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  • Writer's pictureClare J Cavanagh

A Story in a Story

Which books remind you of a specific time in your life?

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” ~ Roald Dahl

Matilda - Illustration by Quentin Blake

Recently I went home to help my parents sort The Loft. It deserves its proper name because (and I don't think we're alone here) that area can be as spine-chilling as a horror film. It is rarely mentioned, mainly for the undoubtable dread that comes with it.

"It's going to take all day... What's up there? What's that noise? What's going to jump out at us in the darkness?"

We moved into the house 20 years ago. I was 16. I filled boxes at the old house and said goodbye to them, not knowing how long it would be before I would see them again. Two decades later, I had no idea what I was going to find. I pulled the cobwebs out of my hair and sat among the boxes with my name scribbled across them. I found so many treats but I especially shrieked with delight when I pulled a sheet of cardboard away to reveal all the books of my childhood.

Books can represent key milestones in life. They capture a specific, personal moment. A day when something happened - not necessarily spectacular, but tender enough to remain as a memory bookmark, a reminder to delve into it later.

I picked up my first version of 'Matilda' - a bit faded but still standing strong - and I skimmed the pages, seeing my name in my 7-year-old handwriting in the corner of the first page. It was mine from the beginning and I immediately remembered the exact moment it came into my life.

Later that day, I thought about all the books I love that have made an unforgettable stamp on a time in my life. Or how my understanding of them changed, how they affected me in different stages when I read them again later. This is not necessarily based on the quality of its content but rather how or why they became so special to me. I thought about where I gained access to that specific book and why it featured almost like a character in my own life story.

Here are a couple that came to mind...

'Matilda' by Roald Dahl - This was the first book I bought with my own money. I was 7 years old gazing at the colourful shelves in Waterstones. I was already a huge Dahl fan, having read 'The Magic Finger' in Primary 1 along with Mum before I went to sleep. Tracing the letters along the line, trying them out loud until a real word appeared, like I did at school. This new book was yellow (my favourite colour). I had saved up my pocket money and heard the coins clinking as I took it to the till with sheer delight. I quickly panicked, realising that I didn't actually know how to make the exchange - how to actually buy something! The staff member was very kind and guided me through it, counting out my coins with me. I stepped away smiling, feeling like a grown up in some way maybe for the first time. Not only did I have a brand new book, I was almost ready to read it all by myself.

'The Railway Man' by Eric Lomax - I was too young to read it when I first saw this book. I couldn't remember how old I was but I just checked and the book was published in the same year 'Seven' came out at the cinema and I wasn't allowed to see that either. Man, 1995 was tough. Anyway, we were staying in a camper van in France (I think. Might have been Germany) on a summer holiday. Dad had brought a copy of this book with him and, watching him sitting outside taking in all the long passages as much as the sun, I could tell how much it was affecting him. On the last day, I saw him wiping his red eyes with the back of his hand and he told me that I had to read that book, but not until I was much older. Lomax was raised on the same street in Portobello where my aunt and uncle live now and, on the first read when I was a teenager, I engaged more with his childhood in a place that I knew well. On the second read, I was in my twenties and I was able to better comprehend the depth of his traumatic experience building the Thai-Burma Railway during WWII. That stayed with me. When I had to escape my own life for a while in 2012, I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok and within a couple of days, I took a train across the bridge to walk the trail at the Railway memorial museum. I was a bit broken for my own reasons but being there that day gave me an entirely different perspective on what I was suffering. I didn't know what would happen to me next but I walked those historical tracks, finally being able to see light at the end after so long for myself, with the bravery and hope within Lomax's words echoing inside me.

'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath - In my first year at high school, I made friends with the librarian. When I think about her now, she must have only been in her early twenties, but to me she was an old, wise sage. She seemed to be as excited as I was when she recommended a new book to me each week and I came back with my own opinions after reading them. One day, she handed 'The Bell Jar' to me. A few weeks later, my amazing English teacher told us all to write a book review. I was as much into the Point Horror and The Babysitters' Club as much as my peers who were all focused on their favourites, but I choice instead to write about Sylvia Plath having declared to all that this was my absolutely favourite book ever. When I was called to my teacher's desk, she looked slightly nervous and asked me where I had got the book from? Did my parents know I was reading it? I shrugged. She took a moment and then leaned in to say, "Well, you really shouldn't be reading it at 12... but I'd love to know what you thought of it." She grinned and so did I. Like Lomax, I didn't read 'The Bell Jar' again until I was old enough to truly understand the emotional turmoil that seeps out on to the reader. I wish I had recorded what I'd said I loved best about the book to my teacher and how I had read it so differently. I'll maybe ask her next time I meet her for afternoon tea (which we usually do often - 25 years later). It still remains one of my favourite books, her fervent words remaining through all the stages of my own life.

So... What about you, reader?

What books have made an impact on your life in simply just finding it? Where were you when you bought or read it? Who recommended it to you and why? How did it make you feel? Why was that book so important to you during that time? Has it come back to you in a different way? What did it represent for you then and now?

The Cavanagh Loft archives, Haddington, 2020.

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