Thursday, 19 July 2012

Book Review: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

‘I might be the villain of this story. Even now, It’s hard to tell.’

The Borrower is a bibliophiles dream: a warm, playful and erudite deconstruction of storytelling convention and celebration of adventures in reading. From the enigmatic and immediately engaging first line (above) through to its similarly capricious last line – ‘Let’s say that it does’ – Rebecca Makkai takes the reader by the hand and together you venture into the quirky realms of a tale which is at once both implausible and strangely emblematic.

Lucy Hull is a bookish children’s librarian in small town middle-America. She enjoys shaping children’s imaginations through stories, and delights in sneaking them books she thinks they should read behind the back of their overprotective parents. Yet outside of work she is a little bit lost: she never intended to come to Hannibal, Missouri, at all and now that she has, the rebellion against her father that precipitated it has lost some of its shine. She’s one of those lost twenty-something women, self –aware yet lost, that art finds endlessly compelling.

One morning, she arrives at the library to find her favourite patron – 10-year old Ian Drake: precocious, addicted to reading, and forced to attend weekly anti-gay classes run by Pastor Bob – hiding out having run away from home. He’s desperate for an accomplice and before she realises it, Lucy finds herself accidentally sort-of kidnapping him. Together, they set off on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to nowhere in particular, seeking an adventure like those they’ve read about in books.

Lucy is a borrower of all sorts: not just a librarian employed in the lending and borrowing of books, but an adult who has borrowed a child, and a woman who has borrowed her identity from elsewhere, be it the stories she has read in books, or those of immigration that she has inherited from her Russian father.

One of the things that comes across when reading The Borrower is how much fun Rebecca Makkai seems to have had in writing. (Or maybe that should be Lucy has had, since it is narrated in the first person, and intended as a book written in retrospect). The Borrower is sardonically witty and tricksy throughout, with set-pieces involving ferret shampoo and road trip songs providing frequently funny moment. Makkai delights in referencing and then playing with its influences and precedents. There are parallel’s drawn with Roald Dahl’s tales of childhood rebellion, adventure, and the importance of parents who make these possible – particularly Danny The Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach - and the permissive whoever you are and wherever you come from undercurrent of L Frank Baum’s Oz books. This is a book for the National Trust’s 50 Things to Do Before you are 11¾ ethos: children being adventurous free from health and safety concerns and over-protective parents.

And yet there is a darker, troubling, side to these recollections. The spectacle of Lolita looms. Throughout, Lucy wrestles with the ethics of what she has done. She may not have inappropriate intentions toward Ian, yet she remains an adult who has run away with a child without his parent’s permission. And because, on the surface the situations are so different, it makes the echo of Humbert Humber’s claims at being (metaphorically at least) kidnapped by Lolita’s innocent beauty, all the more intriguing.

‘It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.’

There are weighty issues being considered here, but they are raised without being overly worthy and the moral questions posed by a narrator whom one cannot help but side with, even if you feel slightly uncomfortable for doing so. Perhaps it is because we recognise ourselves in her, in her uncertainty in herself, in her idealism, in her passion for books which emerges unscathed.

‘I do still believe that books can save you.’

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