After reading F and The Blazing World, my head was spinning. Two novels in a row where the reader is twisted in every direction, questioning what is real and what isn’t. I needed to take a break and read something more linear. As I mentioned in my post for H is for Hawk, there are some difficulties in buying English-language books in Berlin that I’m still trying to navigate, so while the to-read list in my phone’s notes app grows and grows, I’m trying to use the smaller supply of books available for English-speakers in Berlin to my advantage. All the books that I’ve meant to read for years, all the authors that I love whose back-lists remained unexplored, all the winners and short-listed and long-listed books of prizes gone by. As I’ve said before, part of us moving to Berlin was a concerted effort to slow life down, and I feel like the literary offerings are a good metaphor for this — there is less choice, but it doesn’t mean the reading will be any less rich or rewarding. In the last few years as I’ve worked more and more for literary organisations in my work as an events producer, I’ve been swept up in the whirlwind of new releases. This isn’t a bad thing: I’ve discovered so many new authors, seen writers grow from emerging to established, seen people I’ve come to know achieve great things. But in racing to keep up with what’s new, I’ve left great big gaps in what came before. The English-language books that make their way to the German market are often prize-winners, but thankfully the bookshops here don’t just settle for airport-style displays, but often stock the short-list as well as the winner with the big sticker on the front. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was short-listed for the 2015 Folio Prize (which now that I look at that short-list again is a wonderful list to make one’s way through), and was crowned Book of the Year by the Guardian, Telegraph, Observer, Irish Times and the New York Times. If this is the kind of book that my time here will see me read, I am in no position to begrudge the slimmer shelves because this book was very special indeed.
Dept. of Speculation holds a mirror up to contemporary marriage, and in doing so, to contemporary life. All the little details of our lives — the insecurities, the disappointments, the quirks, the nicknames, the in-jokes — the things that we only share with our partner or best-friend, these are the things that make this book. Two people meet, they fall in love, they get married, they have a child, life gets messy, their relationship gets messy. If this book were a film there would be neat conclusions and smooth edges, but Dept. of Speculation reminds me of why I love books over films — books embrace jagged edges. Books pull at the loose thread of the jumper until it begins to unravel and then they try to work out where and why that loose thread began.
Offill’s prose is perfect. The novel is composed of short but tightly formed paragraphs which, rather than disjointing the reader, create a perfect pace. After each paragraph there is just enough room to take a breath, but the pacing of the story stops the reader from ever wanting to put the book down. I read the Dept. of Speculation in two quick sittings, but I’m already plotting for the perfect opportunity to set aside an hour or two to sit down and take it all in again. There are so many wonderful moments I’d love to quote here, but perhaps it makes sense to set the tone by sharing the first three paragraphs:
Antelopes have 10X vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.
It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of it all.
Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.
There are moments of wit beautifully dark and caustic that lighten the intensity of the novel too, such as this perfect travel story that will resonate with any former backpacker:
I met an Australian who said he loved to travel alone. He talked about his job as we drank by the sea. When a student gets it, when it first breaks across his face, it’s so fucking beautiful, he told me. I nodded, moved, though I’d never taught anyone a single thing. What do you teach, I asked him. Rollerblading, he explained.
But what Offill succeeds at most is the little moments of pain that we experience, but which very few people talk about. She hits on our insecurities and fears right at that moment in life where we switch from being young adults to simply, adults. That period of transition that so few seem to explore — does it come when you get pregnant, or when you decide to have children, or when you decide that you don’t want to have children, or when you move, or when someone dies, or when you get a promotion, or do you simply wake up one day and realise another birthday has come around and you’re still not sure where you’re going?
But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.
And finally, there are moments of such intense beauty that you are forced to gasp for breath. Lines like this make you feel like you’ve dived into the ocean, only to realise you cannot swim:
I am spending hours and hours at the Laundromat now, shrinking our sweaters and un-furring her animals. One day I forget and put her blanket in. When I hand it back to her she cries. “That was my best thing,” she says. “Why would you ruin my best thing?”
Dept. of Speculation is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and has already become a sentimental favourite. It has stayed with me, haunted me, pulled at me and made me think. Offill makes us look at the messy corners in our lives: this book made me think of the cobwebs we keep forgetting to clear away, the items in our house that never find a place to be put away to, the laundry we haven’t yet put away, the used shopping bags that we hang on to for no reason. But what’s more, it made me see the beauty and the pain in each of these things, the little moments of every day life that make up the bigger picture, the moments we dismiss and set aside but which are in fact, our lives. I will read it again but I am also a little hesitant to; I don’t want to lose my perfect memory of it. But maybe that’s life, and that’s ok.
When life is messy and things are uncertain, or you haven’t been sleeping well, or the mornings are colder than you feel emotionally able to deal with, Carrot Cake Porridge makes things a little bit better. It takes an extra thirty-seconds to make and is always worth the effort. During festivals or when I need to be organised in life, I’ve made this baked version from Green Kitchen Stories. But actually I prefer Heidi’s version which can easily be made for one on the spot. I often choose quark or yoghurt as the topping rather than tahini or peanut butter - to me it’s closer to the cream cheese icing on a carrot cake and I prefer my porridge a little creamier than the savoury seed or nut pastes. Topped with a few berries for freshness and pepitas or nuts for crunch, it’s a nourishing and comforting way to start your day, before inevitably searching for your keys and running for the train.
In 2011 with the help of my partner I moved all of my belongings across the border from South Australia to Victoria and I officially made Melbourne my base. A month or so later, going to the Melbourne Writers Festival made moving to Melbourne feel like the perfect move. Since 2012 it’s been not only one of my favourite gigs in my work calendar, but an essential part of my reading and writing life in the city. This year, of course, I won’t be there, but I thought I’d share a couple of picks as MWF heads into its second and final week for the year. If I could, I’d be attending: the Alice in Wonderland YA Salon, A Room of One’s Own: Women & Money, The Moth: True Stories Told Live, Diaspora & Belonging, Blurred Lines: Fact vs Fiction, Eleanor Catton on Reading, An Audience with Naomi Klein, Gail Jones: A Guide to Berlin, and Sarai Walker on Dietland. Plus I can highly recommend from last year: Caravan Conversations, The Re-Readers Live, and the Queer Literary Salon.