A year-long diary set in LONDON
Author Rebecca Stonehill talks about travels and the book swap phenomenon in India
20th April 2018
I am in India, travelling with my travel and three children and taking a ‘family gap year.’ But I am also in the French countryside; on Ireland’s windswept beaches; on the streets of a bombed and shell-shocked London; wandering through a Renaissance garden in Tuscany and in a tiny village on Mount Lebanon. Let me explain…
I am a writer, but first and foremost I am a reader. One thing I have discovered since travelling here in India is that nearly everywhere we’ve stayed, from tiny backpackers hostels to upmarket hotels, book swaps are ubiquitous. I am also travelling with a kindle, but I love these book swaps, for the simple reason that you never know what you might find there. It has occurred to me more than once that when I download a book onto my kindle, I have very pointedly decided to read it and sought it out. But with a book swap, there is another hand of play: the hand of chance.
I am drawn to a book on the shelf, perhaps because of the title, or the cover, or the publisher. In many ways, there feels like an invisible thread drawing me to a book and that the novel is choosing me, rather than the other way around. I end up reading novels I probably wouldn’t know about otherwise, sometimes pushing back the borders of my reading comfort zones and often discovering new voices.
For my children, aged 11,9 and 7, the selection isn’t so great, with Enid Blyton often constituting the sole choice for their age range. But we just load up their kindles or seek out a local bookshop. Plus, to be fair, how many families backpack around India with their children?
Our six month ‘family gap year’ began as the seed of an idea a few years ago. We were living in Nairobi for my husband’s job and we knew we wanted to make the most of that space between leaving Kenya and arriving back in the UK. Of course, we had to actually make that space happen, it was never going to fall into our laps. But once the conversations began, often late at night once the children were in bed over endless pots of tea, the momentum grew and we knew there was no looking back. Somehow, we had to make this work.
Initially, we considered buying a 4X4 vehicle and driving back overland from Nairobi to London (inspired, largely, by my own mother and stepfather’s epic journey of travelling around Africa in a Land Cruiser). But once we’d taken into consideration the vehicle and visa costs, our budget just wasn’t stretching that far. My husband and I have always had wanderlust; we actually met many years ago on a Guatemalan bus (One day I will write a novel set in this incredible country) and when our eldest was a baby, we took the train from London down to Marrakech. We wanted to do something adventurous with our children, and six months seemed ‘do-able’, not to mention affordable. They were the perfect age, before the pressures of important exams started. Once we started looking into travelling round India, we knew we’d found what we were looking for: affordable cost of living and public transport, friendly people and, most importantly of all, beautiful and diverse landscapes that would throw up no end of adventurous possibilities for the five of us.
And here we are, half way through our incredible, once-in-a-lifetime family gap year. Yes, there have been challenges and no, it has not all been plain sailing. But it has brought us all closer together in unforeseen ways and we’ll never, ever forget this time together.
But back to the books!
Here are six books that I have discovered through book swaps over the past few months:
Somewhere, Home by Nada Awar Jarrar
Set in war-torn Beirut and villages of Mount Lebanon, this beautifully written story re-creates the lives of three Lebanese women through the themes of memory and nostalgia. I loved Awar Jarrar’s delicate, evocative prose and how she deftly links, in the smallest but most effective of ways, the lives of these three women.
Isabelle by André Gide
A tender tale set in the French countryside of one man, Gérard Lacase,
Looking back and recounting an extraordinary episode in his life when he stayed in a mysterious château and becomes obsessed with a miniature portrait of the elusive daughter of the owners.
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
I have read several of Kate Atkinson’s books but this was by far the most inventive. Bending and twisting the concept of time, Atkinson imagines multiple outcomes of the life of one girl born in 1910 and how events would turn out differently if one small thing changed.
The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
A Cambridge student goes to a Renaissance villa in the Tuscan hills to carry out work on his thesis. But whilst there, he becomes more interested in the garden and the secrets it holds to a murder carried out 400 years previously. A clever, page-turning story.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
In this painfully wry and true-to-life novel, Anne Enright explores the lives of one Irish woman and her four children, all estranged from her in one way or another. One Christmas, the five of them come together for a final meal in the family house she is about to sell, forced to confront one another and the ghosts of their pasts.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Delicious black humour abounds in Adiga’s Booker-winning novel set in India. Exposing the wide, gaping hole between rich and poor in the world’s most populous nation, this laugh-out-loud, irreverent book both cut deeply and made me laugh out loud.
Rebecca Stonehill is the author of three novels, The Poet’s Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale. To follow her family gap year adventures, go to familygappers.com and to follow her writing blog
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Photos © Rebecca Stonehill