Illustration by Tilly Binucci
I was a fairly psychopathic 12-year-old. I think there’s a strong case to be made that all 12-year-olds are psychopathic, but I was a prime example of the phenomenon.
I don’t mean that I pulled on cats’ tails or spat at small children. I don’t even think I committed any felonies. But I was self-absorbed, annoying, and vastly narcissistic. I gossiped, I told mean jokes, I rolled my eyes at anything said by those older than 35.
So when, for my 12th birthday, my mother presented me with a 1,500-page book and told me I’d enjoy it, I probably rolled my eyes and tossed my hair and ignored her. I don’t remember doing so, but it feels like a safe assumption.
The book was Les Misérables, the 1862 historical novel by Victor Hugo, an intimidating epic vaguely centred around the June Rebellion that had taken place 30 years before. I have no idea to this day why my mother thought this was an appropriate gift for her daughter, who had complained the whole way through Atonement that it was too boring. I don’t know if she was deluded, drunk, or had confused me with an Oxford tutor in search of ‘light reading’, but I know that I looked at it once and put it on a shelf, shaking my head at her foolhardiness.
Besides being psychopathic, I was also very, very competitive. I mean, flip-the-Monopoly-board-no-you-definitely-cheated-you’re-the-banker competitive. So that book sat on my bookshelf and it taunted me, Cosette’s gloomy eyes on the spine following me around my room as I picked up Anna and the French Kiss for the sixth time that month.
It was a particularly monotonous summer afternoon that broke me. There are certain weeks, often in late July, when every day stretches out sluggishly in the heat, like a cat stretching in the sun. Being outdoors is exhausting, being indoors feels stifling. There is so much to do, but none of it is the least bit appealing. I’d reorganised my sock drawer, probably watched a season and a half of Pretty Little Liars, argued with my parents about taking the rubbish out, and was staring listlessly at my bedroom ceiling when I caved. I slid the book out of the bookshelf, felt its absurd weight in my hands, sighed, and opened it.
1,500 pages is very, very, very long. 1,500 pages takes the average reader almost 42 hours to trawl through. It’s longer than the average King James Bible, longer than Ulysses, or the entire Lord of the Rings series.
And Les Misérables is not just a long book, but a cultural behemoth. It’s an epic, reaching across ten main characters and tracing their lives over twenty years. It describes a good man’s fight for his family and his integrity; a young couple falling desperately in love; a woman’s exploitation by the men around her as she tries to save her child; a group of friends who believe in the future more than they want to live to see it. The novel takes place against the rustling backdrop of Paris, suspended between revolutions, kings, emperors and fallen governments, stinking of rank excess and poverty.
Precocious, self-centred, and psychopathic as I was, I cried when each beloved character died. When Gavroche goes, I was on a train back from Edinburgh and I cried in the toilet so the people in my carriage wouldn’t see me. When Enjolras dies side-by-side with Grantaire, his final convert to the cause, I had to go downstairs and hug my eldest brother, because for a moment death seemed all too real. Éponine left me clutching a teddy-bear I hadn’t touched in years; Fantine saw me throw the book across the room (a mighty effort for a big text); Valjean’s final moments made me sob inconsolably into my pillow and listening to “Do You Hear the People Sing?” on loop.
Les Misérables is perhaps not for everyone. It’s very sad and very long. But it forced me to grow up at a point when I didn’t want to. The pain the characters felt was what I had been avoiding, wrapped in an icy cocoon of emotional detachment. But you can’t read 1,500 pages of a book and not feel for its characters. They felt like my friends, these people who were so noble they were willing to die for each other and their ideals.
I don’t think Hugo’s intention with Les Misérables was to make a 12-year-old girl a bit kinder, but he did. The book, now returned to its rightful place on my bookshelf, doesn’t gaze at me gloomily from across the room, but reminds me of the sacrifices needed to make other people happier, of standing up for our ideals, and perhaps most importantly, that: Aimer ou avoir aimée, cela suffit. To love or to have loved, that is enough.