Saturday 13 April 2024

Comfort Reading by Sheena Wilkinson

I'm one of those people -- I suspect many writers are -- for whom whether to read isn't a choice. The only choice is what to read.   I read every day, and can't think of a single day when I haven't. But of course there are times when life gets in the way, and there are only certain things you fancy. 

I remember once talking to a friend's elderly mother, who had been widowed and understandably lost her reading mojo, which bothered her. She explained that she didn't want to read anything new as she didn't think she could get into it and it might be upsetting. So why not try an old friend? I suggested, being a re-reader myself. She looked at me in disdain. Oh no, she said: she couldn't possibly read something she'd already read.

It seems contrary, but I sort of understood. Sometimes you want something familiar but not too familiar -- the latest book from a favourite and trusted writer is always ideal. Though when a lot of your favourite authors are long dead that's not so easy -- unless someone like Persephone or Dean Street Press publishes a forgotten masterpiece. 

Recently I had cause to think about this as I unexpectedly had to have a minor surgical procedure. Not having been in hospital since I was six, and never before having had a general anaesthetic, and being, moreover of a catastrophising and over-imaginative turn of mind (I'm a novelist for goodness sake!) it did not seem minor to me. I thought of Ginty in my beloved Antonia Forest books who thinks, when she is accused of making a mountain out of a molehill, Yes, that's all when it's not you it's happening to. 

I knew I would need some books to see me through. It all happened quickly so I was already in the middle of The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (the mid-century novelist who got me out of my Covid reading slump) which was ideal. But what next? I knew I would be resting and therefore needing some comfort reads for at least a week -- something for in between old episodes of Call the Midwife. (Given the nature of my indisposition it was odd that I could fancy CTM but who can fathom the contrary ways of humans.)

I had Covid last summer and had binged all my Malory Towers and St Clare's books. For reasons I shall reveal very soon on this blog, I have been in a vaguely school-storyish mood for some months.  

I thought about the Chalet School -- 59 of them, all neatly ranged in the bookcase on the landing. But I know them too well -- not only what happens, but often the actual wording of sentences. Besides, I wanted to read on kindle, so I wouldn't need my glasses and didn't need to worry about switching on the lamp if I woke up in the middle of the night.

Elizabeth Jane Howard came to my rescue (not for the first time) with her wonderful Cazalet saga, about an English family before, during and after the Second World War. I know them well enough for the characters to feel like old friends, but not so well that I remembered every detail. They are accessible but beautifully written. And Elizabeth Jane Howard is the most accomplished 'head hopper' I know. This makes her sound like a headlouse: what I mean is that she can shift point of view with incredible deftness, mid-scene, even mid-paragraph. I know I could never manage that, but I read her as a masterclass in what can be done. Because of that, and because I am writing a novel set during WW2, I also felt like I was doing a tiny bit of work at the same time. 

I'm glad to say that I'm fine now, with one book still to go! 

What are other people's comfort read go-tos?


Sue Purkiss said...

There are several relatively gentle detective series which I've re-read, some of them several times: Louise Penney's Inspector Gamache novels; Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway novels; the Dr Siri series by Colin Cotterill, among others. Also - if I'm feeling really low! - Heidi. I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings, for the first time in a long while, and really enjoyed it. And, like you, The Cazalet Chronicles. Might re-read I Capture The Castle soon...

Nick Garlick said...

Crime stories. If I'm in an 'I've got nothing to read mood' I go back to Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks novels, or to the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford. And Bill Bryson. And, my favourite children's story of all time: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.