The books that defined my university experience

By , , Carreno, , and

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

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A few months ago, I picked up a copy of Flèche while browsing the shelves of the Billy B, taking a lengthy break from my exam revision. I sat down, flicked through the pages, finished the collection in one sitting, and ardently recommended it to all my friends. Evoking both the French word for arrow and the English homophone of ‘flesh’, the title of Mary Jean Chan’s debut full-length poetry collection is richly suggestive of dualities and paradoxes. Her poetry is poised between the tensions that arise when reconciling intergenerational, gendered expectations, as well as Chinese culture and Western education. 

Chan’s nuanced treatment of language choice is perhaps my favourite aspect of Flèche. In an interview, she expresses her aim to include Chinese in her poetry that “isn’t tokenistic or arbitrary”. Raised in Hong Kong but educated in the U.S. and the U.K., Chan incorporates Mandarin, Cantonese, and English into her poetry. ‘Written in A Historically White Space (1)’ seamlessly code-switches between English and Chinese, challenging the reader’s subliminal expectation for Chan to write in Chinese, and probing into the legacies of colonisation and the implications on language choice. 

In retrospect, I am also drawn to Flèche because of Chan’s formal experimentation. Her poem ‘The Calligrapher’ evokes two adjacent scrolls of Chinese calligraphy through stacking short, neat lines of verse. Chan inventively illustrates the physicality of the laborious writing process: ‘Once/ more the fingers dip, slide, lift/I am not a dancer, but this is a dance.’  Through bold formal and cross-linguistic experimentation, Chan unflinchingly explores the intersecting threads of identity and language and the entanglements of family and sexuality. Despite coming across Flèche towards the end of university, sharing Chan’s poetry with my friends and seeing their enjoyment has been, without a doubt, one of the main highlights of my time at Durham.

I’ve learnt that I can be critical of stories without losing everything I love about them

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar has, quite literally, bookended my undergraduate years. I first read it shortly before my A-Level results: I’d longed to read it for years but had an annoying, faux-reading habit, whereby I wanted to get through as many books as possible and didn’t take much time to reflect on them. I was taken in by Plath’s fascinating imagery and frank narrative voice, not to mention the protagonist, an English Literature student with a crippling fear of failure. It struck a chord with me and seemed to stand for something specific and deeply personal, in the same way, that it has for thousands of young women since 1963.

In my final year at Durham, The Bell Jar was a set text: that Waterstones copy from three years ago is now a battered paperback full of annotations. I read reviews, essays, and assessments of the novel, which describe it as a raw, hardly-edited, haphazard text – it was actually rejected by Plath’s initial publisher for being ‘disappointing, juvenile, and over-wrought’. In a way (and probably to the horror of my eighteen-year-old self), I agree: The Bell Jar is full of flaws, but the fact that I can reconcile these with my sustained fondness for the novel feels like a gesture towards some sort of maturity. In three years I’ve learnt that I can be critical of stories without losing everything I love about them – I suppose the same thing goes for people, places, and things, something I probably didn’t understand at eighteen. I’ve also reached the age of Esther Greenwood in the novel, and at twenty-one can share in her experiences, anxieties, and sentiments so much more. Any coming-of-age story grows with its readers, and The Bell Jar has left its own highlights, annotations, and criticisms on me in the same way I’ve marked its dog-eared pages.

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman

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I’ll be the first to admit that I jumped on the His Dark Materials train a lot later than most, having only read it for the first time at the end of Year 11. However, needless to say, when I got round to picking it up I was blown away and utterly enchanted, as I think everyone who has the pleasure to read Philip Pullman’s writing always is. So, when the First-Year exam period hit and I was desperately looking for something easy, comforting, and distracting to unwind with in the evenings, it’s no surprise that a copy of Northern Lights happened to fall into my hands during a procrastination-Oxfam browse. And so started a bit of a uni ritual where I aimed to have slowly reread the trilogy by the time I graduated: three books, three years, three increasingly stressful, weird, and intense exam seasons. Rereading the trilogy over my past three years at Durham has shown His Dark Materials to be a series that only reveals more and more with each reread the older you get, exposing the books as little more than, essentially, adult novels dressed up with all the trappings of a children’s book.

Across the trilogy, Pullman tackles complex philosophical and theoretical theories yet presents them, through fiction, in a way that is extremely accessible without dumbing down their complexity or difficulty. The ‘adultness’ of these books has never ceased to amaze and intrigue me in the past three years, from difficult topics of death and abandonment to casual references to sex and murder, all the time written in such a way that the nuances and intricacies aren’t lost but rather explored and explained. Though for me, as for many, elements of the final book seemed forced or a bit out-of-place (hot take, but the Will and Lyra relationship was so unnecessary and it just didn’t make any sense) the trilogy provided me with the escapist comfort I was seeking, while constantly surprising me with how much the content remained relevant or new. Revisiting a book a year has firmly marked the series’ significance throughout my time at Durham, and I can promise the reading experience is only enhanced by the cobblestones, Cathedral, and river which I was lucky enough to read next to.

Three books, three years, three exam seasons

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

By Carreno

In every home I’ve had during my degree, there has been a copy of Normal People. I remember starting to read it from my first-year roommate’s copy, and one of my second-year housemates excitedly recommending it to me. But it wasn’t until the lockdown in the spring of 2020 that I got my own copy and read it all the way through, in one sunlit afternoon. I don’t think there’s much I could say about Rooney’s flowing, atmospheric prose that hasn’t been said already – but one of the reasons that Normal People immediately says “university” to me is the way it transports you to the campus setting and takes you through Marianne and Connell’s university years until they’re on the cusp of graduating.

It’s not mainly the campus aspect of Normal People that reminds me of being a student at Durham, though. It’s the nuanced exploration of human connection and its flip side, isolation – two experiences that characterise moving away to study at university and the beginning of adulthood. While the novel focuses primarily on Connell and Marianne’s relationship to each other, it also provides glimpses at their failures and successes in building relationships – romantic, familial, platonic – with the people around them. Normal People speaks to the truth, both heart-breaking and heart-warming, that even the people who are not in our lives forever can still deeply mark them. University, for me, has been characterised by change (even more with the addition of a global pandemic): new home, new friends, new interests. Normal People shows how the people who stand by us through these changes and help you make your way through them can provide a home and a guiding light when everything seems to be spiralling out of your control. This is a lesson that has certainly resonated with me through my friends in university. As I get ready to move on, they are the pieces of Durham that I will carry with me.

University, for me, has been characterised by change

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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I remember it as if these past three years never happened: I was walking towards Palace Green, awed by the beauty of Durham Cathedral, admiring the sun glistening and reaching each step and corner. You know the view I’m talking about. I was making my way to a charity book sale, ready to find some new additions to the very limited collection I’d managed to squeeze into my suitcase a few days before. Within only half an hour, my arms were laden and I left feeling triumphant, but also blissfully unaware that among my purchases was a novel that would come to mean more to me than I ever could have expected. 

The Yellow Wallpaper depicts the story of a woman entrapped by her monotonous life, a result of being prescribed a resting cure to treat her ‘hysterical tendencies’. In reading, we are immediately exposed to the limited Victorian comprehension of psychology and the misunderstood minds of women. Isolated and lacking distraction, the woman starts to develop a sustained interest in the room’s wallpaper, studying and dissecting its original pattern. The wallpaper soon becomes her only mental stimulation, allowing her to uncover more secrets along the way. 

I’ve often been asked why I keep all the books I read, something I’ve done since I was young. It’s books like The Yellow Wallpaper which stand behind my reason. I finished it only a few days after that Palace Green book sale, but its unique meaning only deepened for me during this past year. University life has been full of incredible experiences, but discussing the difficult days is not always my first instinct. For me, The Yellow Wallpaper seemed to encapsulate the journey that studying is, alongside trying to maintain stability in an environment that is often misunderstood. 

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