Books for healing

Paul Kidby’s interpretation of Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

On Sunday I redistributed some more of my brother Mark’s books. I’d taken what I wanted, his beneficiaries (i.e. long time friday night drinks mates) took a car-load of the ones they wanted, and on Sunday a couple of my friends went through what was left and went home happy with assorted histories, whodunnits and the complete works of Shakespeare in one volume.

There’s still several boxes left. This may take a while.

Among those I’d reserved for myself were his collection of the complete works of Terry Pratchett, and the almost complete works of Dianna Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman. I felt very selfish keeping them back but to my relief it seemed that his mates weren’t into Fantasy anyway.

Mark and I shared a love of the fantasy genre –  if not for him, perhaps I would never have discovered it. When I was around 9, he introduced me to The Hobbit and the Narnia books. When I was around 16, it was the Gormenghast trilogy, and so on. He noticed the Harry Potter books before they became cult fiction. I introduced him to Diana Wynne Jones after I discovered her in a remainders shop.

People dismiss fantasy as escapist rubbish, and plenty of it is; but fantasy can be as refreshing, insightful and moving as any ‘serious’ fiction. And it was mostly fantasy to which I turned after Mark died last November.

By coincidence, this weeks edition of the New Scientist magazine has an article on why human beings are captivated by stories, and how they affect us neurologically and emotionally. Apparently a good yarn can stimulate the release of feel-good hormone oxytocin, and we also use storytelling to “reconcile our conscious and subconscious thoughts”. Perhaps that’s why books have been such an important part of my grieving and recovery process. I get to escape, I get to feel better, and I get to grieve for and reflect on Mark’s death without having to focus too much on what happened – for a change. Whatever the reason, reading has been important to me during this time, and my choice of books has been significant.

The first novel I read after Mark’s death wasn’t actually fantasy, but I had to read it in order to purge myself of the weirdness of my funeral-shopping experience. False sympathy anyone? I think our dearly departed would quite have enjoyed the humour of meeting a real-live funeral director who could have stepped straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but decided crying was more in character for the recently bereaved. Mr Funeral Director proffered tissues with exquisite and excruciating tact. Eeek! Where’s my black veil?

I had to re-read The Loved One just to see if in this case life really did imitate art. It did. But the book was also nastier then I remembered, and more bleak, so I don’t know that it did me much good.

[Spoiler alert]

The other books I felt a compulsion to read in those first few weeks were the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix, which are all about necromancy. Ok, I know that seems morbid, but I wanted to re-read Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen on the basis of just one scene, right at the end of the trilogy, that had stuck in my mind. A powerful necromancer is lured to the final gateway of death and at last has to face the fate he has fought so hard to avoid. And it is transcendent:

… “a night sky so thick with stars that they overlapped and merged to form one vast and unimaginably luminous cloud … casting a light as bright but softer than the living world’s sun. … [Hedge] saw the stars as he fell, and they called to him, overcoming the weight of the spells and power that had kept him in the living world for more than a hundred years.”

In the end, Hedge cannot resist the call of death – and it is not what he had always feared.

The first time I read these pages – several years ago – I was in tears because of their beauty and hopefulness. Reading them again now, with a loss so fresh, they help me to accept death as a natural end to life. Even though I don’t believe in an afterlife, the image of stars calling still helps me think of death as a last great adventure. I like to imagine that just possibly, death could hold just such a beautiful surprise. And for me this image also symbolises the reality that after death our atoms are merged again with the universe. I find great comfort in that idea, and I suspect that as a scientifically-minded person, Mark may have liked it too.

Another death I am sure he would have been pleased – but very surprised – to meet, is the Death of the Discworld, (pictured above) known and loved by millions of Terry Pratchett fans around the world:

“Death leaned over the saddle and looked down at the kingdoms of  the world.


– from Mort

Death likes curry and cats, is a great short-order chef and always speaks LIKE THIS. He’s a tad vulnerable and misunderstood. I guess it’s the bones that upset people.

My acquaintance with him has been extensive lately because my son AM has embarked on reading all Mark’s Terry Pratchett books – in order of publication, just as Mark had arranged them in the box under his bed. I’m doing the same, only after him, because AM doesn’t like me reading ahead. In fact he has threatened dire punishments if I do. I had read quite a few of them already, out of order, but starting again from the beginning feels like a form of tribute. Plus of course it’s lots of fun.

“‘I meant’, said Ipslore bitterly, ‘what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?’

Death thought about it.

CATS, he said eventually, CATS ARE NICE.”

– from Sourcery

AM started reading the books just before Mark died, which pleases me because I think they were among Mark’s favourites and he’d been hoping AM would get into them. When AM was around 11 I read him some of the books that were more directly for children, like the Wee Free Men and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. AM enjoyed them, but wasn’t interested in the rest. Now he’s older he can better appreciate the rest of them – the humour, the philosophy and the science. When we’re driving somewhere he reads me the bits he finds especially funny – this made our last long drive up to Port Macquarie much more fun than usual, and kind of kept Mark with us, as he often was on those journeys.

I think Discworld Death would have got on well with Mark. They shared a liking for curry and cats. Well, you never know, perhaps they have met. In the multiverse, they say, everything happens eventually.

I don’t recall death ever making much of an appearance in Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s books, but then, her books are an absolute, wonderful escape from all that is tough in life. They are like comfort food for the soul, only far more nourishing. Set in alternate universes where magic is real, they are quirky, warm, original and elegant.

A friend of mine borrowed all of my DWJ’s and several of Mark’s a couple of years ago and reading them over and over helped her to cope with her daughter’s death. Except after a while Mark began to get a bit toey about getting them back. I’m glad she returned them before he died. He immediately re-read several of them. I think reading was a big help to him in those last months, to get away from the pain and discomfort of stomach cancer.

Since Mark’s death I feel pledged to carry on his somewhat obsessive quest to buy every single one of DWJ’s books. This is not as easy as it sounds because even though her stories are gorgeous, they are either:

a. so unpopular with Australian readers that bookstores rarely stock them; or

b. so popular that they are snapped up as soon as they hit the shelves.

I suspect it’s the former. We have mostly found them in remainder stores, second-hand bookstores, or heavily discounted. I had plans, last year, to buy a few of our missing titles from Amazon as a Christmas present for Mark. I didn’t get to do that. Oh well, perhaps it would have spoiled Mark’s pleasure in tracking them down. Anyway, if I want to read them now, it’s up to me to find them, and I think I’ll do it the way he did. Since he died, I have found three, almost without trying – although the last one was not in the discount bin and I was feeling a bit poor so foolishly I didn’t buy it.

It felt like an omen, though, that the first one I found, Spellcoats, was all about making magic through weaving. Mark was a weaver. For a few years he was the token male member of Sutherland Spinners and Weavers Association (until some other men joined). He learned spinning and weaving as a young man and then dropped it for 10 or 15 years, rediscovering it again after he was retrenched. I have a lovely collection of his scarves & his spun yarn, waiting to be redistributed as his books were.

The President of SSWA issues an annual challenge to members and in 2009-2010, the challenge was “Spinning the Blues”. I’ll blog about Mark’s entry in the challenge another time – for now I’ll just say he had a whole story about it that eventually expanded to about 15 minutes in the telling. So I think he would have loved Spellcoats, in which powerful magic is woven into coats in the form of stories that record events and create possible futures. It feels very unfair that we didn’t find the book before he died. Damn and blast. !%@$!^&$!@^!

So in my reading voyage these past few months, Evelyn Waugh has enabled me to shudder, Garth Nix to cry, to accept and hope, Terry Pratchett to laugh and to remember, and Diana Wynne Jones to both escape and to rage. Pretty much the full gamut of grief. What wonderful gifts.

4 thoughts on “Books for healing

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