Since my eye issues began, I’ve had to restrict a few activities due to visual discomfort of one form or another, or just basically not being able to see well enough. For example, painting, watching television, driving long distances, driving in the dark, swimming, attending parties where there are likely to be flashing lights (it’s true that every cloud does have a silver lining), and… reading. I used to read all the time. I’d read whilst eating my breakfast (a somewhat dangerous occupation when needing to get to work on time), I’d read over a cup of tea upon arriving home from work in the evening, and I’d read in bed before going to sleep at night. I’d easily make it through at least one novel per week. This had always been usual practice for me, and I’m probably the only person who’s actually got into trouble at school for reading a book instead of joining in with games.
However, after multiple eye surgeries, reading became something which was no longer a pleasure. I can no longer read with my right eye and I’m incredibly aware of the numerous floaters in my left eye, which dart mockingly from side to side as I move my eyes across the page. Add to that the fact that my eyes ache a lot of the time and I have to ‘save them’ for my job, which involves a fair amount of reading and screen work, and it’s probably understandable that I pretty much gave up reading for enjoyment. Of course, I still do small amounts, mainly in the form of the odd very slim volume, bits of poetry, and articles. However, there’s only a certain number of articles about Brexit and ophthalmology research papers which can be consumed before intellectual indigestion sets in and a soothing dose of fiction becomes urgently required.
So, when one of my work colleagues suggested setting up a book group, I didn’t think too much about the logistics of it before replying enthusiastically, “I’m in!”. We each selected a book, put the suggestions in a hat and pulled out one title for each month. August’s choice was ‘More Than This’ by Patrick Ness. There wasn’t an audio version, so I ordered a secondhand copy from Amazon. It arrived a few days later. It’s just as well I know not to judge a book by its cover, as it was a visual nightmare: black, with lots of white grid lines across it (a little bit like a macular degeneration chart gone horribly wrong), making the words difficult to focus on. I was discouraged by its thickness and further dismayed by the relatively small font size, realising too late that I should have opted for the kindle version. Upon reading the synopsis on the back, I was even more disheartened. It reminded me of ‘The Lovely Bones’, which I read many years ago and detested with a passion. I flipped the book onto its front to hide the visually disturbing white lines, pushed it into a corner of the kitchen worktop, and ignored it.
It wasn’t until a fortnight later and a particularly bad night of insomnia, that I espied it when I stomped downstairs to make a cuppa. Sighing resignedly, I decided I may as well give it a go and stomped back up to bed in a disgruntled fashion, cuppa in hand and book tucked under arm. A couple of hours later, I’d read about half of it. I use the word ‘read’ loosely, for it wasn’t necessary to read each sentence with close attention; skim-reading was sufficient. After several more reading sessions a week or so later, I was done. My delight at having made it through a reasonably thick novel was only slightly marred by the reading matter itself.
The first part of the book appears to focus on teenage emotional angst, with the narrative flitting between past and present after the main protagonist, Seth Wearing, drowns himself and wakes up, covered in bandages, in a strange new world. It morphs, jarringly, into a sci-fi dystopian novel for the next part, with undertones of ‘The Matrix’, and from there meanders into a confused maze of repetition, littered with predictable ‘twists’ along the way. Cue the highly unbelievable Tomasz and his heroic attempts to charge to the rescue of his friends, Seth and Regine again, and again, and again. Then there was the Driver, an indestructible machine with some level of human consciousness; supposedly a figure of terror but one which caused me to metaphorically roll my eyes due to the predictability of his frequent appearances and repetitive actions. Each time I read about the van’s engine starting up again (again being the operative word in this book), I almost wanted to top it up with fuel and shout to the Driver, “The accelerator’s the one on the right!”, in the hopes that it would speed the whole thing up. Sadly, the narration merely stuttered, choked a few times, and then died, leaving me feeling somewhat baffled. I had persisted reading, despite the overly simplistic language, lack of narrative structure, and unimaginative plot, because I kept telling myself, “Surely there has to be something more than this?!” There wasn’t. Upon reading the last few pages, I was reminded of the final lines of TS Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men’:
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”