An Imaginary Warmth
“I stepped over to the bookcase and pulled down one of my favorite books: Birds of the World. Each page showed a bird in its natural habitat–a puffin with its fat, gaudy beak, peering out of a burrow, a lyre-bird spreading its tail beneath a leafy tree–accompanied by a description. Usually I read curled in the armchair beside the fire, conjuring an imaginary warmth from the cold embers, but today, not wanting to reveal my presence by turning on the light, I settled myself on the window-seat. Pulling the heavy green curtain around me, I flew away into the pictures.” (4-5)
The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey
Hi again. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written here, but let’s not linger on that, shall we? I’ve got to tell you about a book I think you are going to love. Full disclosure: I met Margot Livesey at a writers’ conference, where she read and critiqued the first few chapters of what would become my first novel, Commuters. Later on she was kind enough to provide me with a beautiful quote for the book, which, whenever I see it on the cover, makes me do a little inward dance of gratitude. As her many students and friends can attest, Margot is the epitome of a generous mentor–one who takes extra-special care in helping new writers come to their fullest potential. She’s also one of the best writers working today, and I counted myself a fan long before I ever became lucky enough to consider her a friend and an inspiration. If you don’t know her books yet, you have such a treat in front of you.
No better place to start than her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Set in Iceland and Scotland in the 1950’s and 60’s, the novel tells the story of Gemma, an orphan trying to make her way through a tough world. Her cold and abusive aunt sends her to a boarding school called Claypoole where Gemma, bookish and spunky, hopes to find companions and a good education. But as a “work student” she is treated as little more than a servant, and struggles to escape cruelty and loneliness even as she makes her first real friend and finds a few teachers who nurture her intelligence. After the school founders, as an au pair to a wealthy London businessman and his wild niece, Gemma confronts class differences, secrets, and a slowly-but-surely growing love for the most unlikely of men. Gemma won’t settle down unless she knows who she is and where she comes from; in the last section of the novel she makes an incredible journey, without money or help, to the far reaches of Iceland. It’s there that her past becomes revealed through people who remember her parents, and where she finds true friendship in those who take her in and help her learn what she really needs to know.
This was such a lovely reading experience for me. You know that feeling when, during the day, at odd moments, you’ll be struck by this bubbling sense of happiness and anticipation? For a moment you can’t figure out where it’s coming from. And then you realize: yes, that novel! The one you’re in the middle of; the one that’s waiting for you after you finish work and put the kids to bed; the one you’re simultaneously savoring and racing through. I feel sure that Margot Livesey knows that particular pleasure too – as the quote above proves, she knows not just what reading is like, but what it means to “fly away” into a book.
Reading does save Gemma. She needs an “imaginary warmth” to shelter her from cruelty, from the callous treatment she gets from her aunt, after her kind uncle dies, and at Claypoole–a British boarding school whose horribleness is wonderfully vivid. (This is no Hogwarts, for sure.) One thing I loved about Gemma is that she isn’t a saint. She isn’t always grateful and kind. She’s real–she mouths off when she can get away with it (and sometimes when she can’t), she doesn’t always take the high road, she makes big mistakes that hurt people. She’s someone we can identify with, that is.
I want to highlight two of my favorite aspects of Gemma – which is an homage, by the way, to Jane Eyre. There is a part in the novel where Gemma is homeless, friendless, and nearly penniless. She gets stuck in a town with all of her money stolen, and no place to stay. She escapes a creep who tries to fondle her; she is humiliated but asks around for a job, accepts handouts of food. She hides in an empty church and spends the night huddled on a pew. In the morning, she sneaks into the vestry to wash and drink some tea. I won’t give away anything more, but these scenes are fascinating. Livesey creates so much tension and drama through utterly believable details and plot turns. All of Gemma’s resourcefulness and bravery come into play here, and I was utterly drawn in to her plight.
And lastly, I want to mention how special the novel’s friendships and alliances are. It’s such a rare and essential part of life, these non-romantic relationships – they’re how we spend most of our days, who we rejoice with, how we make it through all kinds of suffering. But it seems to me that all too infrequently do writers spend time on what a friendship is, what it feels like, how it’s formed (under likely and unlikely circumstances), how it changes, and the ways it can be dented and repaired. Gemma isn’t just lucky in friends, I thought as I read, she is rewarded with them. No matter how scary or bare her situation is, she manages to cultivate connections through wit and kindness. In her journey Gemma forms several of these friendships, and for me this was one of the novel’s true and great achievements.