Perfect Prose #7: Elsewhere

I must have read this book for the first time in 2005 or 2006, not long after it was published. I was a teenager at the time and it was one of my favourite books for many years. I have just moved my life across the ocean and I brought it with me, which got me remembering this passage, my favourite in the book.

I remember reading it all those years ago, before I had any idea where life would lead me, and every time I read it back then it gave me those stomach-butterflies of fear and excitement, just thinking about the endless possibilities; wondering.

*

“There will be other lives.
There will be other lives for nervous boys with sweaty palms, for bittersweet fumblings in the backseats of cars, for caps and gowns in royal blue and crimson, for mothers clasping pretty pearl necklaces around daughters’ unlined necks, for your full name read aloud in an auditorium, for brand-new suitcases transporting you to strange new people in strange new lands.
And there will be other lives for unpaid debts, for one-night stands, for Prague and Paris, for painful shoes with pointy toes, for indecision and revisions.
And there will be other lives for fathers walking daughters down aisles.
And there will be other lives for sweet babies with skin like milk.
And there will be other lives for a man you don’t recognize, for a face in a mirror that is no longer yours, for the funerals of intimates, for shrinking, for teeth that fall out, for hair on your chin, for forgetting everything. Everything.
Oh, there are so many lives. How we wish we could live them concurrently instead of one by one by one. We could select the best pieces of each, stringing them together like a strand of pearls. But that’s not how it works. A human’s life is a beautiful mess.”

*

From Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, published by Bloomsbury.

Perfect Prose #6: A Little Life

I will rave about this sublime book to anyone and everyone. I do add in a health warning – it’s absolutely soul-destroying – but it is undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read. At the moment, the eBook is only £1.19 on Amazon UK – so if you haven’t yet read it, now is your chance.

*

“It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate. Or maybe he is closer still: maybe he is that grey cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbour’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbour’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

*

From ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara, published by Picador.

Perfect Prose #5: The God of Small Things

Yesterday, I was approved on NetGalley for Arundhati Roy’s much anticipated latest offering, ‘The Ministry of Upmost Happiness.’ Almost immediately upon reading, it made me think of her Man Booker Prize winning novel ‘The God of Small Things’, that I read about 6 years ago. This is one of the quotes from that novel that has always stayed with me.

*

But what was there to say?

Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-coloured shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.

Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

*

An extract from The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Perfect Prose #4: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently looking for appropriate readings for our wedding this summer. I do, of course, want to draw on lovely passages from literature, and this is one that I really like – it gets to the heart of what I think relationships are all about – perhaps it isn’t a terribly romantic view, but in another sense it is totally romantic.

*

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being ‘in love’, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

*

An extract from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, published by Vintage.

Perfect Prose #3: When God Was A Rabbit

I read this book five years ago and loved it. I wasn’t sure about the title, but I’m so pleased I gave it a go and it surpassed my expectations. This evening I stumbled upon this quote that I had copied down in an old notebook, and decided I had to share it here.

*

The following day, the partial eclipse began just before ten. The sky was overcast, which was a shame, because the lessening of light became a subtle phenomenon rather than the dramatic occurrence of ancient times. We were out in the bay with other boats, surrounded by cliff tops dotted with hundreds of observers, their faces looking towards the cloudmasked sun, protective mirrored viewers held up like 3D glasses. Gulls were singing, and land birds too from the island haven, but there was chaos in their voices, melody gone. They were sensing the unusual, I was sensing the cold. The diminishing light felt like the approach of a storm, like something harmful, inexplicable. And then just before eleven fifteen, the last of the sun disappeared, and the darkness and silence were total, and the cold descended upon the water, and us, and the whole bay locked down into this ravenous silence; the birds quiet, confused into sleep.

I thought this is how it would be if the sun died; the gentle shutting down of an organ, sleepy, no longer working. No explosion at the end of life, just this slow disintegration into darkness, where life as we know it never wakes up, because nothing reminds us that we have to.

The sun started to reappear a couple of minutes later, slowly, of course, until colour once again saturated the sea and our faces, and birdsong filled the air, songs this time of joy, of relief. Cheers rang out from the cliff tops and the ra ta ta ta of applause. Yet we were all quiet for so long after, touched by the magnitude, the beautiful unfathomable magnitude of it all. This is what we are connected to. What we are all connected to. When the lights go out, so do we.

*

When God Was  A Rabbit by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.

Perfect Prose #2: All The Light We Cannot See

Having last week finished ‘The Nightingale’, set in occupied France, it got me thinking about the masterpiece that is Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, similarly set during the Second World War in Paris. There were so many exquisite passages from this book that it was hard to pick just one, but this one is so utterly perfect that words fail me. For anyone who’s lost someone, this passage provides solace and hope for the things that endure, long after a life has been extinguished.

*

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of televisions programs, of e-mails, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I am going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscape we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

*

From ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doer, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Perfect Prose #1: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’, and it got me remembering some of the beautiful passages from his previous novel ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’. The following is one that has always stayed with me. The first time I read it I was on a train to London and silently weeping.

*

The airport was filled with people coming and going. But it was only your grandfather and me.

I took his daybook and searched its pages. I pointed at, How frustrating, how pathetic, how sad.

He searched through the book and pointed at, The way you just handed me that knife.

I pointed at, If I’d been someone else in a different world I’d’ve done something different.

He pointed at, Sometimes one simply wants to disappear.

I pointed at, There’s nothing wrong with not understanding yourself.

He pointed at, How sad.

I pointed at, And I wouldn’t say no to something sweet.

He pointed at, Cried and cried and cried.

I pointed at, Don’t cry.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, So sad.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, Something.

He pointed at, Nothing.

I pointed at, Something.

Nobody pointed at, I love you.

There was no way around it. We could not climb over it, or walk until we found its edge.

I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently.

I would change my life.

I would kiss my piano teacher, even if he laughed at me.

I would jump with Mary on the bed, even if I made a fool of myself.

I would send out ugly photographs, thousands of them.

What are we going to do? he wrote.

It’s up to you, I said.

He wrote, I want to go home.

What is home to you?

Home is the place with the most rules.

I understood him.

And we will have to make more rules, I said.

To make it more of a home.

Yes.

OK.

We went straight to the jewelry store. He left the suitcase in the back room. We sold a pair of emerald earrings that day. And a diamond engagement ring. And a gold bracelet for a little girl. And a watch for someone on his way to Brazil.

That night we held each other in bed. He kissed me all over. I believed him. I was not stupid. I was his wife.

The next morning he went to the airport. I didn’t dare feel his suitcase.

I waited for him to come home.

Hours passed. And minutes.

I didn’t open the store at 11:00.

I waited by the window. I still believed in him.

I didn’t eat lunch.

Seconds passed.

The afternoon left. The evening came.

I didn’t eat dinner.

Years were passing through the spaces between moments.

Your father kicked in my belly.

What was he trying to tell me?

I brought the birdcages to the windows.

I opened the windows, and opened the birdcages.

I poured the fish down the drain.

I took the dogs and cats downstairs and removed their collars.

I released the insects onto the street.

And the reptiles.

And the mice.

I told them, Go.

All of you.

Go.

And they went.

And they didn’t come back.

*

From ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by Penguin.