Book review: The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

There is real power in reading.

Some people might find that surprising or amusing – how can something so apparently inert have the ability to make palpable change in someone’s life, or at the very least, give them the means and the support to cope with it?

And can something so solo and walled-off, again to the eyes of the casual observer, bring people together in such a way that walls of loneliness are broken down and real connection takes place?

Yes, absolutely yes, and it’s transformative power is on full, empathetically-wrought display in Sara Nisha Adams‘ gloriously good debut novel The Reading List, in which a number of broken lives are given a second chance at some sort of meaningful life by working their way through a mysterious list of thematically relevant books:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Little Women by Louise May Alcott
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Quite where this list comes from remains a tantalising mystery for much of the novel, in which 17-year-old Aleisha, reluctantly working at her local library over the summer despite not being a reader of any note, and Mukesh, an elderly widower in search of a renewed sense of purpose, find an unexpected friendship over books neither knew they desperately needed to read.

As much a love letter to reading and bookshops, and most potently libraries, as it is a redemptive story of the power of connection to utterly transform lives in the darkest and bleakest of times.

“She [Aleisha] let herself out of the library, locking the doors behind her. She looked back through the windows. It had been confronting seeing Mia here today – an intruder in the space that was starting to feel different to her. More like a refuge than a prison sentence. More like somewhere she could, one day, actually belong. She watched as the last beam of evening sun shone on her desk, her spot. Even if she’d never admit to Mia, maybe she was starting to like working here.” (P. 135)

It would be all too easy to dismiss The Reading List as simply another one of those charming and delightful books that weave a story of disparate and needy souls coming together to form a found family so necessary and vital that their wounded lives are never the same again.

They make for a reassuring read, holding us by the hand and arguing that being connected to someone else is important beyond words, but you can argue that Adams’ book goes beyond this, making a tremendously affecting case for the fact that without connection through the power of the written word and the community that comes with them via libraries and reading clubs and the shared power of a story, that we are all the poorer, no matter our circumstance.

Certainly Aleisha, who is grappling with endemic loneliness and a difficult situation at home, and Mukesh, who can’t make sense of what his life should look like, even two years after the death of his beloved, book-devouring wife Naina, are prime examples of people who need not simply to find connection to someone else but who need to do so by books.

Books, you see, are the currency of The Reading List, with Aleisha discovering that reading brings her closer to her sometimes distant and emotionally lost mother and her older brother Aidan who is not the library-haunting soul he once was, and Mukesh, desperate to connect to his daughters but most especially his granddaughter Priya, wondering how much he missed out by not being intimately aware of the books his wife read and why they mattered so much to her.

Sara Nisha Adams (image courtesy Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency)

Both of these raw, broken and life-flawed people need not simply to find someone who gets and understands them, and remarkably they find that in each other despite being separated by decades in age, but to get to know books and the stories they contain as a way of reconnecting with family members with whom they are benignly estranged but also as a way of coming to understanding what their lives are, and what they might be.

It’s here that the power of books to transform and change becomes abundantly and life-affirmingly clear.

Writing with an obvious love of the written read – at the conclusion of the book, the author shares an even longer list of books which she says “made me want to be a reader and eventually a writer” and which, have “stayed with me ever since” so she has well and truly lived what she writes about with such conviction and affection – Adams has poured her own real life story into The Reading List which draws on the connection she built with her own Wembley-based grandfather through books.

The authenticity and richness of that experience is on uplifting display in the novel which is starkly honest about bleak and dark life can be, with neither Mukesh nor Aleisha are given a trouble-free ride to the finish line, but also joyously hopeful about life can change for the better when you can share a story and the experience of immersing yourself in that story with someone else.

“Priya squeezed him back, before running in to settle herself down in her usual chair, to continue reading. Naina had set this in motion, step by step, in small, intangible ways. Priya was reading a book he [Mukesh] knew all about. He knew the world Priya was in right now. There was something magical in that – in sharing a world you have loved; allowing someone to see it through the same pair of spectacles you saw it through yourself.” (P. 324)

There is real weight on the narrative bones of The Reading List which, for all its great charm and wonder, never lets us forget that life can deal out some heavy and hard to handle hands.

In the face of those kinds of challenges, it is easy for even the strongest of us to crumble and fall, some thing which has happened to both Aleisha and Mukesh, and to a raft of other people whose tales are told in interspersed short stories that punctuate the ongoing narrative of the two main characters, but Adams is clear in her belief that that doesn’t have to be the end of the line for anyone.

In fact, as The Reading List unfolds, you come to realise that reading is far from an isolated activity, that while people do in fact often read alone, this most solitary of activities finds its resultant expression, if you’re willing, in the most public and connected of places such as libraries, around which the story revolves, bookshops and book clubs, where people come to share how they have been impacted by the books they read.

This shared experience underpins the substantial emotional weight of this novel which makes a powerful case over and over again for reading’s capacity to wholly reorient the trajectory of someone’s life and to bring them into a community which will change it further still, always for the better.

Words have deliciously immersive and beautiful life and vibrancy, an unexpectedly magical ability to remark our lives, and in a world beset by pandemic dislocation and digital rupturing of old in-real-life activities, we need that magic more than ever, and it is on full and glorious display in The Reading List which holds books and their stories aloft with unmitigated joy, which writes a vivacious love letter to the places where readers congregate, especially libraries, and which celebrates the power of the resultant connection via the written word to transform peoples’ worlds into places where good things happen and steps forward to a happier future can be taken.

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