The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai was one of my many stock suggestions to the library, and they bought it. I had a read a positive snippet review in the Guardian and thought the premise sounded fun. Ian Drake, a ten year old boy tricks his favourite librarian into kidnapping him and taking him on a 1000 mile road-trip from Missouri to Vermont. Sounds good, right? A paean to children's books and childhood reading with a librarian for a heroine! Because the library bought it at my suggestion I felt honour bound to read it immediately. Hence it skipped right to the top of the TBR pile last week.
At first it seemed like it would be a very quick read. The story is told by Lucy Hull, the librarian turned childnapper, and her voice is quick, witty and eminently readable. I might be the villain of this story, she begins with mysterious verve, Even now it is hard to tell. Her late twenties have rolled up on her suddenly (as they tend to do) and found her in Hannibal, Missouri, the head children's librarian in a backwater branch library. The children's section is stuck in a glorified basement. Storytime on a Friday afternoon is the most lively things get. She spends her winters drawing posters for her summer reading challenge, and her evenings on platonic dates with Rocky, a wheel-chair bound colleague. Otherwise she returns home to her flat above a theatre, where she has to live quietly because of performances, and organises her books into thematic piles. She can't even flush her toilet until late at night lest she disturb rehearsals.
Lucy has built this life for herself as a gesture of independence from her wealthy parents, Russian emigres who may or may not be mixed up in the mafia. And she has found some satisfaction in amongst the children's books, developing the reading of her young patrons, although not nearly enough. Amongst the most regular, and most characterful, of her young customers is Ian Drake. He dances in on his tippy-toes several times a week, and is a devotee of story-time, sucking up fiction and non-fiction at a terrifying pace. Lucy feeds his passion for reading, but surreptitiously. His parents are evangelical Christians and have embargoed books which include '"witchcraft/wizardry, magic, occult religions, weaponry, adult content, the theory of evolution and halloween". Lucy has to slip them to Ian issued on her own library ticket.
One day he slips her somthing back: an origami Baby Jesus he had made. Unfolded it turns out to be a print-out of an email from Ian's mother to one Pastor Bob of Glad Heart Ministries. The Drakes are concerned that their 10 year old son may be gay, and have enrolled him in a class to teach him the joys of heterosexuality. Is Ian trying to send Lucy a message? Is it a cry for help? She is appalled but paralysed by indecision until one morning she opens the library to find Ian asleep in the fiction aisles. Before she can think of the ramifications he is in her car, and she is helping him to run away.
But run away where and to what? This is where my reading of the book came unstuck. It continues to display lots of excellent qualities. I loved the intertextual flirting with iconic children's books; and Ian's sweet, confused idiosyncracies make for a charming portrait of a 10 year old boy. But they are packaged with some rather baggy, uninspired plotting; and quirky Lucy begins to sound like a stuck narratorial record, retracing the same moral ground of guilt and indecision. The pair bounce from motel to motel, having encounters with Lucy's parents, an erstwhile boyfriend, some ferrets, KGB agents and an affable priest along the way. Lucy worries interminably about being caught, or being followed, and wallows excessively in self-pitying inertia. And it goes on, and on, and on, and on, until I would have given anything for the poor librarian to grow a backbone and do something. Take Ian home again, or escape with him to the Canadian wilderness, or even dump him on the doorstep of a police station.
It takes a while to wake up to the fact that Lucy is a disconnected egotist, and that her little escapade with Ian is more about her own dissatisfaction than his wellbeing. She repeatedly asserts that the story she is writing isn't about her - that she is "practically a ghost" - but it patently is. We learn more about her, her family and her upbringing than we ever do about Ian. Auxillary characters wither and die out of shot while she harps on about her immigrant roots and conflicted relationship with America. Poor Rocky, apparently her best friend in Hannibal, is brushed out of her life almost completely and his unrequited love for her doesn't even warrant a throughaway reference in the epilogue.
Clearly the novel is political - it's about how hateful the Christian right can be, and how important it is to guard against freedom of speech, freedom of expression and (of course) freedom to read books. The Borrower sets the children's books Ian is denied up in direct contrast to the book he is allowed to read, the Bible. Lucy envisions reading widely and freely as Ian's eventual salvation from narrow-minded bigotry:
I believed Ian would get his books, as surely as any addict will get his drug. He would bribe his babysitter, he'd sneak out of the house at night and smash the library window. He'd sell his own guinea pig for book money. He would read under his tented comforter with a penlight. He'd hollow out his mattress and fill it with paperbacks. They could lock him in the house, but they could never convince him that the world wasn't a bigger place than that. They'd wonder why they couldn't break him. They'd wonder why he smiled when they sent him to this room. I believed that books might save him because I knew they had so far, and because I knew the people books had saved.
It's all very Jeanette Winterson; and I too believe that books save people. But for me the polemic is too close to the surface of the novel, and becomes especially overwrought in the cutesy epilogue.
I've since heard that The Borrower owes a lot to The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, and that the latter is the better book. It's in one of our branch libraries at the moment and I'm calling it in to compare and contrast.