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(Neal Cresswell FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(Neal Cresswell FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

My Italian vacation was a literary ramble through twisting plots Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

In the beginning …

weeks before you left for Italy, you found at a book sale a slightly worn paperback called Italian Neighbours. You’d never heard of the book – nor of Tim Parks, its author. But on a whim, and for a loonie, you’d buy it for your husband – a tiny gesture to acknowledge his months of research for your trip. His rapt attention and occasional snorts of laughter let you know the book had been a find. He carried it to Tuscany to finish and leave with the friends you’d be visiting.

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The sad part is …

between you, it would be lost in a lovely hotel room in a miniature fortress-town. Though still pages from the end, he tried to give it to you, to help you over the frustration of your new e-reader having frozen, shutting you out during a particularly engrossing and grisly murder scene.

As it happened …

at the exact hour you’d come to terms with its usefulness, the slim metallic wafer failed you. This had been the perfect gift you never wanted, but on that unsettled night you’d been warming up to it.

It was the fourth night …

of your trip, and you’d found yourself suddenly awake after a short stretch of deep sleep. You’d groped for the reader, feeling especially appreciative of its tiny craned-neck lamp. In its cone of light you found the story: a P.D. James borrowed from the e-library in the hope that its familiar cast and reliably surprising crime would draw you in. Which they did.

Then, at precisely 2 a.m. …

and on page 159, the thing froze. Your supreme frustration was ramped up a notch by jet lag and compounded by realizing how few actual books you’d carried. Not to mention that the e-loan would expire in days. And Dalgliesh had only just arrived on the scene.

There’s no denying that …

reading, besides being your great pleasure, is your opiate – your steadfast path toward sleep. For you, the quality of slumber is intricately tied to the quality of reading time.

It’s hard to say …

what awoke your husband, whether his own restlessness or your fuming and the futile efforts to unfreeze the damned device. He knows you, though. He knew that you needed sleep, and so needed to read. But his book – a travel book – was far from what you wanted. In a fit of grouchiness, you wouldn’t even pick it up. The trouble was, he didn’t either. It got forgotten right there on the rumpled bed when you stuffed hiking gear into packs and suitcases, then left in the early-morning sun to make your way to Monteriggioni.

But in the pre-dawn darkness …

of that restless night, lacking the grace to accept your husband’s gesture of comfort, you managed to find a book at the bottom of your bag. This was the just-in-case choice, a concession for giving the e-reader a chance. The book, called Oxygen, was borrowed from the stack of novels given to your daughter for Christmas. In the usual way you two exchange reading, she’d passed this one back with an underwhelming review. It did the job that night, depositing you back into sleep. Beyond its soporific powers, the story had little to offer. Notes you’ll jot down in your journal describe it as “dark, fragmented, turgid and depressing.”

Which is why …

you abandon the book two days later, on the bureau of your room in the Piccolo Hotel Etruria in Siena, to make its way to some other desperate English reader. Shedding it feels good, like casting off a remnant of yet another stage of adjustment to the dislocation of travel for a homebody. Who knows? Perhaps it wasn’t even so bad. Maybe it possessed some ability to reflect the malaise of its reader.

The thing is …

this book will manage to track you down. The hotel staff, in most other ways remarkably inattentive, find the book and, assuming it to have been forgotten, leave you phone messages instructing you how you might reconnect with this cast-off volume. No such luck, however, with Italian Neighbours.

But there’s another chapter …

in this loopy string of inconsequential stories. Even the least consequential acts of reading will reverberate, it seems.

Eventually …

the two of you arrive at your friends’ villa bearing one bottle of special wine and no book. As you drop your bags in the guest room, you’ll feel the seductive pull of the bookshelf lining one of its stone walls. There, on the left side of the lowest shelf, your sights will fall upon A Certain Justice, the very mystery whose page 159 has been frozen on the screen of that fateful e-reader. You could say you’d never hoped for such a stroke of luck, but you’d be lying. You are known for absurd levels of optimism: Of course you hoped – just never expected – to find it there.

By this point …

you’ll be sleeping well, and so reconnect with the wonderful Dalgliesh only a few pages at a time. You finish the story on the return flight. It turns out to be a good read, though by no means your favourite James. The victim, Venetia Aldridge, is a lawyer with too many enemies and too bleak a life.

Happily …

you’ll return home, and back to your usual routine – making your way from book to book, appreciative of all their charms, including their power to lull you to sleep. Or, occasionally, to keep you awake and in their grip.

Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake, B.C.

 

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