As I write this, I am one-third of the way through Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it about 20 years ago and an impression of its power stayed with me. This second time, I am struck again by the freshness of the writing and the attention to the detailed texture of the protagonist’s restricted life, while profound questions are being examined. I’ve read three or four other Atwood novels with pleasure and admiration. But the mythic quality of this one seems unsurpassed.
I have to mention Charlotte Brontë as an author I admire, because Jane Eyre has played such a crucial role in the writing of The Book of Air. If you want to understand how nineteenth-century society worked, you’ll learn more from Dickens or Eliot or Gaskell, but Charlotte Brontë has an unrivalled dramatic sense.
Long before I discovered the Brontës, my first literary crush was Thomas Hardy. Or rather I fell in love with a series of Hardy’s heroines – Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree, Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, and so on until I got to Tess. I read seven or eight of these novels one after the other in hardback copies borrowed from Cheltenham public library. I was 15. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the last one I got to and by chance the first tragedy. As I approached the final chapter, I couldn’t believe it would all end so disastrously.
I came back to Hardy later, as an English student, and read some of the famous ones I’d missed – The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native – but more knowingly and without the same level of absorption. I think now that in his comedies – the ones with happy endings – Hardy can be unnecessarily wordy, and I’m amazed that I wasn’t put off by this as a 15-year-old, but I still admire him for his narrative sense and his ability to build a scene, often setting major events in the context of farming and other physical work.
When I was a teenager, reading was a totally immersive experience. Now there’s more detachment. But the naïve appeal of fiction remains – curiosity to know what happens next, the growing fondness for characters and the desire that things go well for them. Long reads particularly draw me in. Last year I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Ferrante, a reclusive writer, was in the news because she was suddenly a global bestseller and because the New York Review of Books had published an article by an Italian journalist claiming to have identified her – a gossip-piece dressed up as an exposé. Hearing about this, I was instinctively on Ferrante’s side, whoever she was, because all she wanted to do was make art. And I loved the series.I was reminded of my earlier encounters with fiction – that luxurious feeling of losing yourself in another world.
Reading in translation, you can appreciate the psychology of the characters and the narrative structure, but you can’t get close to the language. When I read Wolf Hall I was bowled over by the way Hilary Mantel uses words to create Cromwell’s consciousness and the whole strange world of Tudor England, which straddles the medieval and the modern. I’d sometimes get to the end of a paragraph and read it again to see how she’d done it. At one point Cromwell handles a horsehair shirt of the kind that Sir Thomas More is reputed to wear under his clothes. Cromwell’s thoughts move from marvelling that someone would choose to punish themselves in this way to speculating on how such a product is created and distributed. A whole social and economic structure comes alive at this moment.
Mantel is an interesting example of a novelist who worked for years in relative obscurity before finding the subject that triumphantly suited her talent. Her earlier novels are surprisingly varied in subject and style. Like many of her readers, I read them after Wolf Hall had made her famous. William Boyd, on the other hand, I’ve known about since he won the Whitbread Prize for his first novel, A Good Man in Africa. I hadn’t thought of myself as a Boyd Fan, and yet Googling him now I see that I’ve read 12 of his 14 novels and if he published another tomorrow I’d probably buy it. So whatever he’s doing works for me.
– Joe Treasure
Retreating from an airborne virus with a uniquely unsettling symptom, property developer Jason escapes London for his country estate, where he is forced to negotiate a new way of living with an assortment of fellow survivors.
Far in the future, an isolated community of descendants continue to farm this same estate. Among their most treasured possessions are a few books, including a copy of Jane Eyre, from which they have constructed their hierarchies, rituals and beliefs. When 15-year-old Agnes begins to record the events of her life, she has no idea what consequences will follow. Locked away for her transgressions, she escapes to the urban ruins and a kind of freedom, but must decide where her future lies.
These two stories interweave, illuminating each other in unexpected ways and offering long vistas of loss, regeneration and wonder.
The Book of Air is a story of survival, the shaping of memory and the enduring impulse to find meaning in a turbulent world.
Joe Treasure currently lives in South West London with his wife Leni Wildflower. As an English teacher in Wales, he ran an innovative drama programme, before following Leni across the pond to Los Angeles, an experience that inspired his critically acclaimed debut novel The Male Gaze (published by Picador). His second novel Besotted (also published by Picador) also met with rave reviews.