Saturday 20 September 2014

a small, hesitant thing

About this time two years ago I commented what a strange coincidence it was that I read two books in succession that mentioned the Nags Head in Edale. And now I have just read the second book in a month narrated by a librarian. I applied for a job before the summer in the library at Salford University, I think I would have suited me down to the ground and was very disappointed not to get an interview, such things come up so rarely.

"The Giant's House' by Elizabeth McCracken was bought on the strength of the lovely 'Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination' that I read last month. It lived up to the glowing review, quiet and unassuming and exquisite. It tells the tale of Peggy, a young woman growing old in a small town library, who falls in love with a tall young boy. James Sweatt grows, both older and taller, under her watchful gaze. She sees in him a kindred spirit and takes pleasure in seeking out books for him but remains for many years on the periphery of his life. Gradually a friendship grows up with his aunt and uncle, and her life becomes more and more entangled with his. It is a slightly one sided love story because we get to know Peggy so much better than James. Others see him as a curiosity, the locals as well as the tourists, it is as if she is the only person who truly sees past his giant size to the person underneath. There is not much to say about the story, the book is really just about the two of them. They are bonded I felt partly by their quiet acquiescence to their situations in life; James does not yearn to be a normal kid, and she does not aspire the escape her 'librarian' life. While she fights to make a life for him that fits his size he changes hers in much more subtle ways. 

She doesn't like people much, she confesses that straight off, what she has passion for is knowledge:

"People think librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in peculiar ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. 'I don't think there's such a book ...' a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book." (p.8)

Then this unusually tall boy arrives with a group from school and asks for a book about magic, and things will never be the same again.

"He became a regular after that first school visit, took four books out at a time, returned them, took another four. I let him renew the magic book again and again, even though the rules said one renewal only. Librarians lose reason when it comes to regulars, the good people, the readers. Especially when they were like James: it wasn't that he was lonely or bored; he wasn't dragged into the library by a parent. He didn't have the strange desperate look that some librarygoers develop, even children, the one that says: this is the only place I'm welcome anymore." (p.8-9)

I loved her attitude to her charges, the books, this is a wonderful analogy:

"Books are a bad family - there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can't, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room." (p.21)

Then the strain of all his growing begins to tell on James' health and Peggy decides it is a waste to wait for him to fall in love with her, that she will just love for the two of them:

"I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humour that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not.
I loved him because I discovered that day, after years of practice, I had a talent for it." (p.78-9)

Although the story is bitter sweet it is perfect because in all good love stories someone walks in and changes a small, hesitant life into something else. It is strange because the fact of his giant-ness is both vital and irrelevant to the tale. It is what makes the telling of it so curious. Sorry, that is a bit cryptic, you'll just have to read it. 

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