I have just finished reading a book called Disputed Land, a clever and thoughtful novel which touches on many themes, not least what we are doing to the environment, but also how we relate and how the capacity we have for good relating, perhaps especially in families, is in effect amongst the most essential of the qualities of human life. Not that Tim Pears the author does not see other things as important. But in the way the book is written, in the first person, as though through the eyes of a man looking back at his thirteen year old self, what struck me was the way that the familial relationships were cast through his eyes. I never had grandfather or grandmother within living memory. The last of them to die was my paternal grandmother who died around my second birthday and of whom I have no real memory and no photos. Theo, the young lead in the book, has a genuinely interesting relationship with his grandfather and there is a feel about it which made me quite envious. Until that is I reflected on the relationship my own father shared with my sons which frankly was virtually non-existent.Their grandfather was, in one way at least, like the grandfather in the book, completely obsessive about his own interests. Unlike the character in the book he had no idea how to engage with youngsters and did not particularly like to. When faced with them he might give them the benefit of talking about his latest invention in terms which no-one but him could understand (my late husband once fell asleep in front of him while he was talking to him, and two of the boys sat at his feet playing a card game but grandfather talked on apparently choosing not to see that no-one was listening). The extraordinary thing is that since he died he has become very interesting to them, his inventions are the subject of a certain fascination, and my stories of his eccentricities are eagerly heard.
Many things went through my head reading this lovely book, and no doubt many of them are nothing to do with the reasons it was written. But almost always in a good novel I find a quote, something which stands out to me and makes a point which however many times I’ve heard it before, I hear it anew. In this book it was a quote from The Venerable Bede, ‘Life is the flight of a sparrow through the banqueting hall’ and the author adds ‘and the banqueting hall is the mind of God’.
Is that not a sublime idea? Now I may forget the majority of the story in Disputed Land, though I will remember its themes, and I may forget one day that I have ever read any books by Tim Pears, but I will not forget that quote. And I have others, in notebooks, on scraps of paper and back pages of diaries, from other books I have read where one line, or one phrase jumped out and gave me food for thought for days, something which arrived at exactly the right time that my brain needed it and lifted my spirit.
I see these as perfect moments and am always hopeful that my own books may carry one or two of them for other people because surely others experience those brief, sharp, delights, of finding a string of words that perfectly express a hidden truth.