Words Live On

When I was a teenager, one of the most exciting events of the year was the Paris book festival – the Salon du Livre. It would start on a Friday and run until the following Tuesday, but most of the big authors would be in attendance on Saturday and Sunday, drawing in the weekend crowds.

I remember how amazing it felt, showing my ticket and walking through the doors, knowing that the expansive space surrounding me was full of books and writers, and nothing else. I got to talk to my favourite authors, and sometimes my parents even snapped a photo of us – at the very least, I walked away with their signature on one of my books, a precious keepsake.

In 2005, I was particularly excited to see Pierre Bottero, a fantasy YA author who was responsible for creating the series La Quête d’Ewilan (Ewilan’s Quest). He was accompanied by the illustrator, and my sister and I, who both loved the books, got not only a dedication but a personalised sketch too. Bottero was a wonderful author to queue for: he took the time to chat with everyone, and made you feel seen, even though the queue did take a while.

All this made it even more heartbreaking when I learned, in 2009, that he had died in a motorcycle accident shortly before my birthday. He was forty-five years old. I think that my first thought was for his family – his wife, his children, among whom a daughter who I knew was called Camille, like the protagonist of La Quête d’Ewilan. My second thought was for the books. Not the ones I had read and loved, but the unwritten ones, all those Pierre Bottero books he would never scribble down onto paper, those books that would never be printed, never be read. As I stood taking in the news, I could feel all those future books unravelling, fading away. I wept for him and for myself, for that brutal realisation that death could be so unexpected – a guillotine falling and creating a clean before and after, rather than a drawn-out disease.

Recently, I re-read the whole series. Three trilogies – La Quête d’Ewilan, Les Mondes d’Ewilan and Le Pacte des Marchombres. The first two focus on Ewilan, a 13-year-old girl who, after growing up in our world, finds that she has the power to travel from this world into another, Gwendalavir. Gwendalavir is a fantastic universe which features trolls, ghouls and other monsters, and where the central empire is losing a long war against various enemies. Ewilan’s power enables her to dive into a dimension called the Imagination and to ‘sketch’ things which then become real. Other people in Gwendalavir have the same ability, but her talent is unparalled; as a result, she is sent, along with a team of interesting characters, on a mission to save the empire.

The other trilogy, Le Pacte des Marchombres, is set entirely in Gwendalavir and focuses on a character who is part of the original team: Ellana, a Marchombre (Shadowwalker). The first two volumes take place before La Quête d’Ewilan, following Ellana’s youth and journey, while the last one takes place after Les Mondes d’Ewilan, allowing the readers to discover what happens to the original cast of characters and providing a satisfying conclusion to their stories.

As I read through all nine volumes, the books took me on the same amazing journey that I remembered from my teens, making me laugh and cry and forget myself. My sister, who also decided to re-read the books at around the same time, told me that they had been a wonderful escape from lockdown – a completely different world for her to dive into, distracting her from the grind of everyday restrictions.

Reaching the conclusion of the last book was bittersweet. Although Bottero went on to write other books before his death, this was the end of Ewilan and Ellana’s stories. Sitting in my parents’ house, cradling the book to my chest, I felt all over again the great loss of this wonderful writer – of all the possibles, all the amazing things he might have created. But I felt gratitude, too. Gratitude for his vision, for his generosity, for the words he did share with us. One of my dream projects is translating Ewilan’s Quest into English, Bottero’s words and mine in close collaboration – and perhaps, one day, I will.

Dedication from Pierre Bottero, dated 20th March 2005. It reads ‘To you, Julie – I’m happy that you’re diving with me into this second Alavirian adventure… Best wishes, Pierre B.’

Book Review: The Shapeless Unease

I didn’t have any expectations when I opened The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, by Samantha Harvey. I had not previously read any of her novels. I simply heard Harvey talking about the book on a podcast (available here if you’re interested) and decided that I would give it a go. The book, described by the London Review as a ‘philosophical memoir’, revolves around the author’s struggle with insomnia, which began suddenly and lasted over a year. It is about many other things – a ‘startingly insightful exploration of memory, writing and influence, death and grief, and the will to survive’, according to the book jacket – but insomnia is the central motif.

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Why I shouldn’t read (for hours) before bed

When I was ten or eleven years old, if we were going on holiday, I would pack a book for each day we were planning to spend away from the house. We were going away for ten days? I packed ten books. I spent hours absorbed in fictional stories, and it was hard work getting me to take a break. I wanted to stay with the book, to finish it in one sitting if I could.

Nowadays, although I’m still a fast reader, I don’t have this kind of time to devote to reading (adulthood, eh?). I read less, and my reading patterns have become erratic; I spend a day or two with a book, stop halfway, come back to it a week later. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, as was the case recently with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

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