Liquid Fiction

Thomas Jones

  • The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading by Francis Spufford
    Faber, 214 pp, £12.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 571 19132 0
  • A Child’s Book of True Crime: A Novel by Chloe Hooper
    Cape, 238 pp, £12.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 224 06237 9

In my nursery school nativity play, the Christmas before I turned five, I was cast as the narrator. My role involved sitting on a set of steps to one side of the stage in Silchester village hall, and reading out, from a primitive autocue – a series of large sheets of white cardboard, the text handwritten on them in thick felt-tip pen – the story of the first Christmas, as my contemporaries performed what I spoke. The most thrilling scene for me had nothing to do with donkeys, inns, stables, babies, shepherds, angels or wise men, but was when ‘there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’ (not, of course, that we used the Authorised Version). For this, I stamped my way over to the middle of the stage, and declaimed the decree in the person of the Emperor. My costume consisted of a toga, sandals and a laurel wreath, which Imperial get-up I wore throughout the performance. And I was never, and still am not, entirely sure of the extent to which the persons of Caesar and narrator coincided. At any rate, the experience instilled in my childhood self a (not articulated) sense, residual still, that there might be a mystical, if misty, relationship between reading and power.

Francis Spufford, a third of the way into The Child that Books Built, tells the following story:

I learnt to read around my sixth birthday. I was making a dinosaur in school from crepe bandage and toilet rolls when I started to feel as if an invisible pump was inflating my head from the inside. My face became a cluster of bumps on a taut sphere, my feet receded and turned into dangling limpnesses too far away to control. The teacher carried me home on her shoulders. I gripped the dinosaur in one hand. It was still wet with green and purple poster paint. After that things turned delirious. I had mumps . . . When I caught the mumps I couldn’t read; when I went back to school again, I could. The first page of The Hobbit was a thicket of symbols, to be decoded one at a time and joined hesitantly together . . . By the time I reached The Hobbit’s last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts. I had undergone the acceleration into the written word that you also experience as a change in the medium.

This is nicely turned – a ‘thicket of symbols’, a ‘jelly of meaning’ – and shows a gift for narrative. The close description of the dinosaur is vivid but not overdone; the onset of delirium is marked by the disappearance of such details from the account. Just for a moment you think the inflating-head feeling is a symptom of learning to read – the mumps are a mini-twist – but the misreading is useful: it prepares the ground for the later transformation that does have to do with learning to read. Elsewhere in the book Spufford distinguishes between people, like himself, who have been committed readers of fiction since early childhood, and people (including ‘friends in the word business – very literary people, people more literary than me’) who ‘only started to read as teenagers, at 14 or 15 or 16’, and have ‘developed almost no appetite, necessarily, for story as such’. Spufford has developed not only an appetite but a talent for it.

The Child that Books Built calls itself a ‘memoir of childhood and reading’, but it’s more a memoir of childhood reading, or childhood as reading. Non-reading childhood is glimpsed only occasionally, when Spufford peers for a moment over the top of the books that built him. When he was three, his younger sister, Bridget, was born. She suffered from cystinosis, a ‘ridiculously rare’ metabolic disorder. Her body was incapable of dealing with waste cystine (an amino acid) which instead accumulated in crystals in her tissues. By the time the cause of her ‘failure to thrive’ was diagnosed in the autumn of 1967, when she was a few months old, Bridget ‘had one kidney already defunct, and the other about to give in’. Great Ormond Street had recently developed a way to keep her alive – just – and by the time she was one, she was ‘well into the routine of existing with a fingertip grasp on the medical precipice’. Francis ‘knew that Bridget’s fragility made the whole world fragile’. Books were a means of escape into more robust realities, offering an ‘experience which is controlled, and repeatable, and comes off the page. I learned to pump up the artificial realities of fiction from page to mind at a pressure that equalised with the pressure of the world, so that (in theory) the moment I actually lived in could never fill me completely, whatever was happening.’ The consistency, in both senses, of Spufford’s metaphors – all that liquid fiction, all those mental hydraulics – is very appealing. As is that nicely placed self-doubting parenthesis.

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