I remember when I was a pre-schooler, the day our World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft How and Why Library sets arrived. They lived in their own custom-built bookshelf and went with us whenever we moved house. I was contemplating selling them this year to free up space or failing that, surrendering them to the compost heap. Now, after spending time with Lenny and Davey, I’m not so sure. Like their Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, each lettered volume holds countless childhood memories anchored in place by facts and figures now hopelessly out of date but somehow still completely valid. How does one discard their former life – a childhood of countless special moments and first-time discoveries – so decidedly?
Moreover, how does one describe Lenny’s story. Wrenching (you will need tissues – preferably 3 ply), soaring (pack your wings), absorbing (allow for a few sleepless nights spent page turning), tragic (get another box of nose-wipes just in case).
Lenny’s Book of Everything is a story with a heart as big as Phar Lap’s and gallops along at a pace that both rips you apart emotionally but is simultaneously restorative and mindful such is Karen Foxlee’s talent for powerful story telling. This story describes the relationship between Lenny, her younger brother who has a rare form of gigantism and their beleaguered mother. Theirs appears a drab ‘moon-rock’ coloured existence yet flashes of brilliance strike everywhere, everyday: their mother’s pink work uniform, the pigeons on their windowsill, Mrs Gaspar’s outrageous beehive, the ubiquitous letters from Martha Brent and of course, her regular dispatch of encyclopedic issues to them. All conspire to create warmth and hope and put the reader at ease while sweeping them ever closer to the inevitable conclusion.
Lenny is a wiry little, handkerchief-toting girl, who for some reason, despite her occasional dress wearing, personified herself to me as a tough-nut boy. It almost felt as if her gender was peripheral to the story, but this didn’t matter, as one of this book’s main characters is something just as incidental but absolutely everything, love – in all its variations.
Lenny’s love for her little brother is so overwhelming, she barely knows what to do with it. Her reactions are sometimes unmeasured, harsh, corrosive yet always essential. As Davey’s condition of gigantism worsens, Lenny’s sense of reality deepens and her grip on a shared future with him lessens. This makes her mad as hell. So too her inability to find herself again ever since their father walked out on them.
She and Davey share more than just sibling love. Their mutual adoration of the encyclopedia their mother won for them is revitalised each time a new letter arrives in the mail allowing them to build their volumes, amass knowledge, and feed hope, thus forming an alphabetically bound history of their years together, which guides the reader gently towards the the last letter.
Davey is not just big for his age; he is a universe. He is meek yet immense. Imperfect yet without fault. Gentle and encompassing. Everyone loves him yet he never fawns their love. He is deserving, the good thing that Lenny’s mother guessed she was getting at his birth. All this shows in his smile, the way he addresses his mother as mama, the devotion he shows to his invisible eagle, Timothy. None of these things describes Lenny. She carries the weight of being the older sister, of knowing too much and nothing and wanting more but less at the same time. Yet you just want to cradle her in your arms and love her back. She is after all just a little girl dealing with the enormity of life.
It’s an exquisite, poignant dance Foxlee escorts us through, one I find impossible to fault. Every character is rich and complex and glorious even the repugnant Mr King. Each word sings, beautifully laden with meaning and purpose. And even though the ending is indescribably sad, it is joy too, with a capital Z. A true must read.
Buy Lenny’s Book of Everything, here.
Allen & Unwin October 2018