Friday 20 July 2018

How the joys of reading set one anorexic free

Memoir: The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, Laura Freeman, Weidenfeld & Nicholson €23.79

Laura Freeman's 'The Reading Cure' describes the chaos, misery and misrule of an anorexic’s thinking
Laura Freeman's 'The Reading Cure' describes the chaos, misery and misrule of an anorexic’s thinking

Jake Kerridgere

Alain de Botton's 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life has inspired many copycat crimes, but Laura Freeman's The Reading Cure shines like a beacon among all the ragbags of literary anthology-plus-commentary that are published with an eye to the self-help market.

It is a devastatingly honest account of how books did not just change the author's life but saved it, and having saved it, brightened it up immeasurably in unexpected ways.

When she was 15, Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia.

But as she puts it, "this is not a book about the anguish - and it is anguish - of anorexia... this book is about what comes next. About the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger".

Although fans of misery memoirs may want more anguish for their buck, many readers will feel that the brief account of her illness with which she starts the book is harrowing enough to be going on with.

Her memory of "taking the shoes out from the bottom of my wardrobe and getting in under the bottom shelf and shutting the doors because I thought I could shut out the noise", is just one example of her ability to convey several volumes' worth of suffering in a paragraph.

She likens her mind when well to a "light, tidy library... a refuge, a retreat from a tiring world" and then describes the illness's effect on it: "The bookcases have fallen, their glass fronts smashed, their contents in disarray across the floor. The windows, too, have shattered.

"Rain and damp have got at the books, spoiling their bindings and soaking the pages."

Ironically enough the obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist aspect of her personality that helped to fuel her anorexia seems also to have been responsible for the bibliomania that saved her. Reading, she says, was a way of "putting my mind's shelves in order... restoring my library, one book at a time".

There is a heartstring-tugging passage in which she describes her father's attempt to cheer her up by plying her with comic classics, and in the end The Compleet Molesworth does the trick: "I laughed and laughed - and was shocked by the strangeness of laughing."

But the bulk of the book deals with an awakening she experienced 10 years after her diagnosis, by which time she had relearnt how to eat but not how to take pleasure in food: "I might have gone on this way my whole life... A diet to keep one alive, but not one to relish."

What gets her taste buds popping is, of all things, the Herculean self-imposed task of reading the complete novels of Charles Dickens over the course of his bicentenary year in 2012.

She starts to notice that one way in which many of Dickens's villains exert power over people is to keep them on short rations: to treat their victims as she treats herself.

"Could I go on my whole life aligning myself with Squeerses and Miss Sallies and meting out their punishments?"

The description of Mrs Cratchit's Christmas pudding, "like a speckled cannon-ball", delights her so much that she amazes her family by trying "half of half a spoonful" of pud.

Thomas Hardy's description of cow's milk in Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Toad's prison meal of toast with butter "in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb" in The Wind in the Willows seduce her into expanding her diet.

Part of the reason she starts to eat more adventurously is because the food she reads about has associations beyond the pleasure taken in it for its own sake: it reminds her of the camaraderie felt by Siegfried Sassoon and his comrades as they forget their misery over a meal in the trenches, or of the burgeoning friendship of Harry and Ron as they bond over the tuck trolley during their first journey on the Hogwarts Express.

There are setbacks and regressions along the way and Freeman is by no means a trencherwoman even today.

She writes so evocatively about enjoying things like chocolate as a child - how it was "a wrench" to give away, as etiquette demands, her last Rolo - that one longs for her to return to that prelapsarian state, but alas she still cannot countenance ever eating chocolate again.

It is perhaps what one might call her outsider's perspective on food that enables her to write about it so well; she is particularly good on food writers such as M F K Fisher and Elizabeth David, whose unrepentant gluttony she admires but cannot emulate.

Ultimately this book is most memorable as a celebration of literature rather than food.

At times I was reminded of John Stuart Mill's astonishing account of how reading Wordsworth helped him to recover from mental illness, such is Freeman's ability to find the words to evoke the mysterious soul-soothing power of reading.

Sunday Independent

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