Books do more than simply entertain us; they help to teach us valuable lessons. In Ashley Hay’s new historical fiction novel The Railway Man’s Wife, three characters use books to cope with loss and learn to live again. Here, Hays shares with Bookish readers some of the important lessons she’s learned from her favorite books.
On my fridge is a magnet with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. You know the one, when the White Queen is chastising Alice for her lack of practice in believing impossible things, such as months having 105 days. “When I was your age,” the Queen boasts (as grown-ups like to do), “I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
What’s her secret? She doesn’t say. But I suspect it has to do with reading stories. Here are some of the impossible things books have taught me I could do.
1. How to disappear
In Michael Ondaatje’s second novel, In the Skin of a Lion, a prisoner named Caravaggio painted himself the blue of a roof, the blue of the sky, to render himself invisible and escape. Other novels have offered me cloaks of invisibility and potions and stealth dragons that could sit on me to make me disappear. But Caravaggio’s experiment has always seemed to me like the purest idea of potential and simplicity: “If they painted long enough they would be eradicated, blue birds in a blue sky.” Some days, I’d like to sneak off through this ultimately poetic escape hatch.
2. How to manage a king
How does the weight of the world really feel? One of the best answers I’ve found lies across the shoulders of Thomas Cromwell, the charismatic advisor to the king at the heart of Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. He embodies the weight of power; the weight of majesty; the weight of magic and religion; the weight of seizing every opportunity in the early 16th century. In one scene, Henry VIII has a nightmare, and Cromwell must sit with him, to soothe him, to calm him, to bring him back to the world. In this intimate and surreal moment, I could feel the best and worst of the risks and opportunities of Cromwell’s extraordinary position—and wonder at his nimbleness and strength.
3. How to hitchhike through the galaxy
With a towel, of course, as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so eloquently explained: “A towel… is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you—daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”
I was 12 when I read that for the first time–more than 30 years ago now. I still look up hopefully once in a while, in case the Heart of Gold is passing overhead. I would leap aboard (with my towel).
4. How to be hopeful
I’ve recently spent time thinking about some of the various permutations our future may have. In this rich genre, Emily St. John Mandel’s exquisite Station Eleven sits like a particular beacon, its gaze fixed beyond an apocalypse—in this case, the rampant “Georgian flu” knocks out most of the world’s population. It’s a richly complete and complex narrative, and its ending rises from the page like pure hope; a moment we might even aspire to–even beyond an end to our world.
5. How to read someone’s mind
In “Why I Write,” Joan Didion’s 1976 essay on her craft, Didion traces the clear line between her mind and the page. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she says. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
It’s something to be invited to read about a mind like Didion’s—in her essays, her fiction, and her reportage. When I was imagining The Railwayman’s Wife, the extraordinary diptych of her Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, about the deaths of her husband and daughter respectively, took me not only into her mind and its brutal confrontation of grief, loss, and memory, but also into my characters’ minds, and deeper into my own.
6. How to be human
In The Gap, Thomas Suddendorf (a psychologist based here in Brisbane at the University of Queensland) argues that “the science of what separates us from other animals” is distinguished by “two major features that set us apart”. The first is our ability to explore different outcomes. We can compare what might happen should we choose to follow course A over course B. The second is “our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together”.
Perhaps it’s a novelist’s wishful thinking but, beyond Suddendorf’s fascinating exploration of what distinguishes us as a species, this has always sounded to me quite a lot like the process of writing books on the one hand, and reading them on the other. Wouldn’t it be lovely if both were integral to being human?
Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of four nonfiction books, including The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron, and the novels The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.