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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Sophie's Choice, re-reading it 40 years on

Sophie's Choice is a novel that will stay with me forever. If you've read it you'll know what I mean. It's an intense, harrowing story about a woman who spent time in a concentration camp, doing what she needed to do to survive. It's written by William Styron.

I first read the book in 1981 when I was 17 years old. I can't remember now how I discovered the book, but assume it must have been because the film of the same name was about to be released. When I found out the film was based on a novel, I wanted to read the book before I went to the cinema (more on that later).

And so I read the book. Curled up on my single bed under a blue, new-fangled continental quilt duvet in the box-bedroom, I devoured every word. I was horrified, upset, and yet couldn't take my eyes from the page. I lived through Sophie's life, I was there in the Pink Palace at Yetta Zimmerman's with Nathan and Stingo, I was drawn into her life at the camp. I hated every minute of the story yet I loved every word. 

And so the film was released around the world. Then aged 18, I had to travel to a different town to see it, for it wasn't being shown where I lived. The cinema wasn't even half-full as the characters came to life on the screen. As with many novels dramatised for the big screen, the film was a disappointment, one I never want to see again. I think it was because the book had such a strong hold on me, that the film could never live up to what my imagination took from the page.

The film was forgotten, the novel disappeared as my life meandered on its way. And here I am, forty years on, re-reading the book for the first time. It's not the same book, of course. I have no idea where my original went. The one I'm reading now is second-hand, bought online for me by my husband as a gift after I'd ended up talking about the book and the hold it had on me. 

Re-reading the book isn't easy. It's as difficult a story now as it was then to read, a story that should never lose its power to shock. It's as beautifully written as I remembered too, and I've fallen in love all over again with Stingo and Sophie, and laughed at Leslie Lapidus.

But there's something else going on, something I can't quite understand. Something I didn't expect.

Re-reading such a beloved book after forty years, brings back to me the girl I once was, the avid reader, the secret writer, curled up on my bed in the box room with books, notepads and pens. Reading the story, turning each page, is like taking a step back in time. It's bringing back emotions and feelings, memories of being 17. 

Oh, 17 ... and the possibilities ahead. Re-reading this book brings back the music I was listening to, the friends I loved, the civil service job I hated with every fibre of my being, the Friday nights on the town the only thing that made the job worthwhile. It's all coming back to me, with every turn of the page.  

I'm almost finished re-reading and once done, I have no desire to read it again. Neither do I want to revisit another book from my life. Some memories are best left alone.

Glenda Young
Author of historical novels with Headline
Twitter: @Flaming_Nora
Facebook: GlendaYoungAuthor

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