First Published 2010 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group)
The subtitle is How books saved a life, which drew me in straight away – the reading of books has gotten me through tough times too, and lately the writing about them for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge has been a bright spot in my life. And what a lovely concept, a cancer book which isn’t a cancer book; books are the star and cancer is merely the backdrop. After all, there are already lots and lots of cancer books out there, because unfortunately, if you or someone close to you does not already have a cancer story, you soon will.
The book begins when Brenda Walker, aged in her late forties and a sole parent of one, is diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first decision is what book to take to hospital. What follows are discussions of the other book friends that accompany her through the treatment and recovery process.
There’s no doubting the skill of this Miles Franklin shortlisted novelist, but at the beginning of the book I found it unsatisfying reading. Walker was flitting from thought to thought, and normally I like this kind of writing, where the writer starts at A and ends up somewhere quite unexpected instead of B, but the trouble was that as soon as she got me interested in a topic, she would off elsewhere. For a while I felt like a kid who was being dragged around a museum by an adult who would never let you stop at anything you found truly interesting for long enough. It might have been clever of her to imitate the way the brain thinks after a cancer diagnosis is given, but I found it hard to follow.
There was also some imagery that I didn’t quite get, such as “a good book laces invisible fingers into the shape of a winter armchair or a hammock in the sun“. Since when do books have fingers? I’d sooner curl up in bed and read anyway.
Fortunately the inner recesses of my brain somehow organised Walker’s jumbled life story into a more linear one. I’m not sure when my brain did this cataloging – when I was asleep perhaps, or whilst attending to everyday tasks; it was something that happened when I wasn’t reading the book. All I know is that each time I picked it up again, I felt as if I knew the author a little better; a picture of her life had begun to emerge.
I did not find the cancer bits harrowing, indeed they were almost pleasant; for me it was a much needed compass which I used to orient myself amongst Walker’s scattered thoughts in the first half of the book. I mean the reading of the cancer bits though; the real thing was no picnic. Also, knowing from the start that the book had a happy ending helped me.
At about page 20 as I was drifting off to sleep, an image came into my head of the skimming off of the scum in a cooking pot, which is sometimes done in the making of jams or jellies. It made me wonder if that was what Walker was doing in this book and in her other works, given her interest in Poe etc; skimming off life’s crap and writing that down and forgetting about what was in the pot. But as the book progressed I was reminded that life’s big events can bring lots of dross to the surface, and then we have to deal with it. And afterwards there is hopefully a new improved person.
I was also wondering at some stage about the influence of a childhood at the mouth of a river which was frequently swollen and full of animal carcases and other debris. This setting has also given us the most memorable of the Cold Chisel songs, from the pen of Walker’s brother Don, and some books from her mother too. And this was the strength of Reading by Moonlight for me – it made me think differently, it made me use the other parts of my brain. While it left my everyday mind unsatisfied, the book worked its magic with my subconscious, and reminded me that sometimes the purpose of art is not simply to make us happy, but to make connections we did not know were there. And that can sometimes only be achieved when the conscious mind has given up trying to interpret what the author is saying.