I have a library fantasy in which my own home boasts one. A really big one. A really big and comfortable and atmospheric one. I have a vaulted ceiling and mahogany shelves and Chesterfields and French doors and worn Huon Pine ladders on runners that zip from one end of my cavernous library to the other with a gentle brrrrrrr. There’s an Edwardian decanter and finely etched crystal-ware atop a delicate silver tray, and in winter, the open fireplace sends a crackle and glow through the room that is as gently soporific as it is deeply hypnotic. There’s a French club chair that is my worn favourite, perfectly placed to capture the ever-changing views outside as well as the settled character within. There’s my favourite artwork hung about its walls, as well as an antiquarian map or two of places I have been. There is a simple but large writing desk, and on a raised pedestal in one corner rests a sculpture – the work itself changing periodically, because in my fantasy, my private collection is vast. And all around me are my books, properly displayed, lovingly arranged. This, I think to myself as I survey my especial domain, is my favourite room in the entire world.
The reality is somewhat different. My bookshelves are sagging. I have unsightly stacks of books crowded atop what used to be orderly rows. My office – the biggest room in the apartment – increasingly feels cramped, dwarfed by the sheer volume of text. By my bed lies a pile that stopped me dead a few days ago, when I realised it looks just like one of the many unread towers of books with which Nana has littered her living room to the point of potential hazard. Oh my god, I thought, this looks like one of Nana’s. It was a chilling glimpse into my possibly demented future, but for now at least I am getting through these tomes, and the pile is losing its stalagmite character as time goes on. Over the break I read Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, which was so fascinating a portrait of modern Australia as well as being rather unsettling. As a ‘skip’ myself (white Australian, totally Anglo, nothing remotely ethnically interesting going on there, I’m afraid), it was equal parts confronting and illuminating to read how the characters of different ethnic backgrounds perceive people like me. I am so locked out of their experience – I will never be Greek Australian, for instance, or Vietnamese Australian, or Lebanese Australian or anything other than what I am, so I’ll never know firsthand what that experience is like. I’ll never be the ‘wog’ or the ‘chink’ or the ‘mussie’ or any of these pejoratives – as a white Australian, I’ve never been the Other in that sense. I’ve experienced plenty – plenty – of prejudice as a woman, though, so I found myself reacting to some of Tsiolkas’s characters really strongly. “Hey,” I wanted to say, “we have more in common than you think!” But I’d say that more than anything, the different portrayals made me very wistful for all of these cultures that aren’t my own. They seemed lucky to me, so lucky to have all those extra layers of life and family and ritual that we skips don’t have. It’s a fascinating book by a great contemporary Australian writer.
Then I read Charlotte Wood’s The Children. You may remember Charlotte so graciously gave of her time and experience towards the end of last year, agreeing to have a coffee with me to share a little of what she knows about plotting (one of my weakest points). And it was whilst I was trying to describe my ms to her that I had my eureka moment about my arc, so I feel utterly indebted to Charlotte even though she insists she did nothing but hear me out. Not true. She drew me out, drew it out, and there’s a big difference. She helped coax my story out into the light where I could, at long last, see it clearly. Anyway, buying and reading her latest novel is the least I can do to repay her – I’m also going to get hold of her earlier works – Pieces of a Girl and The Submerged Cathedral – just for good measure. And reading The Children after listening to Charlotte talking about how the story came together was just thrilling. I had to review a ‘family drama’ – Life in Seven Mistakes – last year for one of the magazines I write for, and whilst ostensibly it and Charlotte’s story have a number of points in common, Charlotte’s is simply a far superior work of art. Far, far superior. Everything that really shat and irked me about Susan Johnson’s book, most especially its unforgivably mawkish resolution, Charlotte managed to avoid in The Children, which is actually a pretty tense, psychologically astute work. Not only that, but her attention to the minutiae of ordinary Australian life is often heartbreaking. Finally, one of the main characters is a foreign correspondent, and Charlotte’s depiction of this woman’s experience bears an uncanny resemblance to that of my beloved Egyptian friend S, an Associated Press journalist who’s done plenty of time (too much, perhaps) in Gaza and other sites of terror and carnage. What a pleasure and privilege to have met Charlotte and talked books with her – I can’t wait to read where else she’s been, and see where else she goes.
This is why I need my library. How else do I properly honour all these books?