Veronica Doyle on Place and Displacement
Possessed as I am with a restless nature, I've aspired to travel widely as frequently as time and finances will afford. Six years ago, after a long visit, I actually made the big leap and changed my country of residence from Australia to America. Therefore, when I ruminate over my most memorable reading experience my wanderlust combines with my overactive imagination, and I tend to romanticize. I envision myself at a dimly lit café in Prague, head buried in a book. Alternatively, I fantasize about being lazily ensconced in an enormous leather armchair in the French embassy in Hanoi, leafing through the latest dispatch from abroad. Or hypnotized by a British mystery, snuggled under a blanket on a sheltered porch in the forest, with the staccato sound of rainwater on the tin roof overhead.
Alas, my reading experiences have not always taken place in such exotic locales, and even when my travels have taken me to such spots, I invariably remember little of the book anyhow. Travel for me is a sensory experience, and one that puts aside much conscious thought. I rely less on comprehension, and more on the tangible and corporeal instinct, emotion, tactility to absorb the atmosphere and sensations.
When I travel I always carry a book with me, but often enough I'm hard-pressed to remember exactly which book it was I was reading in that café in Prague, or during the long drive through the flat green terrain of Kansas and Nebraska, or barreling down the "loneliest highway in the world" in Utah.
However, I can, often enough, have an incredible time reading a magnificent work of fiction in the most banal of circumstances while simply riding on the train, waiting for the bus, or lying in bed at night after a long day at work. There, in my imagination, I am transported to places of wonder and intense emotional states. To make my experience memorable, an author must convey to me the sense of being in those places, in those states, despite the fact that I am on the bus or lying on the couch.
And to be specific, I have an extremely vivid recollection of reading Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina in my first apartment in Portland, lying in my plainly furnished bedroom. I had bought a used copy at Powell's about three months before I started working here. I was lonely and homesick, and still startled by the enormous transition I had made.
When I began Allison's novel I was enchanted by the language. Although the voice is unique, it has echoes of Holden Caulfield's chipper banter, and I am also reminded of Harper Lee's character, Scout, with her wide-eyed naiveté and compassion. The white poor who live at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and the bonds that hold family together, are drawn with an insider's knowledge, a keen sense of pride and pity. At times the narrative touches on the brutal and horrific, but then, like the defiant and willful child-narrator who refuses to dwell on the pain, the story tosses its head and takes another route. I was suddenly treated to a glimmer of hope and redemption, only to be manipulated down another dark emotional path. What I experienced was singular, profound, and it is still difficult to convey because the empathy I felt was so subjective. This novel made me feel both maternal and infantile, at one time remarkably involved and then suddenly a bystander to an incredible tragedy.
When I finally came to the dénouement, my response was so primal I was, for at least an hour, (for several days in fact, it would come in waves) inconsolable. And when my tears had dried, my panting had subsided, I called my mum in Melbourne. "I love you, Mum. You must read Bastard out of Carolina and remember that I love you," I rambled, stuttered, and sniffed onto her answering machine. "Read this book and know that. And thank you for everything."