…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Iris Lavell:
I am not sure that I have an all-time favourite book, but there are books that have drawn me in, held my attention, and stayed with me. Some of my favourite books have been collections of poetry. When I was still at school, I remember discovering a love of poetry and particularly the poems of Dylan Thomas, and later of T.S. Eliot. Then e.e. cummings selected poems 1923-1958 was my nightly companion over thirty years ago. I read a lot of historical romance novels when I was very young too – Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the Bronte sisters. Later, many of the novels I became attached to were satirical classics, Catch 22, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Slaughterhouse 5 and Farenheit 541. I enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Solar in the same kind of way, and again, early in my young adult life, some others that played with speculative political satire like We, Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and one that I missed when it came out, The Handmaid’s Tale.
I read and performed many plays between the late nineteen eighties through to about 2004, and studied Caryl Churchill’s plays extensively. Caryl Churchill’s plays have that same kind of irreverence and absurdity of many of the writers listed above, as do Edward Albee’s, some of Pinter’s, Beckett’s, and Pirandello’s Six Characters in search of an Author although their styles are all very different. So my choice is affected by this kind of enjoyment of a combination of poetic language, absurdity, and humour which I think is what it is that connects each of these kinds of writing. I particularly enjoy writers who experiment and play with language and ideas to see what the writing can do, and who draw the equivalent of what visual artists call negative spaces, through manipulating context, poetic form, and through words withheld, as much as those applied.
I always have a book that is my current favourite, and the one that I really love at the moment is The Crying Room by Chris McLeod. I have to confess a vested interest here because Chris is a friend and mentor to me, but this isn’t why I like the book. It is one that I would have taken to regardless. For a time I resisted reading the book because of its title. I was building up to it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to spend time in a crying room, but when I did, was sorry that it had taken me so long.
I struggle to categorise The Crying Room. It is not a novel. It is able to stand as a collection of short stories, but I think it is more interconnected than this, like a series of scattered memories just on the edge of consciousness, with strong rifts of reality scaffolding the whole. I’d call it an exploration of occupied and partly remembered psychological spaces, and it plays with the compression and expansion of subjective time, over the span of an adult life. Did I say it was funny? Some of the stories, or chapters, are very, very funny and dark, in the way absurdist humour is funny, but human, self-deprecating, and more forgiving than the biting satire of some of the writers listed above.
More than this, I like the way Chris McLeod uses the language. He is happy to break rules to make it work hard to achieve the feel of the moment. It is difficult to find a single passage that stands out (there are so many) but this gives a flavour of what I mean:
It is the end of winter and there is a wind, the way it is punishing the trees. From where you are, kite string high, you can see their crowns dip and surge. Behind you, above you, the sky is grey and grey and grey.
Below in the fork of a large tree, a magpie’s nest is riding its fragile sticks on this wind that could lift them. There is – there – a female bird, black breast, speckled wings; sitting, the wind pulling at her.
Lower still the three of them, their house.
I find that when I read the stories – or chapters – from The Crying Room it revives my belief in prose as an art form and not simply as something utilitarian. Because I enjoy reading this kind of prose, and I presume I am not alone in this, it gives me permission to attempt writing that is more than the easily paraphrased, prosaic and practical. It reminds me of what e.e. cummings did for me in my twenties.
Iris Lavell’s debut novel Elsewhere in Success was published by Fremantle Press in 2013. Prior to this she wrote four one-act plays which were performed in Perth and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her poems and short fiction have been published in An Alphabetical Amulet, Thirst and PoetsOnline. She has an honours degree in Theatre and Drama studies, and a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Murdoch University.