Monday, 12 September 2011

An evening at the Lewisham Literary Festival

Tonight I went to a locally organised event, part of the Lewisham Literary Festival, which is running throughout this week. It's something I'm very happy to be supporting, as I try and get more involved in my local community.

Tonight saw discussion and readings from two authors, Samantha Harvey and Jake Wallis Simons. Simons spoke about his newest book, The English German Girl, which sounded interesting, but I don't think I'll be rushing out to buy a copy. The last book I read that involved Jews escaping (or not escaping) from Nazi Germany, The Novel in the Viola, was rather a letdown, so I don't have much appetite at the moment for that genre. But it was Harvey's book I'd really gone to hear about.

I read The Wilderness last week on holiday, and thought it was absolutely wonderful. The novel tracks the character Jake through four years of his later life, as Alzheimers sets in and takes over his mind. It's a harrowing read in parts, but extremely thought-provoking and involving, so I highly recommend it. Harvey spoke eloquently and engagingly about the book, and the topic as a whole, even entering into an extremely touching dialogue with an audience member who had personal family experience with Alzheimers.

As you may know, a topic that's always been of great interest and curiosity to me is that of memory and narrative. This book is an excellent channel for that, as Jake, suffering from Alzheimers, is very much an unreliable narrator. I remember at university learning about unreliable narrators, and they always intrigued me - the ways the author can use them to create as many questions as answers throughout the text, leaving the reader wondering what's real, and what they can trust. Which then of course leads on to the bigger questions about literature - does it matter what's real? Are you truly expected to construct a narrative outside what is presented to you by the narrator? There are two types on unreliable narrator. The first is one who is fully aware of the world around them, but is dishonest or dissembling for one reason or another. The second is the type who is disoriented by the world, and doesn't have all the facts at their fingertips themselves, and therefore is not even capable of presenting the reader with a full picture. The character Jake in the novel is very much of this second type, and he becomes less reliable as the novel progresses along with his illness. It intrigued me as I read, and Harvey clearly felt the same as she spoke about her novel.

Aside from the topic of the narrator, I even asked a question, something I almost never do at this kind of event. I asked Harvey about the setting for her novel. It's located on the peat moors of Lincolnshire, a flat, occasionally barren landscape, and I wanted to know why she chose it. I'm from this area myself, and whenever I return home I always find something slightly mystical almost about the countryside. I felt Harvey brought across these images and emotions extremely strongly in the novel.

Away from speaking about their books, the moderator also asked the authors for their thoughts on cover blurbs. Neither of them had particularly strong thoughts, but it's something my literature lecturer at university spoke about once. He said that they should be irrelevant, and should not be read. The same in his opinion even went for cover designs. After all, they're something that's not written by the author, and is not part of the actual work, and therefore they're something 'outside' the book; therefore they can colour your reading of the novel by giving you an impression of what's to come, giving preconceptions and therefore changing how you actually read the book itself. I do feel this is true - the picture on the cover of a book will almost always influence how you read and how you see the characters, particularly if one of them is portrayed on the cover, and the blurb really can change your reading, and even give things away. One of the reasons I found the aforementioned The Novel in the Viola a letdown is because the cover blurb really gave away something that didn't really happen until the last fifty pages of the book - so I was always expecting it and thinking ahead. It's a shame, and just one example of how publishers affect how we read and affect the author's work.

Tonight overall was an excellent evening, one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall try and attend at least one more of the Festival's events this week (perhaps the one about London on Thursday night), and am very much trying to commit myself to supporting more local community projects such as this.

And I fully encourage you to read Harvey's book The Wilderness. It's an excellent read, not as dark as you might expect, but definitely very touching, and will both challenge your thinking about reality and how the mind works and give you more of an understanding of the life of those suffering from Alzheimers. It's obviously available from all good bookshops and there's sample pages on Amazon, and if you're reading this in Lewisham, then the main Lewisham Library has a copy available for borrowing (or will do when I've taken it back tomorrow!).

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