Books are magic pieces of time-travelling goodness. They transport us to other places and let us live in another’s shoes, if only for a while. But for me books have also been medicine. The authors’ words have been the gentleness, the soft whisper my chafed heart needed. Often those pages held bits of me together, a bandage around broken parts of me that were healing. Books have been friends, support and good counsel. It was often a book that sat with me when I couldn’t risk letting anyone else close, a book that understood and held me when I was desperately scared that I was all alone. Here are four of my bookish friends, full of beautiful papery wisdom that has helped me through some tough times, healing from childhood trauma.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, in the aftermath of losing his father in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, but it is also so much more. It is the story of being left. Of not knowing what to do with all the emptiness that coagulates inside a person when someone you love isn’t there anymore. And I could relate.
I didn’t lose my parents to death, but I still lost them. My loss of family was due to violence. In the trauma of my home life, I lost the family I longed for and needed. I also lost my innocence. That sense that everything will be okay because Mummy and Daddy were there was taken from me. And so I felt Oskar’s grief and sense of being adrift in the world.
Oskar finds a key hidden in a vase inside his father’s closet and decides to find out what it opens and to whom it belongs. The search sends him on a journey throughout New York and into the lives of many strangers. The interconnected stories of these people and Oskar’s grandparents lights the tales with such tenderness, at times my laughter and at others, my sadness.
There is nothing as lonely as crying when your tears are seen by no one. Many times as I sorted through my own past, it was with books that I cried. Books showed me it was safe to feel again. Safe to let go of numbness. Here in this story, my tears were never judged and the characters stepped lightly on brokenness inside me. This is a story that will likely hold my hand for a long time.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Oh, this magical and life-affirming book! How I love Clare and Henry, with his impossible illness, to this day. Henry is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder, or time travelling. Without much warning, Henry finds himself pulled backwards into his past or forwards into his future. When he leaves the present moment, he can take nothing with him, not even his clothes, which makes for some amusing adventures to regain his dignity. But most devastatingly, he cannot take Clare. And so this is also the story of love and the heartbreak of waiting.
As I read, I wanted to make her a cup of tea and put my arm around her. Because Clare is left behind in the present moment, she doesn’t know when Henry will return or if he is safe. I wanted to tell her that I understood.
Due to the trauma of my past, I have no idea where my sister is. The word sister is a heavy, achy thing for me and I felt Clare understood that. The saying that time heals all wounds is a myth. Time passes. It doesn’t possess powers of healing. What time can do is compound a loss. It makes the wait, every tick-tock, more pronounced. Though Clare got on with her life, it wasn’t the same without Henry. I understood that too.
It was also this gorgeous story that first gave me the permission, if you like, to explore themes of grief and loss through the use of time travel. My own characters meet at three different ages (eight, thirty-three and ninety-three) and I explored their fears and wants by introducing them to each other at the least expected, most inopportune times.
I’m thankful to Audrey Niffenegger’s story for giving me Clare and Henry who understood what it was to wait and to hope in the strength of their love, and who inspired my own version of time travel to explore my emotional truth through the eyes of the three Willas in my book.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
From the opening lines, this book walked into my living room and pitched a magnificent tent. A circus that simply arrives without warning when yesterday there wasn’t one? Yes, please.
For me this book was about hope. It wasn’t so much the characters, though I adored them all, it was the sense that anything could be possible if only I hung on. That if I kept going to counselling and kept bringing forth the darkness that had happened to me that there would be a light shed on that shame and I would not have to hide again. That any good thing I imagined could be true if I believed.
The circus entered my very being. Most importantly, it set my imagination free. For a writer there is no greater gift. The rich descriptions of impossible performances and things found in tents made my fingertips tingle and lifted my head to the skies. I began to look around me at the ordinary in awe and wonder and think to myself, ‘what if?’
What if there was a day in the future where I could experience healing and wholeness and peace? What if I could find a way to bring my story to the page? What if I told a tale that was sombre and dealt with trauma honestly, but also full of imagination and ultimately hopeful?
The Night Circus gave me midnight dinners and paper birds. Wishing trees and bottles with memories you inhale and so much more. When the book finally ended, it seemed the characters were standing there, hands on their hips saying to me, ‘Now your turn. What magic is inside your head?’ And I was desperate to answer. I began to use story as a way to explore my inner landscapes, but also to wish on stars and dream. And if there is a better medicine than this, I do not know it. The Night Circus is a true jewel of a book.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
It is difficult to explain why Rose Edelstein walked off the pages of this book and tucked up beside me on the couch, but she did. Perhaps it was her particular sadness that I could relate to. The shared sense of having an experience that all the world was often oblivious to.
Rose discovers that she can taste emotions. When she bites into the cake that her mother makes for her ninth birthday, Rose discovers that she can taste her mother's sadness and desperation. Suddenly, all food carries not only flavour, but also the unspoken emotions of the person who prepared the meal. Rose goes through life both afraid to share her secret ability and in despair of knowing the emotional state of others. It’s often more than she knows how to deal with. And here is where Rose and I became good friends.
I remember as a child going to school with secrets. Things I had seen, things that were happening that I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about. I remember knowing more than I should about trauma and constantly checking the emotional energy of a room or situation to try to ascertain whether I was safe. The result was years of loneliness and a feeling that I had insider knowledge that could break my family apart if I told.
Rose understood that too. She wanted packaged or factory food. Food that was tasteless but devoid of emotion. Numb food, if you like. For years, I wanted to same thing. To feel nothing. To get through the day. To survive. But after reading this book, I felt the plea of Rose, though she struggles to answer it: is there something more? And I began to think there was. A smorgasbord of life that was actually good to taste. A brave thought. And to this day I continue healing and tasting the goodness of life around me. And for me books continue to be one of the most scrumptious meals of health and wholeness that there is.