Between the Covers

Reading by Moonlight: How books saved a life

Brenda Walker

I’ve skirted around the many books about surviving cancer, not wanting to be drawn into a world of such actual danger and fear, until I spotted this elegant little hardcover number. It promised to reveal which books the author, a novelist and professor of literature, found comfort in while dealing with all stages of her breast cancer. Walker uses literature to help express her own feelings, as in this quote from Nabokov’s invitation to a beheading, of the prisoner about to be executed: “But now I don’t want to die! My soul has burrowed under the pillow... It will be cold getting out of my warm body ... wait a while... let me doze some more,” and to explore ideas “...The novel is often about transforming passion into a more manageable kind of love... on our bookshelves... vision, impulse, calculation and passion can do no harm”.

She finds poetic ways to explain what is happening to her. “Chemotherapy is a little like a private winter. It brings its own weather, independent of the clouds or sunshine outside the hospital. But not all winters are pleasurable, full of interesting scenes for the traveller – some are simply bitter. During treatment, teeth chatter, sounds travel differently, and the body must learn to wait, to endure. It’s an icy climate, chemotherapy, and it’s difficult to carry a living story out of that grey place, to set it down in light and warmth and hope it might hold together.”

While effortlessly blending the past and present, she makes great observations: “Michael’s cats made themselves comfortable on the windowsill, and the late afternoon setting sun shone through the bright red veins in their ears”. She also draws wonderful imagery: “...The surgeon’s words were a ripcord: the parachute of survival opened sweetly above me.”

I struggled a little in the last chapter, with her dissertation on writers who write a novel about a novel, like J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, a variation on Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I was barely aware of this practice.

I’ll finish my review of this gentle, poetic book with Walker’s wonderful explanation of why we read. “This is the great gift of the novel. We sit within another’s person.”

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.


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