‘Lionel Shriver,’ he says, looking at our bookshelves. ‘I’ve read Lionel Shriver. Jeanette Winterson. Diana Athill – she’s really good. Sally Vickers, Barbara Vine. I’ve read loads. I’ve read loads of women’s books – books by women, sorry.’
We have been out at our local tapas bar and I have told him my theory about why men don’t read women’s books. He has told me that men read books by women if it’s about a subject that interests them. He cites Pat Barker, ‘Regeneration’ saying loads of men have read Pat Barker. Maybe, he says, they think Pat is short for Patrick but they’ve still read her First World War books. Plus, he says, men are not afraid of appearing afraid. Fear of emasculation has nothing to do with a man’s reading choices. Men often write about their fears. It’s a major preoccupation in books by men, come to think of it. ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks is massively emotional and introspective and very moving and full of fear – orniphobia, specficially. Serious orniphobia in ‘Birdsong’. He disagrees that men do not read women’s novels. He disagrees that it’s social conditioning and subconscious fear of emasculation that stops them. He concedes that I have read more men than he has read women.
Tomorrow night, my husband is going out with five of his oldest friends – the Fantasy Football League now celebrating its 20th year. ‘Ask them,’ I say, ‘what contemporary women novelists they’ve read,’ and he looks at me like I’m the simplest person in the history of the world. ‘I don’t know if we’ll get around to that,’ he says.
‘Okay, so what’s your favourite novel? I mean, apart from ‘Lord of the Rings.’
‘I’m not sure,’ he says. Lord of the Rings is a great novel. It made a big impression, you know?’
I try again. ‘Apart from Lord of the Rings, what novel has made the biggest impression on you?’
‘That’s really very difficult.’ He thinks hard. ‘If I’m really honest,’ he smiles, ‘I’d say ‘The Wind in the Willows.’
‘You’re having me on.’
‘No, no, I’m not. There’s this bit called ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and it’s really very beautiful, very mysterious and pastoral and timeless, and you could take it out of the novel and the novel would work without it so I suppose it’s extraneous to the novel, but it’s wonderful really and it’s about how all the animals are called to be just what they are, and they can’t resist being what they are, it’s what they exist for – to be exactly what Nature says they must be. It’s lovely, and very moving in a quiet, wonderful sort of way. I’m serious about The Wind in the Willows making a big impression’, he says, very seriously.
(Where do I go from here?) ‘You don’t take me seriously, do you?’ he says. ‘If I say ‘The Wind in the Willows’ made a big impression, you think less of me, don’t you? Would you rather I said something a bit more heroic?’
‘No. If you like The Wind in the Willows, that’s fine by me.’
‘So, what novel has made a big impression on you?’ he asks. ‘Apart from ‘Jane Eyre.’
‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It’s a brilliantly structured thriller.’
‘Yes, with a flawed hero who’s out of his depth. He ignores all his mother’s warnings and breaks in to the beautiful but deadly place where his father was killed. Once there, he just wanders round binge-eating. Then his father’s killer spots him and tries to hunt him down. He runs away but gets trapped in a net and he’s just crying in despair when finally he’s helped by strangers who implore him to exert himself. The only way he can escape is by wriggling free of his clothes. Naked and limping he finds somewhere to hide but it’s dark and cold and full of water. At last he sees his chance of escape and bolts for it. He scrambles under a gate and makes it home, but collapses in shock, flat out on the floor in front of his poor mother. The story ends with him in bed, on tranquilisers.’
My husband nods. ‘Camomile tea.’
‘Plus there’s room for a sequel because on the last page we see his clothes have been hung on a scarecrow, like a trophy, and it’s a point of honour for the reckless sidekick crazy cousin Benjamin Bunny that in the next book, they revisit the scene of trauma and get his clothes back.
I think we paid the bill at this point and walked home together. ‘I’ve read loads of women,’ he said. ‘Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton…’ Once we got home, he went straight to the book shelves. ‘Maggie Gee – The Ice People. Good one. Lionel Shriver. I’ve read Lionel Shriver…’