In the past few years, we’ve seen a swell of books that focus on female friendship. The newfound popularity of writers like Elena Ferrante has given us a new wealth of books that explore this kind of relationship. At Salon, Dear Thief author Samantha Harvey examines why this is, as part of a larger discussion about her own novel and the literary landscape. You could also read our review of Harvey’s earlier novel The Wilderness.
It’s no surprise that I’m drawn to books about loneliness and solitude. I did write an essay for The Rumpus, after all, about being a melancholic person. This year was no exception. There are certain novels, essays, or poems that have made me realize this utmost truth: I am not alone in my loneliness. So many people are just trying to be heard and seen, and so much of great literature is centered around this strange and vast world we live in where we often need help finding ourselves. I look for books in which I can relate to the longings of others; a fictional or nonfictional universe that the writer creates where the beauty of existence is in our ability to articulate it in all of its complexities.
Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing offered a particularly powerful reading experience. Lacey writes about a woman named Elyria who leaves her New York City life behind (including her husband) in order to go to New Zealand. She has no concrete plans, really, and the uncertainty that follows her from her home country to a foreign one becomes a way in which to explore the anxiety of the human condition. Who are we, really, if not foreigners in our own bodies — trying to become some version of our selves that we can understand?
We’re all twins and clones and remakes of each other; we’re all pairs unpaired; we’re all speaking the same repeated syllable at each other and why is it that I have to go running off into a twinless solitude? What is inside this solitude but me, saying the same syllable to myself over and over and over, trying to make sense of it, trying to rearrange it.
I read this book in July, right after moving in with my boyfriend. Something held me back from leaving my windowless bedroom I had lived in for 2.5 years (we called it “the book cave”) — and yes, it was mostly the vast quantity of books. For the longest time, literature has been my identity. Who am I without other peoples words? I was existing in my “twinless solitude,” telling myself again and again that I was nothing without my personal library. I was building a fortress of books; shielding myself from the outside world. It wasn’t until my boyfriend gently reminded me (for the seventh or eighth time) that I couldn’t fit all of my books into our shared apartment that I decided it was time to winnow down the collection from 3,000 to a more reasonable number: 1,000. It wasn’t easy, at first, to select which ones would go in the giveaway pile. How could I possibly part with books I hadn’t even read yet? Maybe those would hold the answer to questions I didn’t even know I had. But as I pulled a couple of books off of the overflowing shelves, it became easier. I was freeing myself up, “rearranging” myself, making room for the books I really wanted to read.
I thought, foolishly enough, that my stubbornness and my willingness to self-identify over and over again as the kind of person who would hoard as many books as possible meant that I was special and even charming in some semi-romantic way. I questioned who I was without 1,500 unread books in my home. Who would I be without being myself?
But I am still myself, uncertainties and all. I’ve accumulated more books, and given away others. I read and I write notes in the margins and I know I’ll always be the type of person to interact with text like I’m having a conversation with it. But I don’t know where those conversations will always lead me.
Elyria is a patron saint of uncertainty; a woman who rips herself out of the straight form of her life and analyzes the zigzag shapes of identity around her and inside her. Reading this book right after reassessing my life and the things I had accumulated reminded me of why I spend most of my waking life reading or thinking about words. I like sentences that attempt to “make sense of it;” prose that exposes our deceptively solitary hearts as something more universal.
Another book worth checking out: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey — a dark and atmospheric examination of female friendship, betrayal, and love. There are even Proustian moments in the book:
There is freedom there; there is always freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility. The older you get, the bigger and wilder the past becomes, a place that can never again be tended and which is therefore prone to that loveliness that happens on wastelands and wildernesses, where grass has grown over scrap metal and wheat has sprung up in cracks between concrete and there is no regular shape for the light to fall flat on, so it vaults and multiplies and you want to go there. You want to go there like you want to go to a lover.
More from A Year in Reading 2014
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