A new work by Alan Bennett is always something to be celebrated, and this tiny gem of a book makes for the best kind of guilty pleasure. Unplug the phone, lock the door and curl up with it, or better yet, buy the audiobook and have Mr Bennett himself read it to you (then again, I?m always put in mind of the Dead Ringers version of Talking Heads where Thora Hird is a drug runner or arms dealer, all done in his cosy style).
Taking an unaccustomed turn one day in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, The Queen discovers a mobile library van, and returns to her duties with two things: a library book and a new page called Norman, a kitchen boy with a passion for reading. Unused to reading for pleasure (for fear of expressing a preference), The Queen does not enjoy her first book, but she takes another out of politeness and so embarks on a tour of literature, human emotion and frailty. Not only does she discover a new interest and empathy with her subjects, she also begins to neglect her duties, all to the consternation of her staff, who do their best to rid her of this new obsession (without being seen to, of course).
If Helen Mirren raised our admiration and affection for The Queen, this book will do likewise, but it will also arouse your sympathy. We forget that, although her role has afforded her many experiences we would love to have, it is, at bottom, very hard work and that she has had to give up many things to do it to her fullest. We will never know how accurate any of the portrayal is (although this is not Mr Bennett’s first time writing Her Majesty) but it raises enough questions for us to really stop, think and give thanks to her for such unflinching duty.
It’s very short, only 124 pages, so, even if, like The Queen of the novel, you don’t read much, you’ll be able to manage it. Think of it as an amuse bouche, and then move on to the rich banquet of writing out there. If you do read lots, it’ll disappear as quickly as one of Proust’s madeleines – and will stay in your memory just as long.
The Uncommon Reader is published by Profile Books at £10.99 (BBC audiobook £12.99)