Lee Murray is a six-time winner of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. She's the author of monster thriller Into the Mist (Cohesion Press), and co-author (with Dan Rabarts) of the speculative crime-noir series The Path of Ra, releasing in 2017 from Raw Dog Screaming Press. She lives online at her website, and you can also catch up with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Precious Things: Lee Murray
Precious things… precious things. How to choose? I’m lucky enough to have lots of literary treasures, although most of them are still boxed away after our house move two years ago. This one, though, is still on the bookshelf and has been since 1970 when I was just five years old. Invitation to the Dance is a 1969 Fantasia picture book based on the romantic piano waltz by composer Carl Maria von Weber, the story of the music adapted by Keisuke Tsutsui and translated by Ann King Herring.
A gift from my uncle, I remember reading Invitation to the Dance for the first time, the book open on the carpet, me turning the pages and discovering the story. Already a voracious little reader – my parents taught me to read before I went to school – this book, with its gorgeous water colour images by Japanese illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki, enthralled and inspired me. The back-cover blurb declares the publisher’s intent to “help young readers expand their musical imaginations, and encourage children fond of music to find new enjoyment in books”. They certainly achieved that: I could positively hear the music of the dance, see the children pirouette around the ballroom, which they, in their wonder, would transform into the garden, the lake, and the sea. If you haven’t already heard the music Invitation to the Dance you can listen to it performed here.
Although I couldn’t articulate it back then, I loved the idea of freedom and abandon expressed in the story. I could imagine myself dancing on a lake, where “the surface of the water feels like fresh, cool silk” – not so far-fetched for folk in some countries, but for a little Kiwi girl living on the shores of Lake Taupō, an impossible dream.
I took the book to school on several occasions. In my second year, I showed it to my class teacher who thought it was so beautiful that she read it to the class at story time. Maybe that was what I really liked: the attention from the teacher.
My favourite image in the book is also the darkest: the page where the children are confronted by the scowling gatekeeper, whose interruption causes them to sink, the waves lashing high. It seems my predilection for dark speculative elements was already manifest, even at five.
I’m putting the book back on the shelf and… look another treasure! Bernard Werber’s science fiction blockbuster Les Fourmis (The Empire of the Ants). The important thing to note about this one is the date on the inside cover. 1991. It was the year the book was first released, and the year my husband and I moved to France. I purchased it – yes, I paid French francs for it ‒ at the end of that first year of immersion and it was the first title (that wasn’t a children’s book) that I read in French from cover to cover, and barely having to look up any words. You have no idea how immensely proud I was of myself. I was five and rediscovering the joy of reading again. The freedom of it was indescribable, because up until that point every bookstore or library I’d entered, I’d have to ask myself: “What am I capable of reading?” For a bibliophile, passing that milestone in a second language, that moment when I knew I could choose any book was inexplicably freeing. It was as if, until then, my life in France hadn’t really begun. And Les Fourmis is exactly the kind of book I love, a genre that has stayed with me: dark science fiction and fantasy with its basis deeply rooted in fact. I went on to read the entire trilogy, and any other book I wanted. Actually, now that this book is out of the bookshelf and on my desk, I think it is time for me to read it again...
Books offer freedom in other ways, as more than just imaginary places to visit, places to hone our philosophical views, to test our intellectual progress, or as historical records of times past: they are so much more than just their content. I remember my daughter making book forts out of hers, volumes stacked up like playing cards to create her own secret reading room. One year, our little family built a book Christmas tree and decorated it with lights. My dad, for many years a member of Rotary, helped run an annual second-hand Book Fair in our community, the funds raised used to help less fortunate folk both at home and abroad. And in another more sombre tale, in my mother’s family, there is a book: a banal grey covered book with aging rice paper leaves, where every other page is connected to the next at its outer edge. In the secret spaces between the pages, my grandfather slipped bank notes, using the book to hide his money when he fled China for Taiwan in the 1930s. I have no idea what literary content the book held ‒ I can’t read Chinese ‒ I only remember thinking it was neat to slip my hand between the pages, but for my grandfather and his family, the book must surely have represented safety and freedom.