Childhood Book Memory

When I saw this edition of The Little Mermaid from North South Books, with Han Christian Andersen’s text, illustration by Bernadette Watts, and translation ascribed to H.B. Paull, I was at once eight years old again. It felt as if this was the very book I once owned and loved until it fell into tatters. It was, as I remember it, given to me by a relative who traveled to England and picked it out for me, feeling that it was time for me to read something other than Enid Blyton. I read it end to end and backwards, hundreds of times. It taught me that a book could make a person cry.

It turns out that childhood memories, no matter how vivid, may be notoriously unreliable. According to researcher Kimberley Wade, that’s especially true…

If you’re the sort of person who can read a book and become so highly absorbed that you no longer notice what’s going on around you… you may be more prone to memory distortion.

Well, that would be me. It was certainly me, back when I was eight. So who knows? Was it this edition? I can remember the palette, the blue-green of the water, the swish of the mermaid tail. But I can find no details of a book that looked like this, published around the time I was eight. I can’t exactly pull up contextual image of place that would nail that memory. It’s fuzzy, like a page on which water has spilled.

What about the words? I have gone back and read other Andersen stories since then. I read a few translations of Thumbelina including one by Paull, when I was preparing to write The Girl of the Wish Garden in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s fragile, beautiful paintings. But never The Little Mermaid. It was as if I didn’t want to touch that early memory of literacy, opting instead to keep it obscured, maybe protected, for decades.

Now, looking at those words, I felt as if a curtain had gone up and the light shone again on my young self. I think words go into a special place in memory. The farther back you store them, the more secure they remain. From my vault, as I read the first page of the North South edition, the opening words emerged, untarnished:

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep, so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.

At eight, or however old I was, living in India, I did not know what a cornflower was, and I was baffled about fathoms and cables. I’d seen a church or two, so I got that part. But I can still remember those words and how they invited me to turn the page. And I can remember that although the sorrow and the yearning were far beyond my understanding, they touched me in ways at once thrilling and frightening. And the pure injustice of the story? The unfairness to a girl, at once unlike and like every girl? I know I got that part.

So I certainly read the Paull translation, in a book with a blue-washed cover and gauzy images. And it certainly shaped my writing soul. As memories go, that will have to suffice.

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