People tell me what an awful place Twitter can be – but I have to say my experience is totally different, and I’ve made some lovely friends just through a chance comment or retweet. And that’s where I first came across author (and proofreader) Wendy Janes – I’m so looking forward to reading and reviewing her new collection, What Tim Knows, and other stories, in October.
Until then, I’m really delighted to share an absolutely lovely article that Wendy wrote about getting close to a story – but maybe too close?
I recently had the strange experience of taking on the symptoms of a character in a book I was reading. It started me thinking about the ways in which I’m drawn into a story.
I often choose to read books that I know will reflect my own experiences, and while reading them I enjoy taking a trip down memory lane. The Exclusives by Rebecca Thornton reminded me of my years as a pupil at an English grammar school for girls: the intense relationships; the competitiveness; the really clever girls preparing for entry to Oxford or Cambridge. As I read I saw my own school’s corridors and classrooms, and images of girls I’d not thought of for years came back to me. I could almost picture myself as a teenager wearing my old school uniform, an observer to the drama unfolding at the school.
Bev Spicer’s One Summer in France took me right back to the heat, wine and boys that accompanied my own summer holiday in the South of France with my best friend. At moments in the story the tang of the ripe tomatoes we ate straight from the fridge, the rasp of the sheets against sun-burnt skin, would return to me. As did the deep brown eyes of that boy who danced with me under the stars…
The re-awakening of old memories creates a stronger bond with a story and adds another dimension to my reading experience.
This also happens when even the most mundane of things going on in the present, echo elements in a story I’m reading. For example, in Jane Davis’s A Funeral for an Owl, a character refers to a football match between English teams called Crystal Palace and Manchester United and that a final goal was scored by a player called Alan Pardew. The day I read that scene, the same teams were playing in a big cup final and the manager was Alan Pardew. I’m not even a football fan, but the tiny coincidence resonated with me and made me feel that it was right that I was reading that book at exactly that moment. Another sporting link occurred when I was reading Mark Lawson’s The Deaths. There’s a raucous scene with lads from a rugby club that I read the same day that I’d been to a raucous rugby club quiz night. As I say, they’re tiny coincidences, but I love this synchronicity.
I also love the wonderful feeling of relating to a character in a book. Sometimes it’s a little thing. In Kerry Fisher’s After the Lie, her lead character mentions how her husband indulges her need to have a particular mug for her tea. I don’t wish to get into a competition regarding being picky about mug choices, but everyone in our family knows that I must have my Underground map of London mug for my breakfast tea, a plain white one for afternoon tea, and a bright red one if I’m having a rare treat of a cup of coffee. Sorry, I’ve digressed, let’s get back to the books.
Beautifully crafted writing can make the most subtle of characters come alive. It’s a joy to relate to these characters, and although I may not necessarily have exactly the same experiences as them, I just know who they are and how they feel. This happened in Peter Davey’s sublime Simone, Simone, where Alain pines for his lost youth and a lost love, and in Miriam Drori’s wonderful Neither Here Nor There, where Esty is overwhelmed and conflicted by the opportunities and freedom outside of her closed community.
Feeling so close to those characters means they’ve stayed with me, and the bond I had with them when I met them in the pages of their stories, continues.
On occasion, something more than a bond happens, and a character inhabits my thoughts even more deeply, which results in something that could possibly be called ‘character hypochondria’.
My earliest memory of doing this reaches back to my childhood reading of Peter Pan. My mother had a beautifully illustrated copy that I would read over and over again. It didn’t matter that I looked nothing like the Wendy in the illustrations. I was Wendy Darling, waiting night after night for Peter to fly to my open bedroom window and take me away to Never Never Land. When Wendy sewed Peter’s shadow back on to his feet my own feet would become hot and my heels begin to prickle with sharp pin pricks. There’s an uncomfortable itch in my heels as I type this. Oh, and I was so jealous of Tinkerbell’s relationship with Peter. Yes, completely irrational, I know, and not a healthy indicator for how I’d react to any boyfriends’ previous girlfriends a decade or so later. As the story drew to a close I experienced a mother’s anxiety for her daughter and a mourning for her own youth when Peter flew away with Wendy’s daughter, Jane, which was far too early for a little girl to comprehend, let alone feel.
Fast forward to the 1990s and although I was married and had children, and was that a bit older than many of the characters I was reading about, a number of chick-lit heroines put a spring in my step and a smile on my face. The best being the eponymous heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Helen Fielding’s Bridget displayed a mixture of anxiety and exuberance that rubbed off on me. Her voice came over so clearly in the book, I could hear my voice narrating my day in true Bridget Jones style. She helped me put a positive spin on minor disasters, which was v.v.g.
Most recently my character hypochondria resurfaced while reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, where Maud suffers from dementia. In so many scenes I viscerally experienced her confusion and her fear. My heart would race, I’d go hot and cold. I was as lost as she was. This even affected my own thought processes outside of the book. I kept forgetting words for everyday things and the names of people. I’d buy items at shops only to return home to find I’d already bought them. It took a huge effort of will to recall what I’d just done or what I did the previous day. I put this down to the power of the writing, the author’s ability to describe Maud’s state of mind so completely. When I stopped reading, I’m happy to report that my mind cleared.
I wonder whether other readers have a special bond with particular books or characters. Is it a common thing to take on the traits of characters you’re reading about?
Wendy, that article triggered so many thoughts – from the impact of the father’s wrongly-buttoned cardigan and vase of flowers in Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake to being convinced I was on the slippery slope while reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice… how about everyone else?
Wendy Janes spends her time writing novels and short stories, running her freelance proofreading business and volunteering for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service. She is the author of the novel, What Jennifer Knows and a collection of short stories, What Tim Knows, and other stories. She loves to take real life and turn it into fiction. You can connect with Wendy online and discover more about her via Twitter, her Facebook author page, her Website, and Amazon author pages (UK/US).