A sense of home: how the books we read shape our lives

When the Easter break came around this year, I shelved my plans to travel back home to visit my extended family and friends.

Instead, I stayed home, observing the new lockdown rules, just like everyone else.

Since leaving Scotland many years ago and moving to Devon, my sense of home – making a home, going home, being at home, feeling at home – frequently undergoes revision and renewal.

It’s a contingent term, subtly changing its boundaries and implications, even within the space of just a sentence or two. There’s a useful flexibility to the word that helps us make sense of ourselves, individually and collectively.

 

Bringing me back home

Exploring roots and class in Deborah Orr's Motherwell: A Girlhood

Listening to Radio 4’s broadcast of Orr’s memoir, Motherwell: A Childhood, a new language describing the place that was (is?) my home came into being.

Deborah Orr, best known as a columnist and editor for the Guardian, wrote this memoir towards the end of her life, dying all too prematurely, in 2019, at the age of 57. 

Orr’s memoir gives shape to a time and place where identities were forged (and the metaphor is apt). Motherwell is a post-industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow in Scotland. 

Its skyline used to be defined by industrial cooling towers; Motherwell was home to one of the largest steel-making plants in the UK, maybe even Western Europe, but by the 1990s that part of Motherwell’s identity had gone. Like Orr, I grew up in the shadow of those cooling towers. 

The memoir recounts and reimagines a childhood riven by expectations of class and gender; it’s about the streets, the tower blocks, the schools, the friends, the pressures and the close family that build a person’s essence and her armour. 

The powerful, fierce and complex relationship with her mother, Win, dominates; there’s no nostalgia or sentimentality, only frank and unvarnished assessments on a childhood and early life that’s full of challenge, resistance and ambition.

Settling the mother-daughter relationship over time and circumstance is at the core of the memories retold but it’s also an account of a time and place in Britain’s not so distant past when industrial decline redefined the everyday lives and future expectations of so many. 

Orr traces the personal and political ramifications of being home, leaving home, and returning home, a process so many people will recognise with arresting clarity. 

Reading in lockdown

Reading in lockdown can take us to different places and different times. Hilary Mantel’s final instalment of the Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will keep even the most avid readers occupied for some time.

For those looking for narratives of crisis and pandemic, there’s Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy or Louise Welsh’s the Plague Times trilogy. (Not sure why crises come in threes?!)

Like Orr, and perhaps motivated by her in an indirect way, I’m thinking about the ways that the literature provides a new ways of conceptualising and challenging the places we call home.

Spring is in the air

Exploring art and the contemporary moment in Ali Smith’s Spring – part of her Seasonal Quartet

Week two of social distancing in the UK and I finally come around to reading Ali Smith’s Spring. The third of her Seasonal Quartet, with Autumn and Winter published a few years ago, Spring is about a year old now, and documents the language of populist politics as well as the seemingly inevitable contexts of Brexit.

Quite deliberately, the Quartet closely follows the politics of the moment, through Brexit, climate crisis and asylum.

Among many other things, Smith reflects back to the reader the paralysis of political discourse of Britain during this time. 

With discourse around national identity and migration so pronounced and divisive in these debates, the politics of home – of where we belong – couldn’t be more pressing.

The details of daily politics and discourse are bound in a richer world of art and language; Smith is an artist after all, not a journalist, and her prose is experimental and sensory.

In Spring, frameworks of interpretation expand, through conscious reworkings of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Katherine Mansfield’s short fiction and contemporary art. Threads of meaning intertwine, coalesce and unravel, making tangible the fragility of some of our deep held assumptions and expectations.

Perhaps there’s never been a better time to revaluate the terms on which we live, where we live, and the language we use to describe it.

 

Chasing paradise

Searching for a new home in Toni Morrison's Paradise

I’ve been really privileged in my career to travel to the US to work, research, and contribute to larger debates in literary study. 

As part of my teaching I share that research with my undergraduate and postgraduate students, encouraging them to engage with writers that might present them with entirely different worldviews.

Thinking about home, again, becomes a very different prospect for writers like Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich, each of whom write from a position that’s consciously informed by a distinct set of cultural values.

Best known for her novel Beloved (also a major film staffing Oprah Winfrey, she says encouragingly to her students!), Toni Morrison has an extraordinary catalogue of fiction, winning her a Noble prize in 1993, and in my thoughts about home I’m drawn to Paradise (1997), for a few reasons.

It’s set in Oklahoma, albeit an imagined small town in that state, where I lived and studied for a short time. Before my time in the US, I was lucky enough to attend Morrison’s book reading of Paradise at the University of Glasgow.

More significant, of course, is the fact that the novel is about the creation of a new home for a group of exiled women who leave their desperate lives behind to begin something new, something better...

The novel charts the lives of each of the women individually. It’s not for the faint hearted – the opening line is ‘They shoot the white girl first’.

Anyone familiar with Morrison’s work will recognise that histories of slavery, racism and violence underpin the extraordinary accounts of these fictional women and their escape from, and creation of, this new space and community that they call home.

It is dazzling and difficult, both in terms of its subject matter and its literary form, but the rewards are more than equal to the effort.

My signed copy of Paradise is top of my list of non-family items that I’d want to rescue from a burning building.

 

A return home

The healing and happiness of home in Louise Erdich's Love Medicine

A near contemporary of Morrison is Louise Erdrich, a Native American writer who claims both popular and critical success.

Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984), defined the course of my career and my research. An inspirational university tutor introduced me to contemporary Native American fiction and Erdrich’s work specifically.

As with most good things in life, it came about by accident. For a final year project I was all set to write my thesis on African American literature, and Toni Morrison’s fiction in particular, and so it seems was every other member of the class!

Seeing depleted library shelves, I decided to take the path less travelled and immersed myself in what was, at the time, a new kind of fiction (new to the UK) that was slowly becoming part of literature programmes across UK universities.

Love Medicine is about interconnected families and set in a fictional reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich’s fictional world is expansive, as the same characters, families and places connect a series of novels that follow: Tracks, The Beet Queen and The Bingo Palace.

The range and investment in these characters and their sense of identity, as it’s wrapped up in their experiences of home and belonging, is comparable with William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the bedrock of the Southern Literary Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

Love Medicine, among so many things, is about the positive, enriching, but perhaps, fragile, values of home.

The novel ends with a figurative, maybe spiritual, return home – and the final word of the novel is ‘home’ – where healing and happiness can begin again.

To read these four novels again, for the first time, would be a beautiful thing indeed!

Next book on my reading pile

With so many online archives opening up access during lockdown, and the release of classic and new literature free (for a short time) on audio platforms, access to literature has never been easier.

At the moment, I’m back with Erdrich and one of her novels that I missed when it was published, The Plague of Doves (2008).

But when my eyes feel strained with all the online reading and virtual meetings, I’m swept back to New York’s Gilded Age, listening to a free audio download of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a classic of the early 20th century... I reckon a return to Anna Karenina can’t be far away… bliss!

Edith Wharton

 

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