Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sonya Hartnett's biscuits

A couple of years ago I used to tutor in a subject at university that taught Sonya Hartnett's book Sleeping Dogs. The tutorials were always good value, because the classes were inevitably split between love and hate. Some students, usually from the education faculty, tended to view it as inappropriate for young adults because of the subject matter of incest and violence. They couldn't understand why a book like that would be given to young people to read. This was particularly common in the younger group of students, those who were only eighteen or nineteen themselves. I suspect that part of this was an effort to separate themselves from their school days, an attempt to define themselves as adults who could take seriously the responsiblities of protecting children, or marking out boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and who were trying to keep their own childhood selves safe from the pollution of adult concerns. Perhaps if I had asked them their opinion when they were fifteen or sixteen their replies might have been different.

On the other hand there were frequently students who loved Hartnett's book, and who looked at it as a doorway into many different kinds of literature. These students loved the bookishness of it, although many of them had not read any of the books that Hartnett alludes to in the text, and sometimes were unaware even of whole genres she was playing with. For them Sleeping Dogs was the start of a reading odyssey and a new way of experiencing the world and literature. As a teacher, these are the moments that you live for.

I guess Hartnett is probably less aware of the effect her book has had. Authors seem to exist quite a long way away from the bit of the world where readers bump up against the realities inside the text, although some authors are more aware of the process than others. I've often observed an expression of shock or dismay on authors' faces during interviews or at writers' festivals when the reader asks a question or makes a comment on a book that is unexpected, or does not quite gel with the author's own expectations of the work.

Hartnett's new book The Ghost's Child is now out, in a touchable hardcover that reminds me of lollies and bedspreads and flowers. The first chapter raised my hopes immensely. I thought that here was a book that would return to me that feeling of being a child-reader, of existing entirely in the world of the book and of being surprised and seduced into believing that the world inside the book was possible in the real world. The rest of the book almost, but not quite, lives up to that promise.

The sentence that gave me the most intense pleasure, and pulled a burble of surprise out of me, was the one in which Matilda tells the unexpected visitor that she has no nice biscuits to offer him because she ate them herself. Her phrasing suggests, gently but firmly, that she is entitled to eat the nice biscuits because she likes them too; just because she is old, she means, she does not have to give up her right to something over the rights of the young. After watching so many years of denial from great grandparents, grandparents and great aunts this had the ring of revolution about it, but not in a grasping or selfish way like those ads for remortgaging the house so that baby boomers can spend their children's so-called inheritance. This was a claim to person-hood, to existence, to pleasure and to an ackowledgement of the self. I loved it.

For me the book is mostly about autonomy, but I haven't finished yet, so I'll wait and see if it continues on in the same direction, or if it gently or stridently takes my observing self somewhere completely different.

And I'll have to go and buy some nice biscuits as well, of course.

No comments: