Whenever I’ve been faced with difficulties in life, my instinct is to reach for a book that helps. It might be a self-help or nonfiction manual, it might be a novel that closely echoes my own experience, or it could be a memoir that tells a similar story from a totally different perspective. I’ve been helped by so many books over the years: Havi Carel’s Illness helped me cope with my invisible disability, several books about coercive control and psychological abuse helped me through a terrible break-up and books like Small Dogs Can Save Your Life and The Year of Magical Thinking helped me negotiate my first year of being a widow. Books have helped me understand the world in so many different ways, so I was fascinated with the concept of Chloe Hooper’s beautiful book Bedtime Story. In the same way I’d always reached for literature, Chloe Hooper had turned to children’s stories to hopefully find a way through a terrible situation.
Let me tell you a story…
When Chloe Hooper’s partner was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness, she had to find a way to tell their two young sons. By instinct, she turned to their bookshelves. Could the news be broken as a bedtime tale? Is there a perfect book to prepare children for loss? Hooper embarks on a quest to find what practical lessons children’s literature—with its innocent orphans and evil adults, magic, monsters and anthropomorphic animals—can teach about grief and resilience in real life.
From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett and Tolkien and Dahl—all of whom suffered childhood bereavements—she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favourite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives. Both memoir and manual, Bedtime Story is stunningly illustrated by the New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of worldwide uncertainty, here is a profound and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.
I was first drawn by the look of this book and felt really lucky to receive such a beautiful proof copy. However, it wasn’t long before it was the beauty of the words that seduced me. Hooper manages to convey so much in her choice of words. She talks about childhood bedtimes and how ‘you lie in the fresh anarchy of the dark’ once reading is over and it’s time for the lights to go out. I loved the use of the word ‘anarchy’ because that’s exactly how it feels when the light goes off and the ordinary shapes of furniture and well worn toys become something completely different. The darkness allows them to metamorphose into whatever horror they like. It reminded me of childhood trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, when flushing the toilet and turning off the bathroom light would leave me momentarily without sight or hearing. I would run down the hallway on my tiptoes and leap from the threshold of my bedroom onto the bed, just in case whatever lurked under there grabbed hold of my ankle.
I completely understood the author’s need to move into researching children’s stories at a time of such great loss. When I lost my husband I was writing about my experience, but found myself veering off towards the Victorian form of mourning with all it’s rules and regulations. Reading about Queen Victoria’s loss of Prince Albert in a non-fiction format felt safer than reading a novel. It was all facts and couldn’t suddenly ambush me with emotion. The author was obviously looking for answers, but I wondered if she too was looking for reassurance in the dark. Trying to find a correct or right way to do something that is unimaginable. There is something strangely comforting about reading that someone else has faced this. In fact if you think about it this wre ads a mot ptyuuere are a lot of orphans and lost children in literature. Anne of Green Gables, Pip in Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights – it was a more common experience to loo your parents in the 19th Century. In fact many of the authors themselves suffered childhood bereavements so perhaps their storytelling was a way of writing out that experience from the safety of adulthood, trying out what might have happened to them in that situation, or perhaps exploring their greatest fears at the time. So maybe from these stories there are clues to the better ways of helping a child through the experience, a way in which ‘the right words are an incantation, a spell of hope for the future’.
When working as a writing therapist with people who’ve had life-changing diagnoses, one of the first exercises I do with people is to imagine their illness is a monster. They must of course think about how it looks, but also how it smells and the texture of it’s skin or fur. How does it move across the room and if it came in now what would it do? Would it sit, talk to the group or slink off to a corner and stay aloof or separate? How does it behave with them? What is it’s personality and it’s drive? This is a fascinating exercise and brings so many different responses to the surface to talk about within the group. Of course this is only how we perceive it to be. Our illness and our symptoms, don’t care about us. We are irrelevant to them. It’s what their presence does to us that’s important, how we respond to it – anxiety, fear, dread, anger. Hooper writes about monsters within narratives in interesting ways. On one hand they are amoral, unstoppable and all powerful. As Hooper writes, her husband’s cancer cells are completely indifferent to him and what kind of person he is. Similarly, the Basilisk doesn’t care that it’s Harry Potter he’s trying to eat, because in the monster’s world Harry isn’t the poor, orphaned, centre of the universe, he’s just a meal. On the other hand, the monster can be fashioned from what lurks within ourselves such as the tree monster in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This monster is seemingly fashioned from Conor’s mother’s illness, but actually he isn’t there for her. He’s there for Conor. While adults feed him platitudes and half-truths, the monster is straight with him and confronts him with a terrible truth, so awful that Conor can’t bear to face it. He’s finally able to tell the monster of his terrible feelings, that he’s so tired of his mother’s illness that he wants her ordeal to end. He is ashamed of feeling this, but in saying it he becomes free. It shows the desperate need for an outlet, away from the parents, where the child can express everything they feel, even the negative and shameful narratives they tell themselves.
If all this sounds powerful, thit is. What I love about this book and the reason I want to use it with clients, is that it doesn’t sugar coat anything. It’s not syrupy sweet, but tells iiīiiooooôoothe truth about trying to live while potentially dying. Anticipating the death of someone you love is like a slow torture and Hooper doesn’t compromise. This is about that daily struggle to be a family and continue to make sense of a world that has suddenly become scary, hostile and uncertain. The love she has for her children won’t let her lie to them, but somehow they find solace in the stories and imaginary worlds she studies. There’s a way in which it teaches them how to accept that our time here and our time together is finite. Or, to quote from The Fault in our Stars, some infinities are bigger then others. I found Hooper’s narrative utterly unique and incredibly beautiful, full of strength, a resilience within the grief. She tells us that as soon as we describe something that’s happened to us in words, we’ve placed it a step or two further away, in order to examine it and understand it better. That’s what’s happening throughout the book and we go along that personal journey with her and her family. It’s such a privilege. However, it’s also a book that treasures literature and shows us how important stories are to our culture. When we bring our children up with stories, we’re sharing something imaginative and magical but we’re also equipping them for everything life can throw at them, because without stories we have no way to make meaning of our existence and experiences.
Out now from Scribner.
Meet the Author.
Chloe Hooper’s most recent book is the bestselling The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing, and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. She is also the author of two acclaimed novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Engagement. She lives in Melbourne with her partner and her two sons.