I read Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home” about a year ago and it’s one of those books that changed the way I think and feel about certain things. It’s a story about a man, Lev, whose wife has died and who moves to London from Eastern Europe to try and earn some money to send back home to his family. I can’t remember many of the details but the sadness, anger and fear Lev feels were so powerfully written that they’re still with me and surface whenever I meet or read about someone who’s moved here for economic reasons.
No newspaper article or TV documentary about economic migration has ever affected me like this but I never thought about it much until my daughter sent me a link to an article about some new research that found that reading literary fiction makes us better at understanding other people’s emotions. They talk about “writerly” fiction that leaves gaps for you to fill in yourself and “readerly” fiction that spells it all out for you. If we have to make an effort to understand a book’s characters we’re more likely to develop our ability to empathise. This fits so well with my own experience that I’m sure it must be true!
I can see why people find literary fiction daunting – it’s much easier to pick up a thriller or romance and lose yourself in the story. (I often need one of my reading groups to make me read a literary book.) But sometimes when you’ve read a book that makes you step out of your comfort zone, you find it affects how you look at and think about the people around you.