"The Reader on the 6.27" Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
I was recommended this novel by my local book shop, Harpenden Books who have currently based their window display around this title. It is also the Book of the Month for Waterstones. It is a slim volume of 190 pages and as the manager Ines Freitas said, it is a book you can easily read in one sitting. Although, I must say I didn't really want it to end and think it's definitely a book I'll reread again. Maybe even aloud on my next train journey!
Guylain Vignolles, who hates the fact his name is a spoonerism of Vilan Guignol - ugly puppet - works in a book pulping factory. His only pleasure is reading aloud to the commuters on the 6.27 train every morning from random pages he has saved from the thrashing jaws of the pulping machine, otherwise referred to as "The Thing". Passengers show him the "indulgent respect reserved for harmless nutters" and Guylain's motivation is that he believes by reading to them he is allowing them to "forget the tedium of their lives." He reads one or two pages at a time, all from different books of any genre or type and no two extracts are ever connected. Guylain has no interest in the content of the books, it is the act of reading that matters: "He enunciated words whatever they were with the same passion and dedication....and the magic worked." He loves books even though he spends most of his life destroying them; he loves the power of books to "make colours brighter, things less serious, winter less harsh...the ugly less ugly ....life more beautiful."
I loved the personification of "The Thing". There is a whole ritual connected with setting it up in the morning and then it "burped, gasped, sounded reluctant to get going but once it had gulped down the first mouthful of fuel, The Thing went into action." Words like "armageddon" and "genocide" are used to describe it as well as some fantastically fearful images like "temperamental ogress" who frequently becomes congested as she is a "victim of her own greed." It makes Guylain miserable to see books pulped - even though they are they recycled into new books - and he loathes his position in the factory despite being surrounded by gently eccentric characters.
One of the workers, Giuseppe, suffers a tragic accident at the plant, losing both his legs in the machine. Giuseppe then begins a search for his legs by finding out what book was printed using the pulped pages and trying to seek out every one of the 1,300 copies so that he can be reunited with his legs! Brilliant! The actual title of the book and the fact that it is was an unimportant work of "Jean Wotsit Thingummyjig" do not matter to Guiseppe, "you can't choose your children". What is important to him, as he gazes at the empty shelves waiting for the further 600 copies he is yet to locate, is that he is gradually returning and restoring himself. In this novel, books are a lifeline; a healing power, a way of bonding with people and a way of developing friendships.
Guylain is a gentle, appealing, sensitive and intelligent character who the reader warms to with ease. He shows such kindness towards Giuseppe by searching out as many copies of "Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone days" (which stole his legs- the English Teacher in me is sure that fact it's a book about growth, new life and plants which provide food, colour and flavour is significant and metaphorical!) and keeping a secret hoard aside ready to "discover" whenever Giuseppe becomes depressed and grinds to a halt in his searching. I loved the description that the "bookshelves ate up an entire wall in the living room." I also liked the description of the relationship between the two men: "The Thing had make them very close, a closeness that only trench warfare is capable of forging between soldiers who have shared the same shell hole." Didierlaurent has an incredible skill for creating effective and evocative imagery. He has a subtle yet masterful and imaginative use of language. Although it is a very simple, accessible, fluent and light read, the novel is full of phrases which deserve a deeper analysis and appreciation of the way the writer skilfully uses words. The tale is about people celebrating the power of words, and this book in itself is an example of how powerful language can be in the right hands.
One day the Delacote sisters stop Guylain on the station platform to let him know how much they enjoy his reading on the 6.27 every day. They sit nearer too him to "drink in his words" as Guylain pulls the first "live skin" from his bag - a recipe for a farmhouse vegetable soup. They invite him to read to them on a Saturday morning and when he arrives, finds himself at a nursing home, ushered into a room of at least 20 people, "each older than the other, the room as hot as a pizza over minus the aroma, all staring at him through their cataracts or incipient cataracts." Fantastic! This is writing that makes you smile and is heartwarmingly humorous.
Guylain is searching for meaning in his life. He is searching for something deeper and more satisfying or rewarding. His reading at the care home helps him on his journey and once again, shows us what a caring character he is; unmotivated by the usual pursuits and commodities, seeking fulfilment from bringing the pleasure of literature (or non literature!) to all. The effect of his reading on the guests at the care home is equally heartwarming. They stimulate discussion, "colour in their cheeks and a sparkle in their eyes." Didierlaurent's choice of adjectives to describe the effect of the extracts highlights the magical impact of reading with words like "burst" "feeling alive" and an "infant that had drunk its fill of milk". It takes one bibliomaniac to know another and here I have found a kindred spirit!
Guylain then discovers a memory stick which turns out to be a diary of a lavatory attendant. He begins to read it and it has a profound affect on him. The next day "everything glistened and twinkled" (maybe like a sparklingly clean bathroom?!). And so begins his real journey - a journey for love and happiness - as he falls in love with the anonymous author. I won't spoil the rest of the story but it is as captivating, warm and tender as the rest of the book.
I would describe this book as enchanting, simple and short yet richly rewarding and full of exquisite writing. The characters are charming, endearing and entertaining. The messages of love, hope, happiness, purpose and healing create an affirming and optimistic atmosphere. The affectionate celebration of books and words will appeal to any reader and fellow bibliomaniac. Other reviewers have called it a "beautiful testimony to the universality of the love of books" and some refer to it as a fable about the "power of literature to elevate our lives." This is a great read for Waterstones to nominate as its book of the month as it is such a short, fluid, amusing and well written novel but a little bit different and quite refreshing from a lot of the other current chart toppers. I really enjoyed it and it was a welcome breath of fresh air which transported me to a different place, and even different pace, of life for a while. I really do recommend it!
Thank you to Harpenden Books for chatting with me so enthusiastically about this book while I browsed your display table unable to make a choice - with your help, I know I bought the right one!
If this sounds like your kind of book, I would also very highly recommend "The Little Paris Cafe" which I have also reviewed on this site for an equally heartwarming story about books.
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