it’s a prisoner or the richest guy in town or somebody else.’’

Eulogies and literature offer reminders of the complexity and individuality of people we know slightly and see in one dimension. If only we could always recognise each other as someone’s favourite guy, even if they’re not our own.

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