Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker

The tag line to Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight is how books saved a life. I wonder why she chose to include this because it at once requires too much of books and also quite the wrong thing. Perhaps it is one way to flag to the reader that this is a book about the threat of mortality, not the romantic sweetness that ‘reading by moonlight’ suggests.

It is also not surprising that a literature academic would see her illness, in this case breast cancer, through the prism of fiction. For me, I picked up this book, to read an intelligent woman’s account of her brush with disease, and this disease in particular. One in four women will get breast cancer at some stage in her life, so a lot of us will have to face what Brenda Walker did.

There are, of course, descriptions of getting the diagnosis and her treatment of surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is honest, and eloquent, about her fear of death. However the medical side is pushed to the background as if it is too painful to dwell there, or that readers would soon tire of too forensic a treatment. Instead Walker looks at literature and what she might find there to shine light on her experience, what might enrich our understanding of the vicissitudes of life.

All reading is a matter of taste and the works Walker includes to write about in detail are personal favourites of hers, or works that she can use to illustrate an idea. I did find the connection between many of the books to Walker’s experience of illness at times difficult to discern, or tenuous. They are hugely diverse – from Poe, to Tolstoy, Patrick White to Philip Roth. And there is a lot on Samuel Becket, a favourite of Walker’s. I found it hard to believe that anyone would choose Malone Dies as their book of choice for a hospital stay!

I did enjoy Walker’s discussion of The Tale of Genji and White’s Voss interesting, but others I found less enthralling.

That said, I enjoyed reading Moonlight. Walker’s style if crisp, studied, but also easy to read. The book reminded me, not that books can save a life, but the study of books within, or without, a tertiary institution certainly enhances your life. Walker, herself, explains what books mean to her:

When I tell myself that books can save a life, I don’t mean that books can postpone death. That is the job of medicine. I mean that certain books, by showing us the inner fullness of the individual life, can rescue us from a limited view of ourselves and others.

Reading reminds me that we are not so singular after all, that there are crowds, whole populations, in the stack of books at the end of my table. Some of these people will trouble me, some will appear in thoughts and dreams, and they will all still be here … when my own books are out of print, when my writing table is just another chipped piece of furniture at a clearing sale.


This is the final of my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012. There will be another one next year – a great initiative to support women writers in this country. (See link in sidebar). 

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