For some weird reason, I’m not one for reading fiction. The nerd in me has always been too keen to learn something new so, as the years have passed, I’ve found myself hoarding books full of knowledge and research, seldom tarrying in the land of someone’s imagination.
But I found myself accepting a novel’s invitation to escape recently, whilst taking advantage of my second vaccination jab to look after my mum, and its theme has stayed with me.
The title I read wasn’t a literary masterpiece but a second-hand copy of the Nina George’s 2015 international bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop.
50 year old Jean Perdu (“John Lost”) can prescribe books to soothe the souls of others in his floating ‘literary apothecary’ on the Seine but has been unable to find solace himself. A chance encounter spurs him into reclaiming the playful, sensual, and relational parts of himself which he has kept walled up (both metaphorically and literally) for the past 20 years, triggering him to finally reconcile with the pain of his past and embrace an unexpected future.
(Yeah, it makes quite a change from reading about coaching or trauma – well, kinda; it’s tough not to analyse fictional characters sometimes.)
Obviously, it appealed to me for a number of reasons; the combination of books, Paris, slow travel, attuning to others and dispensing healing through words of wisdom (via paperbacks), a sense of humour, and a protagonist my age meant it could have been created in a lab to appeal to me. Hell, it even has a set of recipes at the back.
But the question which has been on my mind since reading it (beyond “Why the heck don’t I read more fiction??”) revolves around the way the main character responds to loss. Rather than engaging with it and healing it, our John Perdu shuts it out, shuts life itself out, and shuts himself down. As Brene Brown notes, we cannot selectively numb ourselves, and blocking out what hurts us also stops us from feeling what brings us pleasure, too.
I’m reminded, too, of Dr Stephen Porges, the founder of polyvagal theory, and his astute observation that “trauma replaces patterns of connection with patterns of protection”. The book illustrates the healing power of relationship, restoring connection where there has been stagnancy and protection.
While many of us would not go to the extremes of the character in this book (closing off an entire room in their living space, cutting themselves off from pleasure and intimacy for decades, living a life of repressed ascetism), it has reminded me of how common it is for many of us to leave unopened certain rooms within the houses of our selves.
(I once hugged someone and couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a room inside him which he did not wish to, perhaps did not dare to, open; I wonder what would have happened if circumstances had been different, and he’d rested his palm upon the handle.)
How many of us have parts of ourselves that seldom see the light of day? The parts that are playful, relaxed, sensual, frivolous, spontaneous? I imagine it’s been higher than ever due to the restrictions the pandemic has (rightly) required.
This summer, my wish for all of us is that we find small, compassionate, tender ways to reread these hidden chapters of ourselves. May our lost pages be lit once more by the warmth of blue skies, good company, and sunshine, and may we embrace new chapters, too.
Perhaps in the company of a rather good book.