So, I came in yesterday to find The Bears all of a twitter. This was most unusual because whatever they may really have been up to while I’ve been out they normally at least pretend that butter wouldn’t melt as soon as they hear my key in the lock. But not yesterday. Yesterday something was afoot. The cause of all this excitement? There on the hall floor was a book shaped parcel, a book shaped parcel with my name on it! The first Heywood Hill selection had arrived.
I brought it into the living room, sat down on The Bears’ sofa and together we looked at it. After all the anticipation opening it seemed an almost impossible act. I decided a cup of tea was in order, no scrub that, a pot of tea – and possibly a scone as well.
Into the kitchen, on with the kettle and all the time wondering what I would feel like if it was a book I’d already read, a book by an author I knew I didn’t like, a book I was sure I wouldn’t be able to warm to. By the time the tea was made I had just about convinced myself that the best thing would be to give it back to the postman and tell him I didn’t live here. (Given the amount of junk mail with my name on that he delivers I suspect he might not have believed me but anything’s worth a try.) However, The Bears were not having any of that nonsense and so I finally began to dismantle the parcel.
I realise now that I should have taken pictures of every stage so that I could show you just how much care Lisa had taken. Next month I’ll try and remember to do that and then you can share the anticipation with me. The book wasn’t just thrust inside a jiffy bag. It was hand wrapped in crisp brown paper, held together by a beautifully tied length of blue ribbon and then placed inside a proper cardboard book carrier. So, like a game of pass the parcel, once I’d got the first layer off there was still further to go.
And the book? Had I read it? Was it by an author I couldn’t stand? Did the very subject matter repel me? Fortunately, no, no and no. What Lisa has sent is a book that I remember looking at when it came out in 2002, probably because it was on the Orange shortlist, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Here is what Amazon says about it:
The Great Fire is Shirley Hazzard’s first novel since The Transit of Venus, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981. The conflagration of her title is the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the centre of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in Occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.
In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia’s coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity.
What Lisa couldn’t have known is that my father was a Far East POW during World War II and so I will find the Japanese element of the book extremely interesting.
Although the book didn’t win the award that year, there are recommendations for it from several authors whose work I automatically read as soon after publication as possible, writers such as Ann Patchett and Michael Cunningham. What is more, it is published by Virago, which is as good a seal of approval as you could ask for. Of course, if any of you can recommend it then that would be an even better omen that when I come to sit down and read it I am going to be in for a treat.
It has gone straight onto the top of the tbr pile and I shall turn to it as soon as I have finished clawing my way through Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. I don’t enjoy magic realism at the best of times and I find Rushdie particularly hard to engage with. Every day I am dutifully reading a set number of pages to ensure that I’ve finished the novel in time for the next book group but the words are just passing through my mind like so much water and how much I will have retained when we come to the discussion goodness only knows. Still, I’m sure the rest of the group will be only too glad to have me silenced for once and it certainly means that any book which follows it is going to seem like manna from heaven. Expect a report in the near future.