Readers and writers have been talking up Erin Bow all over the internet for quite some time now. I am always late to the Everyone-Is-Reading-X parties, but one evening last month I put down a book that I wasn’t enjoying at all and thought, bah, not going to finish this, and I picked up Plain Kate instead.
When I was ten years old, my family moved to Oxford, England, for a year, and we rented an apartment in a beautiful old house. At our entrance, there was a piano against a door that looked like a closet or something, and then the stairs that led up to the rest of the flat. One lazy afternoon, my younger brother and I thought to squeeze behind the piano and check that closet. It turned out, of course, that it wasn’t a closet. Crumbling stone steps led down to a cellar. We explored with flashlights the passageways under the house, full of broken old pottery. It was like stumbling into another world: this ancient, secret place that had been there all along, and we hadn’t thought to look. It felt like something out of a book. The secret door. That moment when the thing you expect is not what you find at all.
I remember that day so well, and that feeling: our boredom and irritation falling away as we stared down into the dark, my brother and I shoulder to shoulder, the tense whisper – Get a flashlight! We’re going down! – and it felt like our whole lives were about to change. It’s a feeling that since has been replicated a number of times by the first page of an extraordinary book. When I opened Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, I got that same breathless tightening in the chest, that same sense of stumbling onto something entirely beyond what I’d been expecting. Like hiking a misty, twisty, wooded path in the mountains, and suddenly there is a break in the trees, the fog lifts, the view opens up and you can see for miles, the whole world laid out before you, and you want to weep with how lovely it is. Like how I imagine it would feel for pirates stepping into a cave and seeing at last the treasure they’ve spent their whole life searching for, lying there in a great gleaming heap before them.
On page seven of Plain Kate, I cried. I’m not a big crier-over-books. Two books made me cry in 2013: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Erin Bow gave me an early start on weeping this year. I’m not sure if I was crying for the character, even, or simply for the spare and lovely writing about her grief as, in those first gorgeous pages, she loses everything. As I read, I thought about how skilled you have to be with words to pull of this marriage of compassion and ruthlessness. There are brilliant, beautiful writers whose books shine with empathy, and there are a good many cruel geniuses too, who seem to write with a knife, murderously or surgically, depending on the story. I can be won over by either of these gifts, but both together is a rare and wonderful thing. When trying to think of writers whose work requires both a hot heart and a cold eye, I think first of Alice Munro. Erin Bow has that double gift too.
I finished the book and went to check out her blog. Was I surprised to find out that she is a poet? No! I was not surprised to find out that she is a poet! Obviously, if you read her prose, you can tell that she is a poet. She has published two collections under the name Erin Noteboom. The day that I checked her blog, there was a poem at the top called The Common Swift (see below), and I had that same feeling of wondrous discovery all over again: the pirate treasure, the secret basement, the dizzying view.
It is exciting discovering somebody this good. So if you haven’t already, go forth and discover her. And read the poem below, if you need more convincing, and also if you don’t.
The Common Swift – by Erin Bow
Consider in its turn the common swift.
There is new evidence that over the dark dunes
of the Sahara, a swift will stay aloft
two hundred days.
Scientists are puzzled, not over how, but why.
Consider the work, they note, of sleeping in flight:
The alertness demanded,
the tacks and turns it takes
To ride the wind. Even a gliding bird would expend
a small but constant effort.
For such cost, there must be benefit.
That is the equation of science, which is only
half a twist from love. Consider in its turn
a marriage, surely no less common
than swifts. Surely no less a nest
built in the air.