One of the many good things about shadow judging this award is that it’s made me review non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t read it but the last book I reviewed that wasn’t fiction was back in May. Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure was already in my sights before the shortlist was announced but if it hadn’t appeared on that I may well not have written about it and so wouldn’t have paid so much attention. Subtitled ‘How Books Restored my Appetite’, it’s about the way in which reading helped her to find a way to eat again.
Freeman was thirteen when she first felt there was something wrong with her body. Drying off in the sun after a swim with just one week of the holidays left before returning to her hated school, she’s seized with a wave of revulsion. So begins a gradual paring back of food until all she can do is stay in bed apart from the weekly outings to her therapist followed by a visit to Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street. Always bookish, Freeman takes refuge in Dickens, consuming almost his entire works. Over the fifteen years between her diagnosis and writing The Reading Cure, Freeman relished descriptions of food, from the resplendent plum pudding of A Christmas Carol which helped her eat her first sliver at the Boxing Day family dinner, to the essays of M. F. K. Fisher whose abandoned delight in eating got her over her potato hump, marking her steps towards recovery in literary milestones. Her journey’s punctuated by stops and starts, including three serious relapses, the third prompted by deluge of strictures from the clean eating brigade. By the end of her memoir, Freeman knows that the clamour in her head isn’t silenced forever but she has a stout defence next time the Jabberwock comes calling.
Freeman weaves her story lightly through her reading so that books are to the fore, describing her illness in plain language that rings with truth. She writes about books beautifully, picking out evocative descriptions of food which have helped her inch towards a less fraught relationship with it. Reading helps clarify her thoughts while walking muffles the voices in her head just as it did for Virginia Woolf as Freeman discovers in Woolf’s diaries. The epilogue is both a lovely testament to the love and help of friends and family, and an expression of hope that her book might help others with whatever ails them.
Freeman’s raw honesty and gentle humour coupled with a delight in books elicit empathy far more effectively than any full on confessional misery memoir. I wanted to cheer her on to the next small mouthful of bubble and squeak – the Nigel Slater recipe – or Cornish saffron bun, inspired by Laurie Lee, but my favourite moment isn’t book related at all. Sitting in a café having just heard the complicated, finicky order of a clean eater, Freeman defiantly orders a boiled egg with buttered soldiers and a proper cup of tea. It might not seem much to you, but it’s a pleasing indication of the many strides made by her.
If you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of The Reading Cure, Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Lizzi’s is at These Little Words. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.