Like many crafters, I have a big jar of buttons sitting on the shelf in my study. Until now, if I’ve given them any thought at all, I’ve thought of buttons as decorative and useful. However, a new novel has made me look at them in a different light.
I was privileged to be sent an advance copy of ‘The Button Collector’ by Elizabeth Jennings. The novel begins when the central character, Caroline, visits a flea market and comes across a stall selling jars of buttons in a myriad of colours. When the stall holder asks if she’d like to buy a jar, Caroline replies “I have one already”. Caroline’s jar of buttons, inherited from her mother, is sitting on the back shelf of her study, hidden behind old yearbooks. That night, unable to sleep, Caroline takes the jar down from the shelf and tips out the buttons. As a result, memories, many of them buried for a long time, start to come to the surface.
Each chapter begins by describing a button from the jar and the item of clothing that it came from or the reason it was bought. Each recollection is the starting point for a vividly described episode in the complicated history of Caroline’s family. The events described stretch from 1935 to 1996, although most occur in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and Jennings’ use of language is very evocative of time and place. Some of the events have national significance, others are much more personal. Some are tragic whilst the significance of others is not necessarily apparent at the time. What they have in common, however, is that all have consequences for the extended family in some shape or form.
I loved this book from the start. I felt I got to know the characters through the glimpses provided by the vignettes and it was a very difficult book to put down. I liked its gentle progression and the way in which the episodes captured the prevailing mood of the times in which they occurred. It is not a short book but I was still disappointed when it ended. I’ve become concerned for Caroline and would like updates on how things turn out for her in the future.
The book has also made me look at my jar of buttons in a new light. It has now been moved from the shelf to the windowsill so that it can catch the light. Buttons are just too important to be hidden away. In Jennings’ own words:
“A button is a little thing, but it is a thing of use. Something to connect, to hold things together. Not perfectly – not strong and fast like a metal zipper – but holding them together still.”
Whether I’m brave enough to tip my buttons out to see what memories they evoke is another matter. But do read this book – if you use buttons, you’ll love it.