(Deep breath. What’s the best way to introduce this to my friends? Would I like to see them reading it and enjoying it to the max? If that’s the case, I probably shouldn’t talk about it the same way as I first learnt about it. Because that would totally ruin it.)
This book is Mor’s personal diary from Wednesday 5th September 1979 till Wednesday 20th February 1980. She’s fourteen. She has lived with her family in Aberdare, one of the towns in the South Wales Valleys, until this point. She met her father for the first time at the beginning of the book as he became her legal guardian. She just had an accident leaving her walking stiffly with a cane. She’s going to a posh boarding school in Oswestry near Shrewsbury in England. The diary records her first few months at the new school, starting a new life, reflecting on the old one and spending most of her time reading books.
If you pick up this book expecting to eavesdrop into a young girl’s life, her joys and troubles, her heart and mind, it’s a delightful book. She doesn’t fit in because she’s an ‘outlander barbarian’, from the wrong side of the border and has an accent that belongs to a lower class. She’s crippled and she’s, just simply, a newcomer. She’s not overly bothered, but “Using the clue of voice, I identified the other barbarians, one Irish and one Jewish. I do what I can do befriend them.”
The bluntness of her honesty, combined with the fact that she’s unaware of that bluntness are hilarious and priceless. (“Really, I only like to drink water. Why do people have such a problem with that? It comes out of the tap for free.” “Gramma and Grampar never mentioned sex at all. They must have done it, or they wouldn’t have had Auntie Teg and my mother, but I don’t think they did it more than twice.”)
She’s well-read, full of thoughts and feelings, but with no one to talk to she uses big words and dramatic expressions on the pages of her diary. An ignorant child and an opinionated young adult lay side by side in her mind, switching seamlessly from one sentence to the next. (“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation… I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”) Mor reminds me of Anne Shirley.
It’s based on autobiographic material of the author. The deep affection and intimate understanding of the Welsh landscape and history are too sincere to be fiction. The hunger and dependence on books are impossible to be made-up either. I can feel Mor and the author like a double exposure photo behind the diary entries.
“There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.”
This is also a book dedicated to libraries and librarians. On the first page it says, “This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.” Librarians are like a gate keeper to a separate world. Among all the uncertainties and among others – be they magical creatures or English school girls – Mor finds kindness and acceptance from librarians and bookish people: she fits in and she is valued. They are her kindred spirits.
She has found and always finds anchor in books. She’s not lonely, not crippled, not anxious in books. “It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.” When her leg is stretched agonisingly on the rack, and she has to lie flat, she would read “holding a paperback above my head sideways in one hand” and longingly look at the spines of the hardbacks on the table that she can’t hold up . It’s the thought of an unfinished book that saves her from the verge of ending her own life.
She jots down all the books she borrows from the libraries, buys from the bookshops and secondhand shops, receives from people in a way that feels like an archive. She devours them at a speed only teenagers can do (reminds me of my manga-devouring teenage years). These are the real fantasy and sci-fi books published during the golden era of 1930s to 60s, by the likes of Tolkien, Le Guin and Lelazny. Good people on the internet have compiled long lists of all the books mentioned in the text. It’s long.
She records her uncensored opinions. Mor’ll say something like, “Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon are absolutely brill.” Such and such “is okay, but not as good as Ringworld or A Gift From Earth.” “Reading Out of the Silent Planet, which isn’t a patch on the Narnia books.” “I still can’t forgive Lewis for his allegory.” “Creatures of Light and Darkness was awfully peculiar.” Without the faintest thought or worry about offending anyone.
What I haven’t mentioned is that this novel is actually classed as a fantasy and is one of the few joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. That’s why I chose to read it in the first place. But the magic element is minor and it’s not a fantasy in the sense of Lord of the Rings. There’s no magical world, quests, swords and dragons. So I was disappointed expecting it to be a ‘high’ fantasy. So just forget about the fantasy and read it as a Welsh girl trying to grow up with a lot of books. If you’re a fantasy and sci-fi reader, watch your to-be-read list!
One final comment, I really hate the cover! Care more about the cover please!