Joanna Briscoe: At The Sharp End

'Holiday reading becomes a screaming obsession once you have a job and children'


I've just returned from the Loire - a lawny, languid round of vineyards, caramelised cake shops and rude people - and instead of carting back a reeking cheese that infects the fridge before it's chucked out with a retch and a thunk, I've returned with a case of half-read books. Most of those buggers are still nestling, spines only semi-mangled, among my euros and knickers as a testament to my failed search for the perfect holiday read.

But a fortnight ago they were a shiny three-for-two stock of delights to come, and I was dreaming about all the wallowing in words I would do as cheap méthode champagnoise was ferried my way by a sabot -wearing local and I was transported to other worlds denied to me in the normal round of book reviewing and exhausted paper-skimming. Coming back with partially-read novels is like being surrounded by dull ex-lovers, and nurturing an impatient conviction that the real thing has yet to turn up. Holiday reading becomes a screaming obsession, a mind-warped addiction, almost a cause of covetous fury, once you become an adult with a job and children. Why is it so vitally important to even the semi-developed bookworm?

Because our imaginations are fashioned by all those words wolfed down in early life: novels, like the places of our childhood, soak into the soul and set it. It's quite a shock in adulthood to find that a session of droning Pingu then Flat Stanley aloud followed by a knackered late-night stint of Sainsbury's online and a catch-up on the Middle East means that those acres hoovered in youth - the torch-lit sneak-reading of The Borrowers; the six-hour Hardy sessions; the undergraduate book-a-day habit - are no longer even fractionally possible. It's like food for the soul snatched away.

The rarefied enchantment created by youthful reading is never quite reproduced: we're forever searching for the adult version of treasure islands, travels in time and chocolate factories; for the same shivering romance and pain delivered by the Plath and Austen, the Brontë and du Maurier that form the young female soul, or the alienation and terse manly dialogue of the Kerouac, Camus, Amis and Salinger so ritually beloved by young men.

My reading of Anna Karenina in 200-page bursts over three summers (indicative of another holiday reading category: the self-improvement attempt, because, yes, I really should have read it at 17) leaves me cynically snorty. Whereas the youthful reader may go all wobbly with empathy for Anna's love travails, I find myself thinking, "Get over it, you silly mare, and go straight back to your child who needs you."

The holiday read has to be just right. This year, it all started splendidly. I was reading The Line of Beauty on the Eurostar and was so abjectly addicted, so entranced by Hollinghurst's prose and ability to spin a good yarn that after it finished, I was left baying through the undergrowth in search of a similar high. "This is my annual chance to gobble books of my choice," I thought in desperation as I leapt, increasingly drunk or patisserie-dazed, between various obvious must-reads of the accessible but literary variety, never quite gripped, patchily intrigued, or even grumpily bored. The page-immobilising qualities of one recent Booker winner were quite astonishing. "But bugger all happens," I shouted, finally throwing it down barely half read. I tried some commercial light relief instead: the most bogus pile of erectile guff I've ever skimmed. It's all very well if you're Montaigne and you can sit bibliophiling it up in a tower all day, but for the rest of us, it's a matter of cutting onions and fingers while trying to sneak in half a page of Hilary Mantel.

I once saw a programme in which AS Byatt was packing her trunk full of holiday reading. I could barely even enunciate the titles in grunts. They were things you might unearth in the Bodleian for your Mastermind specialist subject with the help of a myopic hermit: 14th-century French and Norse texts, studies of lepidoptera, pre-history history kind of things. No orange three-for-two stickers for AS. In the end, I got my kicks on the sly by eavesdropping on a guest's nightly readings of Silverfin to my son and his friend. The story of the young James Bond at Eton, with all the thrills of bullies, sports cheats and scary eels just about did it for me. I have surprisingly little trouble finding the child within.

* The news that a dog had savaged a collection of teddy bears in Wookey Hole caves, Somerset, amused me greatly. Could anything be more surreally English than this elevation of fluffy-wuffy things in a dripping cave setting, undermined by our misconceptions about the nature of the canine? Dogs, whether they're trained-up Dobermans, goody-goody Labradors, or squirmy little lap rats, are still wolves at heart and tooth.

Leave them in the wilds where they belong, or lock 'em up in Battersea. Next we'll have a herd of pigeons crapping on the Chelsea Flower Show. I've got high hopes for the new gang of urban foxes tangling with the nation's gnomes to provide us with fresh silly season merriment.

Sleep With Me, a novel by Joanna Briscoe is published by Bloomsbury (£7.99).

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