I think Tegan Bennett Daylight added the subtitle ‘Reading, Love and Death’ to her memoir/essay collection, The Details, just so that I’d buy it. Obviously I did. Immediately. What’s better than reading about reading, love and death? Nothing!
And this book delivered.
Daylight’s collection of essays examines her own reading; her love for particular authors (Helen Garner and Georgia Blain get their own chapters); the birth of her children; the death of her mother; and the reading done by those around her. Each essay stands alone, but literature binds them all.
I gulped this book down in two sittings – it’s what happens when you find a kindred spirit on the page. Daylight’s descriptions of her earliest reading experiences (especially discovering The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy) were so closely aligned to my own that it seemed strange.
We three children read Frances Hodgson Burnett, Swallows and Amazons, the Narnia books, all of Tintin and much of the Famous Five. All those deserted, orphaned or fortuitously parentless children of nineteenth and twentieth century fiction feeding themselves, building shelters, in a way their readers never had to do. And all that detail – all that food and weather, water and light.
But of course, it’s not strange. We find what we need in stories. As Daylight says of these books –
I learned to overlook the archaic, to be open to the oddness of the different eras, and to read for something else. That something else was what I describe…as ‘sensory detail’; the minutiae of life that is the real stuff that makes up a book.
I was charmed by the opening essays on reading, and awed by the frankness of Vagina, where Daylight describes her long recovery from childbirth, but it was not until halfway through the collection, when I began an essay with the unassuming title, Detail II, that I was stopped in my reading tracks.
It’s the story of her mother’s death. By this stage, the reader has conjured a picture of Daylight’s mother – she’s an avid reader and a book presser (that’s my description for someone who presses books on you); she’s a ‘serious noticer’; and is curious and ‘utterly fearless’. She is also dying, and chooses to do so at home, surrounded by family. Nursing someone who is palliative is exhausting. Daylight’s descriptions are the truest I’ve come across –
It is a condition of caring for the dying that you simultaneously cannot bear to have them die and cannot bear for them to live one day longer.
And of her living grief –
I had wished for a long time that she would die. Not just because I loved her and didn’t wish her to suffer – which I did, and which I didn’t – but because I didn’t want to suffer.
Daylight further explores ‘…the inadequate way we are in the face of death’ in a chapter about Georgia Blain. It is crushingly sad, and I reflected on the incomprehensible pain of losing a friend. In both essays, I was struck by how swiftly and accurately Daylight gets to the core of loss.
The collection closes with Daylight’s thoughts on the future of tertiary education, and how teenagers engage with reading (or not). She notes that now, the student who reads widely is an anomaly – I don’t despair anymore. I just notice it – and goes on to frame this lack of reading within an historical context –
…when the book became readily available in English households in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people feared a kind of apocolypse of communication. Instead of sitting by the fire in the evening and talking, everyone would disappear into the silence of text, and civilisation would come to an end.
It casts flash fiction; 140 character missives; and a witty hashtag in a new light.
You may not be familiar with every book or author that Daylight refers to in The Details, but I don’t think that detracts from this wonderful homage to reading.