Book of a Lifetime

Article excerpt

I was in my thirties before I discovered For Esme -with Love and Squalor. Like everyone else in the Western world I had read The Catcher in the Rye as a student and had been convinced that Salinger was speaking to me alone.

I read Franny and Zooey, and fell in love with that, too, so I bought Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction, and was disappointed. Bored, in fact.

Salinger had written about the Glass family in Franny and Zooey' this was more about the same family, but he didn't seem to have much new to say about them.

So for years I thought that Salinger had written two truly great books and should have stopped there, and then one day in a bookshop I saw a slim little volume on a shelf beside The Catcher in the Rye. When I discovered that it was a book of short stories I almost put it back - I assumed it wouldn't be possible to get inside someone's skin in the space of so few pages, and getting inside people's skin was what I read books for. But, because it was Salinger, I opened it, flipped to the title story and started reading. And I was blown away. The first half of the story describes a brief meeting in an English tea room in 1944, between a young American serviceman and two English children, a girl (Esme) and her small brother, Charles ("a born heller"), who are dealing, with heartbreaking matter-of- factness, with the consequences of the war on their lives. …