The tea was weak and black and scented with allspice. My grandmother had brought it. We were eating the biscuits she always made, displayed in a box she’d painted gold and dotted with blue flowers. The biscuits were hard, a bit like Italian biscotti, and flavoured with cinnamon. Since her death, I have searched for biscuits like those. I have tried to recreate them, but failed.
Even then, I could see that by supplying her own tea and cups and biscuits my grandmother was wordlessly criticising my mother’s domestic management. But maybe that afternoon wasn’t simply my mother’s way of avoiding my grandmother. Maybe it was also my mother’s gift – she had wanted to give me that calm interlude with the two of them, and arranged things carefully with that in mind.
My father and grandmother were talking about John Fowles’s novel, The Collector. They sat on my parents’ velvety orange sofa, passing a copy back and forth between them. I wonder what brought them to read it. Was it strange that they should be talking about such a disturbing book? Whatever their reasons, this was the first serious discussion of a novel I’d ever heard, and I was fascinated. I only wish I could remember what they actually thought of it. Were they arguing or in agreement?
What I do recall is that something made them both look up and turn their eyes on me at the same time. ‘This is not a novel for you,’ my grandmother said. ‘Not yet.’ She swivelled her head towards my father. ‘Not at thirteen.’ Then my grandmother pressed her cheek against mine and kissed me, her thick dark hair against my light. My mother had confided to me that my grandmother’s hair was not naturally black.
What I did next will not be a surprise. Pandora’s box. Forbidden chambers. Late that night, I snuck out of bed and made my way through the house. I turned on only one light, for fear of being caught – just the ceiling lamp at the far end of the room. The beam was aimed at the mantelpiece. On it sat the replica of the eighteenth-century galleon that my mother and uncle and aunt had bought for my grandfather to look at when he was dying, because he had always dreamed of sailing in one. Dim light fell on the bookshelves either side of the fireplace.
Surely it won’t be here, I thought, as I scanned each row. I climbed on top of the cabinet that stood beneath the shelves, searching higher and higher, something I had done many times before. Surely my grandmother will have taken it away, I thought. I began to tip books forward, wondering if my father had concealed The Collector behind them. At the far end of the highest shelf was something familiar. I recognised it, a brown hardback with no cover. Out of the way, but not hidden. My father isn’t a man who would hide a book. I remembered, then, that it wasn’t actually my father who had warned me not to read it, but my grandmother.
That night, and over the following nights, I read The Collector in bed. If my father had discovered this he would have scolded me about damaging my eyes by reading in poor light. He would not have stopped me reading it. But I still felt a sense of shame at doing what my grandmother had told me not to do. That shame increased, mingled with distress, as I wrestled to make sense of a world where a young woman could be stolen, deprived of natural light and fresh air and the sight of the sky, and subjected to violence and terror.
The Collector taught me a type of fear that doesn’t go away. At the centre of the novel is a woman who disappears. There is no mystery about what has happened to her – the reader learns this in the first pages. Fowles tells the story from both points of view, the woman’s and that of the man who holds her captive. We experience his delusional perception of what he is doing, and it is a truly ugly thing. We share her struggle to hold on to her sense of self – mind and body – as she plots to survive and escape. At a time in my life when I was fantasising about what I might be, whom I might love, where I might go, I was desperate for her to succeed. It is difficult for me to think of any novel that left me as desolate as The Collector.
The woman-in-jeopardy story was not new to me. I’d been obsessed with fairy tales and their vanishing maidens for as long as I’d been able to read. But I’d never been made to imagine in such detail what it might be like to be one of those maidens. That afternoon in my parents’ living room was such a happy one, but it led to a deepening of my awareness of the most terrible darkness. Something of The Collector seeped into The Book of You. I think this will be true of my next novel too.
My grandmother comes to me and my sister, still, in dreams, when we are especially ill or frightened. When I had flu recently, but was too immersed in working on my new novel to stop and rest, I wrote in bed. I put my computer on an old wooden lap desk that belonged to my grandmother, knowing that she would have liked the use I’d found for it almost as much as my mother does.