‘A lifetime of books saved me, remade me’

Boy’s own adventures taught me to write a story with a different kind of hero: a girl

Kathryn Heyman: more than anything, reading taught me the power of precision: name the mess, name the trauma, and from that you will find a way forward.

Kathryn Heyman: more than anything, reading taught me the power of precision: name the mess, name the trauma, and from that you will find a way forward.

 

On my first day of kindergarten in the early 1970s I stood outside the little wooden school building with my already battered schoolbag, filled with the longing to get inside to the place where the books were. Nearby, a boy with red hair clung to his mother, sobbing, begging not to be sent to school. Puzzled, I watched him. Why would anyone fear school? What could be more frightening than home?

Home was the dark shadow of my father, the thud of his punches. Home was my mother weeping in the kitchen, trying to save money to leave. But each morning, on Play School, there was a story from a book, and the turning of the pages filled me with an urgent longing. I knew that school was the place where you read.

Growing up in an environment marked by poverty and violence, I had few examples of how to navigate my way into a different kind of life, a different kind of story. What I did have was a certain kind of luck.

Our house was not a house of books, but in the second term of kindergarten, my teacher Mrs Noble declared me unusually clever in a whispered conversation with my mother and began sending home small parcels. Holding their contents in my hand, my fingers moving across the shiny pages, my mouth watering; this was better even than the stories on Play School.

Fury: A Memoir by Kathryn Heyman is published by Myriad
Fury: A Memoir by Kathryn Heyman is published by Myriad

My father was the local police sergeant: gruff and cheerful in the daytime, loud and brutal at night. At the back of the police station, crates of empty soft drink bottles tottered against the white wall. Each afternoon, I gathered those empties and took them to the corner shop, trading them in at five cents per bottle.

I took my earnings to the St Vincent de Paul charity shop on the main street, tipping the coins on to the counter in exchange for old fruit crates, with handwritten labels on the top: Chldrns Assorted. Sometimes, before reaching home, I stopped on the footpath, squatting in the heat, and extracting book after book, greedily opening each flyleaf to see what I’d scored. Miss Maisie. Pansy Goes to School. The Good Twins. There was no sorting system, just the thrill of a random assortment of worlds, of other places to be.

Everything in those boxes was mine, the musty smell of paper and ink filling my bedroom where I opened them one by one, ready to disappear. The Good Twins, it turned out, weren’t good at all, but terribly naughty! Children escaped from robbers and from explosions and Pansy did indeed go to school, where she learnt to be kinder to strangers as well as to herself.

The parcels the teacher sent home with me and those crates I gathered from Vinnies contained my templates for a better kind of reality, blueprints for an escape plan. Lying awake listening to the sounds of violence and fear, I engaged with the lives in my books, plotted my departure, formed my own resilience as I learned about the resilience of the characters I read.

At 20, after a traumatic sexual assault trial, I longed to escape the life I was in, and I already knew the place to turn for salvation. I hitch-hiked my way out of the city I lived in, carrying with me a lifetime of reading and a full backpack. I needed to be somewhere else, to be someone else. Fat books weighed my pack down. Imagine Reese Witherspoon in Wild, tottering under the weight of an overlarge rucksack. That was me. Except instead of food and sensible cooking gear, I carried literature. Mostly grand stories, one way or another, of escape. Most of them with young men swaggering through the world wielding swords, or cars, or horses or girls as weapons. I searched for myself in their pages, tried to build my muscle to make myself the hero I could see there.

Reaching the end of the largest island on earth still wasn’t far enough away from the life I’d left. I found myself heading beyond the land, into the wild storms and distant horizon of the Timor Sea where I would work as a deckhand. When the skipper lifted my pack into the boat on my first day on board, he grunted at the weight and said, “What’ve you got in here? Rocks?”

When I answered, he raised his eyebrows and said, “You’ll be working, not reading.” He looked at my soft arms and added, “You’ll need to build some muscle.”

I thought about the hundreds of thousands of words gathered in the bottom of that pack, the answers to everything, but I nodded. I knew what would build my strength.

During the wild storms of my calamitous season on board the Ocean Thief, I held my hand against the bunk, trying to imagine that the rise and fall was comforting, was a rocking chair, a womb. This was the gift of all those books, all those years of making things up: I could imagine, I could pretend my way out of fear, could emerge remade.

It was the lifetime of books that saved me, that remade me. Reading taught me to keep getting up, it taught me to speak potential into being, to imagine new possibilities. And those boy’s own adventures taught me to make a different kind of space, to write a different kind of story with a different kind of hero: a girl.

But more than anything, reading taught me the power of precision, the power of speaking. It taught me this: name the mess, name the trauma, and from that you will find a way forward. After my wild season at sea, I stepped back onto land transformed. I needed the weight of all those books to build my muscle and to teach me what might be possible. The skipper was right in his way. At the end of the season – after betrayal, treachery and disaster – I was stronger. I was ready to face the world.

Fury: A Memoir by Kathryn Heyman is published by Myriad

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