Why Thomas Cromwell tastes like dhal (or, literary associations I shouldn’t have but do)

22 Jun

I remember the first time I understood the intense emotional associations that smells can have with life events. I was about 19 and I was throwing out some old cosmetics and came across a tub of moisturizer. I opened the lid to see if there was any left and a wave of nostalgia passed over me, so powerful I was almost moved to tears. I’d used the stuff as barrier cream during a high school musical that, up until that point, had been one of the happiest times of my life. The smell of that Dove body cream was like pure, bottled emotion, and the connection to that experience was stronger than any memory.

Sometimes it’s the same with books. Like a lot of avid readers, I usually have a paperback somewhere about my person, and it gets pulled out while walking, eating, waiting for buses, on buses – whenever there’s a moment to spare and people aren’t forcing me to be sociable. The result is that my life often becomes entwined in the plots and characters, with people and places illustrated and coloured by temperatures, smells, food, seasons, trees and – of course – bus stops.

I realized this when this morning as I ate my paratha and dhal, I was instantly reminded of Thomas Cromwell. Where was he? What was he doing? After three months in Bangladesh, much of which I was actually immersed in Wolf Hall, Tudor England has taken on the aroma, taste and messy fingers of Bengali breakfasts, and the food itself has become entwined with black velvet caps, political machinations and cardinals.


spicy lentils.

My mind wandered to other books that have imprinted themselves on – and been imprinted by – other aspects of my life. We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like cold Autumn mornings in Canberra, and looks like the top of my old street. Shantaram smells mouldy (I read it while a stone-cold broke student, and living in a particularly plague-ridden flat in Kingsford). Pride and Prejudice is the warmth and crinkle of a duck-down doona, thanks to reading it for the first time during a highschool winter holiday. Ants’ nests will forever remind me of Anna Karenina, as I dodged a huge one every morning leaving my house when I was working my way through the tome. Coogee beach is The Slap, and The Slap is Coogee beach.

Books become the wallpaper, the soundtracks and the footpaths of our lives. I’d love to know what unlikely pairings have defined other people’s reading lives. What are your unlikely literary associations?


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