Abibliophobia is the fear of running out of things to read. I remember this with amusement while scanning my bookshelves, deciding what books to take on holiday. I’m an author, and I was on book deadline over Christmas and New Year, so my husband and I are taking a break in January instead. We are going to the New Forest for a few days, to stay in a cottage in the woods. Just us and the trees — and some books.
I grab a couple of new releases and a few titles that have been sitting on my shelves for longer than I’d like. My mother-in-law has kindly lent us her car, so we set off after work, a fog hovering over the road. We reach the cottage when it’s so dark we have to grab each other’s arms in the driveway to remind ourselves we still exist. In the distance, a couple of owls are chatting away, and the two of us fall sleepily into bed.
We go for a short walk, as the local area has flooded. We head through the woods to a field that’s become a shallow river, the ground sucking at our wellington boots – occasionally pulling them clean off our feet, so we momentarily hop like storks, trying to keep our socks out of the mud.
In the afternoon, the first book I decide to pick up is Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi. On the surface, this is an odd choice for me, as I’m currently between very difficult IVF cycles, and this book happens to be about a woman who is pretending to be pregnant. However, rereading the blurb, I realise the premise is so absurd that I can’t resist. This is not the tale of a woman who longs to be pregnant; this is the story of a frustrated office worker in Tokyo — the only woman in her department, who is fed up with being expected to do menial tasks because of her gender. She feels disrespected; she feels ignored; she longs to take up space. So, she tells her employers that she is pregnant. It’s a form of self-mothering, a way to look after herself. However, instead of valuing her, people become fixated on her baby. This is not surprising, as her workplace values output over everything else, and it’s an interesting commentary on society’s factory-like view of female bodies. Translated from the Japanese by David Boyd and Lucy North, Diary of a Void reminds me of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura. It’s a beautiful mixture of the mundane and ridiculous, with piercing moments of heart.
It goes down to -7 overnight. I wake up early and, while the kettle is boiling, I notice a deer tiptoeing through the garden. The grass is so frozen the deer leaves no marks as it goes — a delicate little ghost fawn in the frost.
Due to the recent flooding, the nearby paths and fields are now treacherous. The New Forest ponies are forced to become ice skaters, cartoonish in their skidding. We go for a short walk — if it can even be called walking, sliding this way and that, before happily admitting defeat, heading back to the cottage to curl up on the sofa.
The second book I select is a Persephone classic: The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. First published in 1947, the book follows Lucia Holley, who is looking after her father, her son and her daughter, while her husband is away with the army. Struggling with rationing and bills, things dislodge further when she finds the dead body of her daughter’s lover in the garden. She’s sure her ailing father must have killed him to save his granddaughter from scandal (the man was married, after all), so in a panic she decides to dispose of the body. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t go well. It’s a compelling read, and I whizzed through this book.
In the afternoon, once the roads have defrosted a little, we drive thirty minutes to the coast. At Keyhaven there’s a coastal path along the marshlands, looking out to the Isle of Wight, with rare birds darting over the shallows. We walk along it as the sun sets, the sky tipping itself into the sea.
Today is a day for walking. It also happens to be my birthday. We pack cheese and pickle sandwiches, a flask of tomato soup, and we do a circular walk from Fritham to Frogham and back again. We pass fluffy donkeys, towering oaks, and spy a few rabbits wrestling in the undergrowth.
We stay local on our last day, charging the electric car from the cottage so it has enough power to make the trip back home. The final book I pick up is The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read many of her books over the years, my favourites being her most recent releases: I Am, I Am, I Am and the Women’s Prize-winning Hamnet. The Marriage Portrait is set a hundred years before Hamnet, following the life of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, a woman rumoured to have been murdered by her husband. With this knowledge handed to us before we begin, there is a constant sense of unease floating across the pages. Lucrezia loves studying animals and people, recreating them secretly in paint, before covering them up with dull still life images — for she is only allowed to paint those. She is also told to allow others to paint her – her marriage portrait – so she swallows what they consider to be her “wildness”, and she poses, all whilst being wrapped up in this character study of a novel, this layered work of seeing, of understanding: portraits within portraits within portraits.
It’s time to go home. I close the book and we get ready to leave, packing muddy boots, half-empty crisp packets, and cosy jumpers. We defrost the windscreen, choose a podcast for the road, then off we drive, into the night.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
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