Unless you have children (I don’t) then reading out loud is probably something you’ve not really done since your school days. And my school days are reasonably far behind me. It’s also one of those activities where – if you’ve ever heard a recording of your own voice played back to you – you often start to think how awful you sound.
Having a book read to me is probably one of my earliest childhood memories. Every night, either Mum or Dad would tuck me in to bed and read whichever Ladybird book or Enid Blyton adventure I was hooked on at the time. Personally, I think this is one of the most enduring gifts a parent can ever give their child. But that’s not what this blog is all about. No. This blog skips forward four decades, to the years when I was able to return the favour …
In 1997, aged just 49, my lovely Mum was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Mum was a brilliant nurse who absolutely loved her job, and was loved in turn by her colleagues and patients. She was also a book fanatic who returned from weekly visits to the library with arms-full of books, and who could never resist burying her nose deep into a new book to inhale that wonderful smell of new paper, ink, and glue. About 15 years after the diagnosis Mum lost the strength in her arms and could no longer hold up a book … so we bought a book deck chair. When the effort of simply turning a page became too much, Mum got a Kindle … but shortly after that the MS started to affect her sight, and so that too, became redundant.
It was about this time that I was reading The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris. Mum had leant me her copy of Chocolat many years before; we both loved the story, and her face lit up when I told her that a sequel had been written. This was the moment when I knew I would need to dust off my reading voice, cast aside my hang-ups, and get stuck in! Reading Lollipop Shoes to Mum was my second reading of the book, and I took in so many more details this time. Perhaps it was because your out-loud voice is slower than your in-your-head voice? Whatever it was, the simple fact of sitting down, getting comfy, and reading out loud was hugely comforting … and I felt I was playing a part (albeit a small one) in helping Mum escape from the harsh everyday realities of living with a chronic, terminal illness.
Unexpectedly, Dad started joining us – and he wasn’t one of life’s book worms. He would quickly make his lunch before sitting on the sofa to hear the next chapters. I could be reading for a few hours – and my (awful) voice often descended to the scratchy squeak of a pubescent boy! Dad kept me topped up with tea to keep the squeaks at bay. Often, I’d look up and see Mum’s eyes were closed, so I’d quietly start shutting the book … Mum’s eyes would immediately pop open! She was living in the story; revelling in a favourite escape that she’d thought was lost to her when the books became too heavy, and the pages too weighty.
Over the course of the next couple of years we feasted on books that indulged so many senses.
Most made us hungry, some carried us away to different countries … different times, one made us giggle so much we could neither read nor listen properly. And with each book we read together, we’ve added a new story to the pages; now whenever I look at these books on my shelves I’m immediately reminded of these precious days with my Mum.
a whistle-stop tour of the books we read …
Naturally, we started with The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris. Reading about Vianne Rocher, so many years after we last read Chocolat was like getting together with an old friend. She’s settled in the atmospheric Montmartre, and continues to tempt us with delicious confections … and a hint of magic. Her desire to keep her daughters safe is palpable, but the arrival of the wind brings an enigmatic and manipulative stranger who threatens to destroy their lives. Vianne’s relationship with Johnny Depp -ooops, I mean Roux! – is still like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
Not long after we finished Lollipop Shoes (we were a bit behind the curve) Peaches for Monsieur le Curé hit the shelves. I’d waited for my Amazon delivery with my nose pressed to the letterbox – our poor postman nearly jumped out of his skin when I whipped the parcel through the door. And, after a quick fix of its delicious new book smell, I jumped in the car and headed over to Mum’s. We arrived in the sun-soaked south of France just in time to see Vianne arrive with Anouk and Rosette, unsettling the locals of Lansquenet as only a beguiling, chocolate witch can do during Lent.
The Road to Little Dribbling was my first experience of Bill Bryson. Mum, however, had been reading him for years, and I would often hear her giggling away behind one of his books. When Little Dribbling was published it felt like my time had come, and despite this being a sequel to Notes from a Small Island, I didn’t feel out of the loop. However, of the books I read to Mum this was the most difficult to read out loud. He’s just so funny! Have you ever tried speaking through fits of giggles, when tears are making the text blurry, and you’re on the verge of choking? I can safely say it took us an awfully long time to read this cover to cover – for the very best of reasons.
The weather in Little Dribbling had been quintessentially British, and we were craving sun, so off we set for Portofino. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim was actually Dad’s suggestion … he was really settling in to his weekly story time at this point! As one of Mum’s favourite books, she was quick to second this suggestion. Again, this was a new book for me, and it took me a while to accustom myself to the rhythm and pace of the writing. Published in 1922, this book is a peaceful and innocent tale, suffused with warming sunlight, undemanding friendships, and wafts of summer gardens.
I have two favourite contemporary books, and The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is one of them. This bittersweet book is a derailed love story, shrinking a richly brimming life into one that’s grey, dry, and full of regrets. From his barge on the Seine Jean runs a book apothecary, prescribing and dispensing books to heal the troubled souls of his customers, yet he is unable to cure himself. One day, Jean sets sail for Provence on a journey of self-discovery, learning to live, love and dance again. I warn you now – this book will make you hungry, and it will make you cry. It’s a beautiful story, and I ‘prescribe’ it to anyone who asks me for a book recommendation.
Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters starts among the shelves of Roberta’s second hand book shop, where she collects the letters and postcards she finds in the books she’s given. Roberta is an insipid character, but when she discovers a letter from her grandfather, we are whisked off to 1941 where we meet Dorothy – a completely different kettle of fish. Dorothy is unhappily married to Albert, who is away at war; she hopes he won’t return. She also hopes she might find happiness with Squadron Leader Jan Pietrykowski, when his plane crashes in the fields behind her house. Despite dealing with some difficult topics, this is a story of tenderness, hope and spirit.
In 1949, New Yorker Helene Hanff, wrote to a London book shop specialising in out-of-print books, searching for the rare and antique books she so loved but couldn’t find in the Big Apple. Her orders were fulfilled in a perfunctory fashion … at first. Each order was accompanied by a letter, and over a period of 20 years a quirky and enduring friendship flourished. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a short story consisting only of the charming and innocently familiar letters between Helene and Frank Doel of Marks & Co Booksellers. Resist the urge to devour this in one sitting – it’s a book to savour and linger over.
Our book time became shorter as Mum’s illness progressed. Sleep would overcome her with increasing frequency. When my voice creaked to stop, or when Mum nodded off, and it was time for me to go home I would (in all honesty) feel incredibly sad at our new reality. MS robbed her of so much.
Mum was a vibrant, deeply caring, intelligent woman with a lust for life and a dazzling smile, remembered fondly by everyone who knew her. Her love of books, and reading, and libraries, and stories is a gift that lives on in me. In the past year I’ve come to treasure those days of reading; it brings me comfort to know that something so simple helped her indulge in the escapism she so loved.