Something Borrowed

REVIEW: The Borrower: Rebecca Makkai

Library book of the month

I am forever on the hunt for novels where the main character runs away from their life. In recent years there was a surge of novels such as Gone Girl or the somewhat bizarre Where’d You Go Bernadette?  I think it’s a fascinating idea that you could escape life, it sometimes appeals anyway! But really I wonder if in reality, life would catch up with you? This is an idea I have been exploring in my own writing. With this in mind, when I read the blurb for The Borrower I picked it up immediately from the library.

Lucy Hull is working in a small-town library in Hannibal Missouri after graduation. It seems she wants to escape the influence of her family. She forms a friendship with precocious reader Ian, a boy who comes alone or barely supervised to the children’s library. She soon starts to help him smuggle books out of the library because his mother would not approve. The friendship comes to a head one day when she finds him camped out in the library. Somehow her worries about him and his mother overtake any common sense and she helps him run away.

I had a little jolt of pleasure a few chapters in when we learn Lucy graduated from Mount Holyoke. I was lucky enough to study for a year abroad there in 2004 and it is a  very special place. Her drive to help Ian, her idealism and activism may seem out of place in the Missouri portrayed in the novel, but would fit right in on campus. . And of course where else would you go if you were in love with libraries.

Aside from my own personal connection to the novel, a passion for libraries is central to this novel and really it is a book for all book-lovers. Particularly children’s book lovers. Her writing is peppered throughout with tropes from children’s literature and she cleverly weaves in the books with italicised passages aping the style of various children’s tales. I really enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventure chapter.

There were so many books that were mentioned or seemed to be forming the narrative. Makkai plays cleverly with ideas from many Dahl novels. It’s hard to know which reference is more pleasurable to recognise in the story. Maybe, Lucy’s father’s story of USSR Chocolate Factory, complete with espionage?

At the beginning of the novel, she is reading the book Matilda to the children and in many ways this novel writes back to Dahl’s masterpiece. The older I get reading Matilda it always seemed odd that within minutes the Wormwoods agree to Miss Honey’s adoption of her. Perhaps it’s because I worked in Children’s Services. The telekinesis I can cope with, but adoption being that easy? The reality of the impact of interfering with the child’s life, even though we are on Lucy’s side, are that it cannot be her role, she cannot really be Miss Honey.

Characters are brilliantly drawn. The build up to the road trip part of the novel we are drawn to Lucy and Ian. Then when it is just the two of them, the book is both comical and touching. You are rooting for both of them in the end, and compelled to read on to find out if Lucy will be arrested for kidnapping him. The pace of the novel really picks up for the sequence where they are on the road making this the most enjoyable part, I felt.

It seems a hopeful novel. And in a time when we are fighting library cuts, an important one too. Everyone who can believe in the power of books to change lives, you are going to like this book.