I’ve just finished reading John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. I feel a bizarre sense of ‘loss’ that it has taken me so many years to finally read this book. And it was something of an impulse – picking it up from the library at the beginning of September. I should have read it 20 years ago.
It is a masterpiece; desperately good; devastatingly evocative; though sorrowful and deep; not what I would call ‘feel-good reading’. But so epic; so sweeping. There aren’t all that many genuinely 5*+ books, but this is one of them. John Irving is – for me – an absolute master storyteller. His ability to create characters that truly come alive – and who live on in your mind, long, long after you’ve finished reading the book – is his enduring power. I can’t quite describe it.
The depiction of St Clouds (the isolated, Victorian-esque orphanage in rural Maine, where much of the novel is set) – triggered some of the most powerful flashbacks to my early years at boarding school – itself an isolated, old, Victorian assortment of buildings on the top of a windswept hill in rural Southern England. There was a boys division and a girls division, too. The parallels with the nurses (our boys dormitory adjoined the ‘san’ (sanitorium, the medical wing) were so strong; as was the parallel between Mrs Grogan and the kindly Irish matron we ourselves had, called Miss Coin. To be clear – I am not and thus was not – an ‘orphan’. But even so. There are parallels with ‘that life’ when as a child you grow up without your family. So it resonated on many levels and awakened memories that had lain dormant for almost two decades.
I first discovered John Irving way back, when I was a university student in Massachusetts, New England, in the mid 1990s. A person I was in love with (a long story and certainly beyond the scope of this blog; he was a Swede) had said to me that a book called A Prayer for Owen Meany had changed his life. I took that with a rather large pinch of salt but I did end up getting it out of the library. It was – and perhaps remains – the most unforgettable book I had ever read. I never talk about the book’s content or try to ‘unpick’ it; I’d much rather let others experience it for themselves, without letting them form preconceptions beforehand.
Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells (the two central characters in The Cider House Rules) now join Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright (from A Prayer for Owen Meany) in that pantheon within my mind – that special place where they will live on, in perpetuity.
As an aside – I came across this long, and interesting, Telegraph interview with John Irving from last year; it’s definitely worth reading.