I have found lockdown wonderful for reading. Somehow the pace of life for us over 70s, encouraged to sit the pandemic out from the comfort of our sofas, has seemed more measured than normal. There has been time to savour things more, rather than be continually hurrying from one thing to the next. And I have found this particularly so with reading, where I tend to rush from one book to another, in order to catch up with what everyone else has been reading.
The first book of the pandemic was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is the story behind the last female execution in Iceland, set in the 1830s. You can feel the ever-present cold and rain in the prose, not just of the environment but of the story. It is a slow burn, in that narrative and dialogue covering just a short time gradually reveal a complex and harrowing back story of several years. The tempo of the book is constant, encouraging the reader to move on from chapter to chapter, wondering what will be revealed next. At the end there is a feeling that the full story has been told, and that, despite the verdict and punishment, the culprit’s actions are vindicated.
The second book of the pandemic was Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak. This book would have been discarded in normal times. The opening chapters are scenes from a highly dysfunctional family – a horrible environment and a set of loathsome characters. I asked myself why I was reading such dreadful material, and got very close to moving on to the next book. However, something held me, and I determined that I would read to page 100 (of 580). At that point, if things had not improved, I would then put the book away. It was a close run thing. On page 98 there is the hint of some humanity in two of the main characters. I persisted and was rewarded with a remarkable tale, again revealing a harrowing back story, but in this case also moving to a satisfactory conclusion with animosities resolved to create a truly functional family.
The third book of the pandemic is the most intriguing. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a lovely tale of the concierge in a block of Parisian apartments who unexpectedly finds love – and her real self –in late middle age. The book is so well written – and translated – that from about half way through I found myself savouring it as I might a delicious meal, the sort where you enjoy the taste of one mouthful for as long as possible before taking another. So I would read just one chapter at a time and then put the book down to share and reflect on the heroine’s triumphs and trials before picking it up later to read the next chapter.
I just hope that once things are back to normal that I can maintain a more measured way of reading. It may mean reading fewer books, but it will mean appreciating them more.