Just imagine it. Summer is almost here and then your parents tell you they are separating. Whilst they sort themselves out, they are packing you off to a a reclusive relative you only vaguely know. You arrive to discover your hairy-nosed Uncle drinks so much tea he can barely hold a conversation without having to break it off to go pee. Ugh. This is not the way teenager Juan wanted to spend his holidays.
Uncle Tito’s house is downright weird. It’s so higgeldy-piggeldy you can get lost before you know it. It’s dusty and dark and very odd; room after room is piled high with bizarrely organised books (there are shelves labelled ‘Cheeses That Stink But Taste Delicious‘, ‘How to Govern Without Being President‘ and ‘Explorers Who Never Set Out‘ for example, the latter featuring 72 books!). When Juan notices that these books move around as if by magic he’s drawn into a mysterious adventure. What are the books trying to tell him? What secrets do they hold? And just what is the Wild Book?
Without spilling any spoilers, I can at least confirm that The Wild Book – as written by Juan Villoro and translated by Lawrence Schimel, and which may or may not be the same as the aforementioned Wild Book – is a rewarding and bewitching story which goes to the heart of why books are so powerful and incredible.
From exploring how the person reading a story changes the very fabric of the story being read, so that one book can mean quite different things to different people, to how stories help us navigate our lives, often providing opportunities to practise scenarios before we encounter them in real life, thereby giving us skills, confidence and resilience, The Wild Book is a paean to the potential of books. If you consider yourself a bibliophile, this, quite simply, is a must-read.
In some ways a Library of the Shadow of the Winds for younger readers, The Wild Book luxuriously riffs on how books can be mirrors and windows. For example, here’s a snippet of a conversation between Juan (who is narrating the story) and his Uncle:
“There are people who think they understand a book just because they know how to read. I already told you that books are like mirrors: every person finds in them what they have in their own head. The problem is that you only discover what you have inside you when you read the right book. Books are indiscreet and risky mirrors: they make your most original ideas take flight, inspiring thoughts you never knew you had. When you don’t read, those thoughts remain prisoners in your head. They’re no use at all.”
“I also learn things from books that would have never occurred to me,” I said.
“Of course. A magic mirror is still a window: in it you see your own ideas, meet the ideas of others, and visit different worlds. A book is the best means to transportation: it carries you far, doesn’t pollute, arrives on time, is inexpensive, and never gives you motion sickness.”
Delicate, fine and surprising turns of phrase pack this novel, original published in Mexico, mixing moments of humour with splashes of original beauty. The smooth and seamless translation is a delight, as are the glimpses into another culture, with lots of references to exploring the Amazon, and some nods towards literature from South America. I feel compelled, however, to flag up one tiny moment that made me uncomfortable; Uncle Tito describes Australia as not having “a lot of culture“, and whilst classics of a previous era might get away with such comment, I didn’t expect a 21st century book – albeit also of potential classic stature – to include such a crass comment, especially when I feel it doesn’t add anything to Tito’s characterisation. Would it be censorships by an editor to remove this line from the author’s original? Would it be more akin to the way illustrations are sometimes edited in different publishing territories, to reflect what is acceptable in a given context?
But let us put aside this tiny concern, for there’s so much to love about this book. Apart from the glorious celebration of stories, I also loved how The Wild Book movingly and sensitively navigates a teenage boy’s changing relationship with some of the adults in his life, and in particular with his father and uncle. Coming of age novels explore how a protagonist grows up and their relationship to themselves changes, but Villoro’s novel also touches on how Juan’s feelings towards his father and uncle change, with a growing realisation that how you perceive the adults in your life as a young person may not be the be-all and end-all of what those adults are really like.
The emotional sensitivity of Villoro’s novel is nuanced and subtle. It’s glorification of food, however, is a divine and triumphant indulgence. Although it features from the very first page (with an exceptionally apt mashed potato metaphor), food’s place in this novel reaches new heights as Juan’s Uncle develops an interest in creating food inspired by the books he loves. It’s not so much recipes mentioned in other books, but rather novel dishes (quite literally) embodying the entire spirit of a story. We’re treated to highly imaginative descriptions of how Fish à la Moby Dick with Ishmael sauce comes into being. Flights of fancy conjure up crepes flambéed in Dante’s inferno, and later there’s feasting to be done with Robinson Crusoe sandwiches (“ideal for shipwrecks: contains crab and coconut oil.“). I could have a lot of fun writing a cookery book companion to go with The Wild Book!
Perfect for intrepid book explorers who relish getting lost inside the pages of a book, The Wild Book is a dazzling adventure you’ll not want to miss.
At one point whilst exploring Uncle Tito’s books, Juan finds a book which glows in the dark, prompting contemplation of how books are like motors that make no noise, or as Uncle Tito says, “You have gotten a taste of the force of reading. Words transmit energy – that why you saw them shine.” The Wild Book certainly felt like a powerhouse of energy glimmering with delight to me so when I found these wooden keepsake boxes in the shape of books at a high street chain store The Works (not a sponsored link by any means, just included to help you find the boxes if you want to try this project yourself), I knew exactly what I wanted to do with them: make my own glowing books.
I printed the covers of the books I wanted to use, at the right size to fit on the face of the wooden boxes. To make them translucent I rubbed them with sunflower oil, wiping off any excess. I left the paper to dry overnight (it isn’t “oily” to touch by this stage), and then glued them on the front of the boxes, placing a battery operated tea candle inside.
— Zoe Toft (@playbythebook) January 20, 2018
Other activities to enjoy alongside reading The Wild Book could include having a lapsang souchong tea party, making some of the bookish food which features in The Wild Book or challenging yourself to find books in your local library which could be found in the various wonderfully title sections of Uncle Tito’s bookshelves.
With this post I’m taking part in Gathering Books’ Literary Voyage Around The World Reading Challenge 2018. So far, for this challenge I’ve read books from Finland, Latvia and Spain, and now also from Mexico.