Way back in the distant past, in 2001 to be precise, I was nonchalantly browsing the books of a Cancer Council charity shop in Inverness. Various titles jumped out at me, various authors who were familiar to me made their presence known, but none more so than Charles de Lint. For there, sitting on the shelf, was a dog-eared, moth-eaten book entitled ‘Memory and Dream’. I had never read any de Lint, but I knew of him, my friend Deborah, who I’d met whilst long-terming in a backpacker hostel throughout the winter of 1999/2000, had recommended him to me on many occasions. But I’d never had the chance to read his work. None of the bookshops in Inverness carried his art, and at this time in life, few people shopped online as the internet was only beginning to take hold in people’s lives. So, in memory of our friendship, I paid the 50p for ‘Memory and Dream’ and popped the book into my backpack.
“The stronger a woman gets, the more insecure the men in her life feel. It doesn’t work that way for a woman. We celebrate strength–in our partners as well as in ourselves.”
Later that night, as it was quiet at work, I pulled the book from my bag and began to read. To say I was instantaneously captivated was an understatement. From the very first sentence of the book it grabbed my attention and spoke to me in ways that few books ever had. Never before had I found an author so capable of blending the atrocity of contemporary life with the beauty of the magical that so few humans choose to believe in. Within fifty pages I had fallen in love with Isabelle Copley, the gifted artist, and her best friend Katherine Mully, the aspiring writer of fairy tales. Within a hundred pages I knew Deborah had been right; de Lint was the author I had been looking for my entire life. A writer capable of weaving the fantastical and the mundane. A writer blessed with the ability not to simply tell stories, but to make them take on mythic, legendary status.
Over the course of four nights I devoured the book and, by the time Isabelle’s adventure had come to an end, I had grown to love both her and her numena in ways I had never experienced from fiction before. These were not simply characters on a page; they were living, breathing, real life individuals. Human beings that existed not just within the confines of a book, but, if you believed hard enough, able to live in the real world. Leaning back on my chair at work, I announced to an empty reception area that ‘Memory and Dream’ was one of my favourite books of all time.
“But that’s what we all are – just stories. We only exist by how people remember us, by the stories we make of our lives. Without the stories, we’d just fade away.”
As time moved on I became somewhat obsessed with de Lint’s tale of magic, art and myth. The book traveled with me wherever I went. A weekend in the Outer Hebrides; ‘Memory and Dream’ was there to soothe me. An overnight camping excursion to the shores of Loch Linnhe; ‘Memory and Dream’ was there to comfort me. When the time came to leave Inverness and resume living arrangements with my parents, ‘Memory and Dream’ was there to ease the stress. And when I decided to leave the UK behind and begin anew in Australia, ‘Memory and Dream’ took pride of place in my backpack, making the long, stressful plane journey into something less overwhelming and frightening.
For eight years ‘Memory and Dream’ continued to accompany me wherever I went. A weekend break to Apollo Bay. A week-long vacation to Wilson’s Prom and Gippsland. Even a day trip to Melbourne town, ‘Memory and Dream’ came with me. It lived perpetually in my backpack; easing my troubled mind with just the knowledge it was there should I ever need the comforting, inspirational words contained within it. The book was one of the few items that I refused to sell following the tragedy of my breakdown. It remained in my possession as I drifted into mania in Adelaide, was there for me following the chaos of the aftermath of rape and offered solace during those first few months of homelessness.
“It’s a mistake to go poking about in your own past,” she’d told her. “It makes you shrink into yourself. Every time you return you get smaller and more transparent. Go back often enough and you might vanish altogether. We’re meant to put the past behind us and be the people we are now, Izzy, not who we were.”
By 2010 ‘Memory and Dream’ had been through everything I had; abuse, assault, homelessness, breakdown…and it had never let me down. I read it religiously at lease once a year, sometimes twice, sometimes thrice. Sometimes I just dipped into my favourite passages and allowed their grace to wash over me. But then, in April of 2010, a book I had protected, loved and cared for for nearly ten years, was stolen from me. An arrogant, cruel man, who appeared to be one of those hipsters I despise so much, decided to steal a homeless man’s bag; and with it the book he cherished the most.
For months I mourned the loss. No longer was I able to take solace in the magic de Lint weaved. No longer was I able to comfort myself with the unrequited love of Isabelle Copley, or her best friend, Katherine Mully. I knew I had to replace the book. I knew I needed it in my life, for without it, life seemed more frightening, more unbearable. For years I looked in every bookstore, every op shop, seeking ‘Memory and Dream’, but I was always left wanting. No bookstore stocked it. No bookseller had even heard of it.
“One expected growth, change; without it, the world was less, the well of inspiration dried up, the muses fled.”
But then, five years after it had been stolen from me, on a quiet afternoon in Wodonga, the sleepiest, most uncultured town I’ve ever visited, magic returned to my life. For there, on the bookshelf of a Salvation Army op-shop, was a copy of my old friend; ‘Memory and Dream’. It was the same imprint that I had once owned, the same delicious, beautiful nymphs dancing on the cover against the orange backdrop of some long forgotten forest. I grabbed the book in a flash, flicking through the pages to make sure they were complete and undamaged, I rose the spine to my nose and inhaled the gorgeous scent that only a second-hand book can contain; part musk, part hope and part magic. And I took it to the counter and purchased it without hesitation. My five-year search had ended; ‘Memory and Dream’ was mine again.
To relish. To love. To protect.
The reading woman sits by the window, lamplight falling over her shoulder onto the book. It is the book that glows a golden bath of lemon yellow faintly touched with orange, surrounded by violet shadows. The glow of the book casts a soft light onto the woman’s features, a soft light and softer shadows, and sets the tangle of her hennaed hair aflame.
It is possible to see diminutive figures in the shadows, crouching on the arms of the chair to peer at the words in the pages of the woman’s book, peeping out from in between the curls of her red hair. Tinier shapes still, not quite the size of mosquitoes, hover in the lamplight. Some are silhouetted against the curve of her throat and the shadow of her nose, other against the faint spray of freckles on brow and cheek.
Their heads are like those of fledgling birds: noses sharp and long, features pinched, brows high and smooth. Their figures – when in silhouette – are not unlike a tadpole’s. They have limbs like small crooked twigs, bird’s -nest hair that stands up in surprise and in ungovernably wild. Some have wings with the gossamer iridescence of a dragonfly’s.
The reading woman gives no indication that she is aware of their presence. The book captures her full attention. But surely she can feel the press of miniature bodies as they move against her arm, or the faintest movement as they slip in and about the curls of her hair? Surely she can see the tiny shapes flitting in the dusky air that lies between her grey-green eyes and the page?
Or perhaps they are only shadows, nothing more. And the summer’s night that lies outside her window belongs not to memory, but to dream.
La Liseuse, 1977, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Collection The Newford Children’s Foundation.
~ from ‘Memory and Dream’ by Charles de Lint.