It was time to tackle a difficult read—a bold move, on my behalf. I’d grown up reading only for pleasure and, up until that point in my life, I’d not felt the need to be challenged by books. Reality could be a bitter pill to swallow as it was; did I really want it shoved in my face? Did I want to be huffing and puffing at the dictionary every ten words? No. I didn’t.
But I would do it anyway.
I decided on an Australian literary fiction novel that had a shiny gold sticker on it: an award winner. Surely this would challenge me. I lasted fifty pages before I turned to my husband—who was lounging on the couch opposite me with his own book— and made the big announcement.
‘The struggle is real,’ I said, and it was. Oh, my goodness it was.
Wordy passages of profound thought. Dull family portraits, the monotony of everyday life. A bit of love. A bit of hate. A bit of everything and nothing all at once. I raised my eyebrow and decorated the google search bar on my phone with the words I’d come to know way too well over the past few days, ‘Define (insert word here).’
‘It’s okay to stop reading,’ my husband said, smiling up at me from his book—which he was loving, by the way. And so, it seemed I had a choice. I could go on, allow myself the potential to expand as a reader (and, perhaps, as a human) or I could give up and go find another book. A lovely, lovely book!
Oh, man. I knew what the answer had to be. I needed to read on, I’d kick myself if I didn’t.
The dominoes fell about a quarter of the way through when I had the uncanny sense that the book was becoming more. I frowned into it, gently rocking back and forth on our beloved flower armchair (the same one that’s rocked both our precious babes to sleep, on countless occasions) when I realised what had happened. For the very first time, I had seen me within the pages of a book. Not just the outer crust of me. The inner creaks, the bones, the blood; and all the horrendous aches and pains life had thrown my way.
It felt awful. It felt so bloody awful that I just did not know how I could possibly last through another moment of such soul-scraping reality. Surely, I’d have to put the book down. But I didn’t. I kept reading. And then the book was finished. Just like that, I’d been changed because I dared to go to a place, within the world of literature, that frightened me.
There lies the beauty and the beast that is literary fiction—the grace of the art, the rawness of humanity; these are books coloured by the real-lives of writers who dare to expose life’s simple truths so that us readers might come to know ourselves, and our world, differently.
Michelle De Kretser is one of Australia’s best when it comes to finding the truth and telling it in the form of a novel. As I sat in the audience of her Q and A session on Saturday—only days after she won her second Miles Franklin Award—I was taken right back to the book that changed me. My burst into the world of literary fiction and the humanity that connected me to it, and it to me.
Michelle’s characters are ordinary, flawed people—at least, the ones I’ve met so far— and they are so alive with the human traits we all share. It was fascinating to hear her explain the way she draws the lives of these imperfect individuals, crafts them into little gems that reflect the lives of us, the readers.
It was very easy to be inspired by Michelle and her cheeky confidence. She spoke about all the crap of life as though the fixes were obvious, that underneath the complications of modern living, lies simplicity. People. Just trying to be.
All the beautiful textures and colours of the world, and there they are— in the minds of our most cherished writers, on the pages of our most precious books. Surely, to be human is to share our lives and hearts with others. To take a chance. To show each other our scars and to help each other heal from them. Because life hurts so much better when we roll with the punches, together, don’t you think? To me, that’s the beauty of literature. And I get the feeling that Michelle De Kretser just might feel the same way.