It’s difficult to enumerate the many ways in which this historical novel impressed and delighted me. To begin with the most fundamental of fiction requisites, Joshi excels in conjuring the sights, sounds, scents, and savors of mid-twentieth century India. Descriptions of aromas (geranium, thyme, frangipani, jasmine, peppermint) and concoctions (pakoras, chapattis, masala, pilau, and lassis) grace the page and tantalize the reader. Having traveled in both North and South India on various occasions, such sensory details inevitably evoke familiar and fond associations.
But unfamiliarity with the subcontinent and its history won’t put readers at a disadvantage. Joshi deftly slips in bits of culture and history, intuitively sensing where explanation is required and avoiding excess. Readers are neither left in the dark nor overwhelmed with information. Nor does Joshi indulge in gratuitous detail. Personal narratives intertwine with the broad sweep of history; everything serves a purpose.
The idea of a library where every book represents a life you would have lived if you had made one different choice is intriguing. The “two roads diverged in a wood” idea. How many of us haven’t at least wondered what might have happened if we had pursued a different degree, taken a different first job, moved to a different city?
Nora, the protagonist of The Midnight Library lacks, the essential motivation suggested by the title of Matt Haig’s memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. Having attempted suicide, Nora winds up in a sort of limbo, with the opportunity to choose a different “book.” She even gets to sample them.
My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.
We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).
The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.
I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.