It occurred to me this week that I should finally exploit the time I spend reading as a way to curry my loved ones’ favour. The second and third books I’ll mention below are ones I have spent years avoiding, in part, as the Shawshank accusation goes, because I’m rather obtuse. The first, though, was Bridge to Terabithia (1977), by Katherine Paterson, the reading of which I set myself as homework this week in an attempt to stay current with my young cousin’s education.
Beyond a vague notion that a film had been recently released by that name, and maybe a sense that the cover was blue, I knew nothing about this book a week ago. My assumption was that a children’s book with a name like that must be set in a fantasy world, and I worried that a standalone novel of less than 200 pages could not possibly create and fill in a whole world outside our own. I needn’t have worried; Bridge to Terabithia is fantastic, and the title plays a wonderful trick.
Simply put, and it is a simple enough narrative, this is the story of a newborn friendship between a boy and a girl in American farm country. Jess (the boy) and Leslie (the girl) first meet in the opening pages, while Jess is busy preparing his body for the playground races that will soon prove him “the fastest kid in the fifth grade” (46). Leslie’s presence, as a girl and an outsider, derails everything in Jess’ life. It isn’t a matter of love or even fumbling between them. What they share instead is a growing awareness that complex life is a gift given to everyone—even classroom bullies, we find.
Past the grazing land and arable fields of their parents’ neighbouring farms, across a brook that runs innocuously ten months of the year, Jess and Leslie find on the far bank an isolated place just for them to share. There they build a small shelter from fallen branches and a few simple materials brought from home. This is the point at which “Leslie name[s] their secret land ‘Terabithia,’ and she loan[s] Jess all of her books about Narnia, so he would know how things went in a magic kingdom”. In a way here, Paterson is deconstructing the more immersive kind of fantasy I will write on below, showing the bones of it but not letting us in. Once Leslie convinces Jess that this “kingdom” of theirs is real, these two experience Terabithia like a privileged truth revealed, yet we only ever catch glimpses of their Terabithian lives together. All we are allowed to see is how Jess’ domestic life is changed for the better by their shared fantasy, as he comes to be more open, more empathetic, and better capable of love. To children and adults, I recommend this short book highly.
Next, aiming to settle a long-standing grievance between my fiancée and me, I embarked on a first complete reading of that set of books by J. K. Rowling, beginning with Harry Potter and the ‘Sorcerer’s’ Stone (1997).
For all I have read and watched and listened to about this series, I don’t believe I have ever read a review of any of the individual books that was published upon its release. This first American paperback edition I read bears laudatory quotations on the back cover from The New York Times Book Review, Stephen King and USA Today, and while this is standard publishing practice, it feels preposterous in this case. The idea that anybody could pick up the book blind, as it were, and be persuaded to read Harry Potter only on the urging of a book reviewer who called it “A wonderful first novel” is just bizarre, such is the present day grandeur of it all: seven books that have sold astonishing numbers, yes, but then also, as of this coming November, ten films, three slim spin-off books, at least fifteen video games, the most expensive pair of plays ever produced on Broadway, an annual fan convention, thousands of fan fiction series expanding the fictional universe (both erotically and otherwise), a members-only online community larger in population than some nations, dozens of podcasts…
So if everyone who might read this book knows the characters and all the rest inside out already, what can I say? I suppose the only good answer is to stick to the words on the page and how they coalesce, to see how the narrative is built upwards from its smallest units, and forget the rest. From that perspective, despite all the previsions, many things still came as pleasant surprises.
The first and my favourite of these was the presentation of the abusive patriarch Vernon Dursley, whose desire to keep Harry from reading the thousands of letters that come for him in the post deranges him entirely. He stays home from work to nail up planks over the letter-width chinks between the front door and its jamb, and lies guarding that same front door at night. He doesn’t sleep, and his insomnia only causes him to terrorise Harry all the more, though Vernon has always taken the utmost care to suppress his nephew’s freedom. Harry has always lurked as a blight on the Dursleys’ class pretensions; now that Dudley is to take up a proud legacy at his father’s private school, they can’t have the other boy misrepresenting them with his fanciful nonsense. But while Vernon wields the power in the household, Rowling’s understated humour happily forewarns us that he is not really in control. Here, we see him proud in his monstrousness, only for his actions to betray him as a fool:
“On Sunday morning, Uncle Vernon sat down at the breakfast table looking tired and rather ill, but happy.
‘No post on Sundays,’ he reminded them cheerfully as he spread marmalade on his newspapers, ‘no damn letters today—'” (50)
This is one way that Rowling manipulates our sympathies to lie in just the right place from the very first moments of our meeting the family.
Once the action reaches Hogwarts, a hundred pages in, the potions begin to stir and so does the plot, the criss-crossed threads of which will bear us through until the series’ final instalment. The first two months of term span the next hundred pages, as all your favourite characters are sorted into houses and some fairly asinine songs are sung. Not until we are beyond the physical mid-point of the book is the core friendship formed between Harry, Ron and Hermione, by which point they have been at Hogwarts for two months, give or take. From there, the novel’s main plot surrounding Snape, Quirrell, and the mystery of the eponymous Stone zooms through an eventful Quidditch season, beyond Christmas and the snow-melt, and it’s rare to find anybody standing still until Hermione finally jinxes Neville to fix him in place, clearing the way for the frantic final act to begin. I don’t think I am the only one to notice that this first year flies by faster than Malfoy on his measly Comet Two Sixty.
Despite the mismatched pacing, Rowling’s real gift for character creation still shines in ‘Sorcerer’s’ Stone. Every figure who might in another book seem minor, say Filch the gruff school caretaker or the pranking Weasley twins, is here discernible in their own right (and it isn’t Rowling’s fault if ITV played Chamber of Secrets every weekend throughout your teenage years, and you have a picture of each character played by a particular actor already lodged in your mind). The supporting cast never fades into a monotone, meaning that the protagonists don’t stand out in relief but rather exist alongside them. The overwhelming impression is that this is a functioning school environment, and everybody is necessary.
It has never been such a relief (nor such an effective guard against fireworks at the dinner table) to say that I enjoyed a book greatly. I look forward to the next one.
And last, at the time of this writing, I am neck-deep in a book that my mum has been nudging under my eyes for years: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2). Of another book so long I might say that I was lost somewhere in the six hundred pages between the first part and the last, but the author speaks through such a sure-footed narrator that one never feels abandoned. Here’s my current situation: I am exactly 264 pages in*, and the first wires that Eliot so carefully stripped and laid down are just now touching and sparking. Dorothea Brooke has become Mrs. Casaubon, though she sometimes wishes she had not; Tertius Lydgate is stirring the ire of the established doctors of Middlemarch with his damnably effective new continental techniques; and as Fred Vincy’s debts accrue, his hope lies in the indecipherable object of his affections, young Mary Garth.
The father in James Salter’s novel Light Years (1975) advises his children that “the best education comes from knowing only one book”. I am yet to finish Middlemarch, but I get the feeling that it is the kind of book that the father was thinking of. Before your eyes, there’s a universe of understanding being built out of acute observation. A microcosmic method is being employed that the narrator effaces as nothing more than “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven” (133). Still, while I am hooked on Middlemarch, and I see some sense in Salter’s words, I hope for the sake of my weekly essays that this isn’t the “one book” I’ll need for now and evermore. It might all get a touch repetitive otherwise.
*Make that page 280 by the time of editing.
Image: Donna Diamond