Two Books at the Same Time

Published on 2018-04-23

I read two books back to back yesterday and I can't tell whether this reeling, unmoored feeling is a consequence of the one, the other, the combination of them, or the simple fact of having read two books back to back. 

The books were SO LUCKY by Nicola Griffith and TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse, both of which I want to include in my next NYT column (so far, loosely themed around thrillers), so I can't talk about them too much here -- but suffice it to say that they're both riveting, and profoundly brutal in different ways. 

I read SO LUCKY in about two hours, lying down on my living room couch, gripping it tighter and tighter, and finished it trembling and crying, so jellied with anger and adrenaline that I needed nothing so much as a brisk walk in the sunshine -- and another book. 

I took TRAIL OF LIGHTNING out into the world, into the much-needeed and too-recent spring sunshine. I saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker tapping tidy wells into a pine tree, row on row. I wandered into a poutine festival -- I can't believe I've just written those words -- and found a truck serving a fusion of poutine and food from the Philippines.  

After eating my own weight in Longasina poutine, I walked to Confederation Park, sat down on the edge of a fountain that used to be in Trafalgar Square and still bears the shrapnel marks from the second World War, and started reading. 

Small children played around me, in that way that small children do  without knowing each other. They were shy and enthusiastic both; I could see they each played games where they themselves were the story's centre, climbing up and down the fountain's broad rim and feeling the ecstatic height of it, surveying the world alone and strong and tall. But then they'd glimpse the other children and their stories would overlap, they'd chase each other again, play tag and hide-and-seek, until their parents called them back to leave. 

I wondered if any of them would remember these twenty minutes of afternoon play, and how strange it was that, if they didn't, I would carry the memory of the three of them together, share it with people who weren't there. How children shed joy in their wake as birds do feathers, never feeling the loss, and how we pick those feathers up and marvel over them, wish on them, try to build ourselves wings.

White seagulls barked and croaked. Black squirrels inched towards me, then away. I sat on the fountain until the sun dipped behind office buildings,  resented the office buildings, walked back to the poutine festival and sat on the steps of city hall to drink in more sun while reading. When the shade stole over that spot too I got up, went home, read on. 

It was a beautiful afternoon, and maybe that's ultimately why I was so rattled. A beautiful afternoon full of good food and spring weather and children playing pairs strangely with reading books in which terrible things happen to vulnerable people -- the disabled, the elderly, the very young. I couldn't hold the experience of reading at arm's length; the threat of terrible things happening was sharpened by the sunshine. 

They're both brilliant books. But I'm overdue for a good long steeping in nineteenth century poetry to take the sting off my soul.