Quietly beautiful

Silk
by Alessandro Baricco
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is a slight volume of short chapters (some extremely short) and lots of white space. This, coupled with Baricco’s use of repetition and sparse language adds up to a sense that what you are reading is closer to poetry than novel.

The story is at once vast and simple. In 19th century France, the town of Lavilledieu relies on silk production for most of its income. When European silkworms start dying, Hervé Joncour accepts the job of travelling ever further abroad to buy silkworm eggs for his town.

In the hands of another author this might have been the basis for a great adventure story with a real action hero at its centre. Silk is not an adventure story, it is a romance.

Hervé’s travels are described so briefly you almost forget what a capable, worldly man he must be. In many ways, this is the tale of the two women in his life. Hervé’s wife, Hèlene is devoted, saddened by their childless state and worried by her husband’s travels. Hervé loves her in a placid, steady sort of way. But when he goes to Japan he falls suddenly and desperately for a woman he can never touch or speak to – the concubine of an important man. Hervé is entranced by her and starts to let his passion rule his previously detached judgment.

I think it’s possible that some people may reach the end of this book thinking that nothing really happened, where others will be amazed by how much was crammed in to so few words (I sit in the latter group). The style may also be offputting. I did take a few chapters to find it beautiful rather than jarring. But I ingested this volume in one gulp, which is testimony to how enjoyable it is.

Like most modern books, the cover is awash with praise and strings of adjectives. The one that comes closest to my experience is “subtle”. This is, for the most part at least, a very subtle book.

Published 2006 by Canongate
ISBN 978-1-8419-5835-4

On being a book lover

I love to read. I mean, I really love to read. I was that child whose parents had to wrestle the book from my hands at the dinner table to get me to eat, who had to seriously weigh up severe car travel sickness against the awful idea of a (sick-free) journey without reading, who read almost every book at the local library so was greatly relieved when they largely restocked in my early teens, who in a recent house move packaged up my most beloved books more carefully than the crystal wine glasses. In my defence I know that Debenhams still sells those glasses.

The point is that I write about books because I love them. I love the look, feel and smell of them, old and new. I love the shape of words on a page. I love the language of books: folio, typography, endpapers, head and tail bands.

But mostly I love to read. As a grown-up I read a lot less than that book-obsessed child I once was, because reading has to fit around work and housekeeping and socialising and all the rest of it, but reading is still a great pleasure, a guaranteed escape to a good place (no matter what the book is about).

My favourite books is an ever-changing list, partly because there are so many great books out there. But my favourite ever grown-up book is probably Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

My favourite books as a child were much more clearcut. They were:

  • The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter
  • Alpaca by Rosemary Billam
  • Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
  • The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allen Ahlberg

Plus I also devoured everything by Roald Dahl, Colin Dann, Brian Jacques, Noel Streatfield and Frances Hodgson Burnett over and over again. Which is probably a more sophisticated list than the five I’ve picked out above, but taste is taste and they were my absolute favourites.

It’s personal, it’s about you the reader as much as anything else, it can be hard to put a finger on. I rate enjoyment of a book separately from quality of writing or storyline or characters because sometimes an author does everything well but I still don’t enjoy the book. And vice versa.

So, without further ado, my first Nose in a book review is here.