Monday, 5 August 2013

Book thieving; stealing lives

Have you ever stolen a book? I confess I have. Years ago, impoverished student, all that stuff. It was a hardback copy of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'. I still have it. And look upon it with shame.

But what a book to steal!

Do you ever walk through bookshops inhaling? Or plunge into a sofa and drink up as much as you can? The last time I did that was in Piccadilly Waterstones, where the chairs are very comfortable and no one frowns in your direction. I read nearly the whole of Helen Garner's last book, 'The Spare Room' . Garner's friend is dying of cancer and comes to Melbourne to endure a final, non-Western treatment. She has come to die. Interspersed with these ravaged scenes Garner's grandaughter pops through the side fence in her flamenco costume, looking for some grandma attention. Kid stuff. A gentle laugh.

I felt like a voyeur, allowing myself to be gripped by the what stood up as a crafted story - and yet whose central drama was the real and painful demise of a friend. Her death. Is that allowed?

Why is she writing this?
Why am I reading this?
There was a horrified pull and push to my involvement. I was magnetised, repulsed, compelled. I read on and on until at certain point I realised I wasn't breathing anymore and my chest was caught. I had to look around, get my bearings, get away from Garner's fetid house.

About halfway through I decided I couldn't read anymore. I also decided that London was too expensive for me to justify buying a half-read book, and that my cheap-flight bags were already overweight (other books, my tireless daughter's shopping). I still don't know how the book ended. Though I suppose Helen's friend Nicola dies. She had to.

And I didn't even contemplate stealing the copy. I wouldn't dream of doing that these days. I put it back slowly and walked out into the busy street, feeling guilty that I had stolen some of Helen Garner's hard work.

But it made me think of theft. What we steal from those around us to write a story. I don't think I could ever document life as vividly as Garner does, but I know I use it as a springboard. Real things. Real places. In Penzance where I presented this book last month I was asked about my title story 'Pelt', where a pregnant Ghanaian woman tries to win back her German lover when his ex-wife comes to town.

Where did it come from, Catherine?

The truth? Years ago a German man knocked on our gate in Ghana, said he grew up in our rented house. Said there used to be a monkey cage behind the kitchen. He even went onto the veranda to point out the place. I could see the little boy he once was: grinning, unreeling.

My story has nothing to does with monkey or cages or little boys unreeling. But when this German man walked away down the street I could see him through the hedge. His back was a little too straight, as though he'd had an injury, been thrown from a horse. There is nothing in the story about horses or back injuries either. But way he moved - even though I never mentioned it - that was Rolfe.

Oh yes, that was Rolfe.


  1. We are like magpies, gathering shiny bits of life to use.

    Am really looking forward to reading this book of short stories.

    1. I remember Patrick White saying he was like a magpie, using everything he saw. I think I've always been like that, peering into everything. How is your book going? We missed our talk this summer - will have to happen when Pelt comes out!