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The wardrobe in the Retiring Room January 22, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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People often talk about ‘gateway drugs’, lighter or less-extreme substances that introduce people into the world of addiction. I’ve noticed, in my case at least, a similar trend with literary genres. I always tend to come to a new genre of literature with preconceived ideas about it, and strong opinions as to whether I will enjoy reading it or not. Then I get my ‘gateway novel’, and I’m an instant convert. I want to talk about my ‘gateway fantasy novel’.

As everyone who’s ever spoken to me or read this blog knows, I am deeply, deeply obsessed with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and credit it with causing just about everything that is good in my life. You may know that it was this series that was responsible for my career as a newspaper reviewer, and (indirectly) my presence as a PhD student at Cambridge. You may not know, however, that I consider it my ‘gateway fantasy series’.

I was given a copy of the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights, for my 13th birthday in late 1997. It formed part of a large collection of books that I’d been given for Christmas and my birthday by my mother. She always gave me books, usually after a year of scouring review pages of newspapers and literary magazines and keeping track of things that looked well-written and interesting. At this point, I was a fairly omnivorous reader. I had read fantasy novels (most notably those written by Australian YA geniuses Victor Kelleher and Gillian Rubinstein) but I didn’t really notice genre, only quality and personal resonance. My favourite books were all historical novels: A Little Princess, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, Of Nightingales That Weep and the Pagan Chronicles.

I took Northern Lights with me down the South Coast when my dad took my sister and me there for a week-long holiday in late December. I was not too impressed with it, judging it solely on its cover. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I thought, and read every other book I’d brought. Two days into the holiday, I was whining to my sister that I ‘had nothing to read’.

‘Why don’t you read this?’, she asked, gesturing at Northern Lights. (I should add that she had not read it herself. She was merely exasperated with my complaints.) With trepidation, I opened it and read the first page. Within two paragraphs, I was hooked. I read the whole book in one day, and when I finished, I simply flipped back to the beginning and began to read it again. After my second read-through, I was so overwhelmed by the themes my 13-year-old brain was only just beginning to comprehend that I had to phone up my mother and rave at her for hours. (As a child and teenager, my poor mother was the unfortunate recipient of many of my outpourings of literary enthusiasm. I would rehash the plot of a book, rhapsodise about its amazing themes and babble about how it related to my own life.)

Thus began a lifelong love affair with (good quality, for the most part) fantasy literature. After Northern Lights I deliberately sought out the otherworldly and fantastical, and although it would take another 10 years before a book left me that overwhelmed (American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2008), I haven’t regretted a minute of it. My reading diet is slightly too imbalanced in the fantasy area, despite desultory, half-hearted efforts on my part to remedy this. I followed Lyra into the wardrobe in the Jordan College Retiring Room in 1997, and I found a world of inexhaustible wonder.

Did any of my readers have similarly transformative ‘gateway’ experiences? (Not necessarily with fantasy novels, but just with some kind of text?)

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1. Jordan - January 22, 2010

Shame to come to fantasy via that series in a way, because inevitably most of what you read afterwards isn’t going to be quite up to the same standard.

I guess victor kelleher and Gillian rubenstein were my first exposures to sci/fi fantasy, too, unless you count being read the lion witch and wardrobe by my mother when very young. As far as ‘gateways’, I’d always preconceived I wouldn’t like Hanoverian England era novels, but I was forced to read Jane eyre in high school for an essay and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Then again, I haven’t really read anything else in the genre subsequently….

Likewise I never would have pictured myself as an “historical romance” reader, but I got a copy of the chronicles of captain blood given to me as a kid, read and re-read it a dozen times, and have now bought and read about half of sabbatini’s novels although nothing else in the genre.

Does that technique of “magic realism” count as a genre? I’m thinking of louis de bernais’ books of which I’ve read two, both fantastic. Likewise Jasper fforde writes great alternative reality novels that don’t really use any of the tropes of traditonal sci fi or fantasy, so I guess this is broader speculative fiction exposure, perhaps.

dolorosa12 - January 23, 2010

Not true, Jordan! I’ve read plenty of excellent fantasy since HDM, although none which had such a profound effect on me, it is true. But nothing can have as profound effect as the ‘gateway novel’, anyway.

If you haven’t read anything else, how can Jane Eyre have been a ‘gateway novel’? (That being said, it is really excellent, although I have always been greatly disturbed by Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s attitude to men…)

Those Louis de Bernais books are HILARIOUS! I think magical realism is a sub-genre, although I think that the de Bernais books are more satires of the genre than actual magical realism books. (If you’re interested in magical realism, try Gabriel García Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. They’re wonderful.)

2. Katherine - January 22, 2010

I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise – Lord of the Rings. I read plenty of Sci-fi and fantasy as a teenager, mainly Anne McCaffrey, but I was put off the genre as a whole by Katherine Kerr’s stuff, and then I grew out of McCaffrey et al. I went through several years of rereading old favourites occasionally, but reading deeply serious Literature for the most part, interspersed with increasingly dispiriting forays into chick lit.

As a nine-year-old, I had sworn I would never read LotR, and all through this, I stuck to this adamantly.

In 2002, my grandmother died. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was still a death. In the same week, a family friend came round to borrow our DVD player to watch FotR as she’d won a copy and didn’t have a DVD player of her own.

I needed something to distract me, and the beauty of the cinematography captivated me. The same week, I went out and bought the novel, and within a fortnight, I’d read all three parts.

It was a gateway for me in so many ways. I got involved in the online community for the first time. I began to read fantasy again, and discovered some of the more interesting and adult series. Through that, I slipped into reading romance (via Amazon recs and a romantic comedy about vampires that’d probably be too fluffy for my tastes now). Lord of the Rings gave me something to concentrate on during the darkest time in my life, something to hold on to. Through the introduction to paranormal romance, it’s been a gateway to a couple of genres that have kept me sane during some interesting times. And Lord of the Rings reignited my interest in Old English. I quoted one of JRRT’s academic articles in my application to Cambridge.

dolorosa12 - January 23, 2010

It’s wonderful how books are able to get us through difficult times, and also to get us into happier places. LotR was certainly your version of HDM, (indirectly or directly) responsible for a lot of the good things that happened in your life.

It’s really amazing how that happens with books, because you don’t notice it happening at the time. If my sister hadn’t become exasperated with my whining, who knows how differently my life would’ve turned out…In your case, it wasn’t such happy circumstances that got you into LotR, but I guess at least I can say something positive came out of the sadness of your grandmother’s death. (That sounds really insensitive and trite, it’s hard to convey what I’m trying to say online, but do you get what I mean? I hope you’re not offended.)

3. Peter - January 23, 2010

HDM was a gateway novel for me, but in a different way. I had already been reading fantasy/ SF for many, many years (and I can’t remember what my gateway novel was, although I can tell you what the first SF books were that I bought with my own money. They were Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time and an anthology called 17*Infinity. I still have them.)

No, what HDM did was get me writing again, and for that I’m profoundly grateful.

dolorosa12 - January 24, 2010

We’re all very grateful, too! It’s really wonderful that you were able to get back into writing, since it appears to have given you so much joy (as well as bringing great happiness to your readers!).


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