backstory

On the week-end I finished reading All That I Am, by Anna Funder. The same friend who had previously lent me copies of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and All Quiet on the Western Front also once told me that ATIA was one of her most favourite novels written in recent times (as opposed to classics or novels written and published decades ago).

It was probably about three years ago that she told me this. I wrote the name of the book down on a bit of scrap paper (we were at work at the time), and fully intended to read it. I can’t remember why she never lent me a copy of ATIA (too precious?) but I set out to find it in book stores. I don’t think I’d heard of it before, but apparently it was a number-one bestseller at some point. 

But although I found it (easily enough) in the book store, I could never bring myself to buy it – I couldn’t justify the purchase, at that price, and especially considering my extensive TBR back-log. As it turns out, however, good things do sometimes come to those who wait: I found a near-perfect copy of ATIA at the Lifeline Bookfest earlier this year.

In the time that elapsed between my friend telling me about ATIA, and my eventual acquisition of it, that friend left the place we both worked at, moved interstate for about a year, and then moved back. It wasn’t always easy to stay in touch, and I must admit we lost track of each others’ lives. But when I found this book at the Bookfest, I knew I had to buy it and read it – if not for the fact that she’s never failed me with book recommendations, then out of respect for an old friend.

And there was something else about it – curiosity.

I realised as I began reading ATIA, that I was subconsciously trying to determine what it was about this book that she liked so much. My mind was searching for the elements of the story, characters and the text itself that would hold weight with her. I think someone’s favourite books are a sort of representation of that person – perhaps not necessarily who they feel they are, but who they aspire to be.

But this probing, analytical way of reading meant I felt somewhat detached from the novel. I couldn’t immerse myself the way I wanted to.

To be fair, this detachment is probably also attributable to the remnants of “book hangover” from The Grapes of Wrath in which Steinbeck’s writing seemed unpretentious and effortless (except maybe for that long passage about the turtle, which I’m not entirely sure was necessary). In contrast, I could not help thinking that Funder was trying a bit too hard to create subtle tension and undercurrents of anticipation. The feeling of the novel did not come easily for me, so I must’ve slipped into an analytical, thinking mindset instead.

And maybe it wasn’t helped by the fact that, a short way into the book, I bumped into this friend, somewhat unexpectedly, at a conference. We hadn’t talked in a long time, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her (as, I believe, she was to see me), but there was a sense that we were both in past chapters of each others’ lives (life moving at the pace it does, and people coming and going as they do).

Nonetheless, I proudly told her that I’d finally started reading All That I Am, after her recommendation so long ago. The last time we’d talked about books was maybe a year ago, and at the time she was too busy reading textbooks to have time for novels. I was saddened but not surprised to hear she still wasn’t reading anything non-academic.

Why does reading, so often, fall by the wayside?

For some time after the conference, I think my mind had trouble trying to correlate this friend I’d bumped into with the friend I used to work with, and that’s why it was analysing ATIA with a touch more scrutiny than usual.

So, all said, it took a while for me to fully warm up to ATIA, and to become enthralled in the story, invested in the characters, and eager to learn how it all ends. Yet, when I had just ten pages left, I wanted to put the book down; I didn’t want it to end so soon.

It feels like I read the last sixty-odd pages disproportionately faster than the first 300, and now the novel that I’d been reading in snatches and fragments over the last two months is suddenly over.

I finished reading All That I Am on Saturday night, about twenty minutes before midnight. I put the book down, and went straight to bed. The next day, I was out for a walk, and began mentally planning the blog post I would write for All That I Am. This was not the post I had planned, but it feels like one I needed to write. There will be one more post (at least).

2 thoughts on “backstory

  1. I’ve not heard of this book, but I totally understand how and why you read it the way you did. I have a couple of books around here that friends, who maybe weren’t really friends, foisted on me– telling me I had to read them. I’ve never read the novels, even though I’m sure they’re good books, because of some nagging suspicions about the people who recommended the novels. I’d not put this together before, but now that you write about it, it rings true with me.

    • I’m glad you understand 🙂
      It’s interesting… I wonder if I’d feel differently about the book if someone else had given it to me, or I’d found it on my own… Hopefully you can eventually dissociate those books from the “friends” who gave them to you. Wouldn’t want to let good books go unread!

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