You have to worry when several of your favourite friends stop reading fiction and switch their allegiance to biographies. I’ve racked my brains and can honestly say I don’t believe I have ever read an entire biography. If they don’t have pictures, I don’t even start. If they have pictures I only look at those. And if I do struggle through a couple of chapters, I always feel that, even if truth is stranger than fiction (and I can so dispute that), it is not always very well written.
The closest I have got to a biography recently is a small non-fiction book on Julian of Norwich entitled Revelations of Divine Love. She is famous for this quote:
All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
She is less well known as the first writer of English who can be identified with certainty as a woman. And this in 1373. Translated from Old English, this is an uplifting, poetic read. Emboldened by this success, I moved on to the arrestingly entitled Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki Leon. Fascinating, but not a biography and still not a patch on good fiction.
Fiction is like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead: when it is good, it is very very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. Freed from the constraints that truth telling imposes, fiction remains heartbreakingly creative, brave and full of surprises.
At exactly this point, a long awaited fiction hold came my way – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloane. With a quirky main character, an eccentric book store, weird customers who read bizarre books that have been written in code, and a playful mysteriousness, it pushes the boundaries of fiction writing just as good fiction writing should.
Both books sat on my bedside table. I dipped into the Julian of Norwich but finished the day with a read of Mr Penumbra. I don’t know why, but I woke about twenty minutes later. The room had an eery glow that came from my bedside table. In my befuddled state I thought I might be having a religious experience. But no. It was Mr Penumbra’s fluorescent cover gleaming in the dark.
So now I can legitimately say (and I have waited a long time for this moment): this book will leave you with a glow. It will light up your life.
Just as good fiction so often does.