The Solitude of Prime Numbers quotes

‘He noticed that they had the same way of gripping objects, framing them with their fingers tensed, in contact with surfaces but not really resting on them, as if they feared deforming what they held in their hands.’ [102]


‘The marked contrast between Alice’s light-coloured hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forwards to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed. Alice walked a step ahead of him and Mattia’s slight drag balanced its cadence, erasing the imperfections of her faulty leg. His scars were hidden and safe in her hand.’ [120]


Prime numbers are divisible only by one and by themselves. They stand in their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed in between two others, like all other numbers, but a step further on than the rest. They are suspicious and solitary, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped like pearls on a necklace. At other times he suspected that they too would rather have been like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they weren’t capable of it. The second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies. In his first year, Mattia had studied the fact that among the prime numbers there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching.

Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have any desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching one another tightly. Among mathematicians there is a common conviction that however far you go, there will always be more pairs, even if no one can say where, until they are discovered. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything. [160]


What Mattia saw coming towards him was only a shadow. He instinctively closed his eyes and then felt Alice’s hot mouth on his, her tears on his cheek, or perhaps they weren’t hers, and finally the hands, so light, holding his head tightly and catching hold of all of his thoughts and imprisoning them there, in the now missing space between them. [192]


[…] ‘she had begun to notice the foreignness of the place, to suffer from the chill that dried her skin and never really left her, even in the summer. And yet she couldn’t make up her mind to leave. She depended on the place now; she had grown attached to it with the obstinacy with which people only become attached to things that hurt them.’ [287]


‘”I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” she said. “But whatever it is, I think I like it.” [317]


‘If he had moved, she would have been aware of it somehow. Because she and Mattia were united by an elastic and invisible thread, buried under a pile of trivia, a thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude, each within the other.’ [339]


‘[…] that parental affection resolves itself into small solicitudes, the concerns that his parents listed on the telephone every Wednesday: food, heat and cold, tiredness, sometimes money. Everything else lay as if submerged at unreachable depths, in a mass of subjects never addressed, excuses to be made and received and memories to be corrected, which would remain unchanged.’ [342]


The Solitude of Prime Numbers image


The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers image


[E-book. First published 2008]


‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ is endearing because the characters are endowed with personalities that make them feel as human as you and me.


Following the stories of Alice and Mattias, we see how their shattered lives converge over a lifetime. Alice starts off as a little girl tormented by her father – something that wedges itself in her psyche with physical manifestations that will affect her life and relationships. Mattias, as a young boy, left his twin sister in the park because he was ashamed of her and spends his life dealing with the guilt and effect his actions have on his family.


The two become friends, experiment with romance – come together and fall apart for years as they become adults carrying the burden of their childhood traumas. Their connection is one that seems not to be in spite of their respective issues, but one that drew them together because of them.


This book is a dark, rich tale that explores our yearning for understanding and companionship, although this often comes at a cost. It acknowledges the varying degrees of damage in us all; how lonely it can be to live in a world where it feels like few can relate; the mechanisms we implement in order to overcome our pain; the brief instances of hope that touch our lives. It is a celebration of the connections that bind us all and the differences that wrench us out of the realms of ‘normal’ into the extraordinary.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Simon Mawer

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky image


[Published by Abacus, 2013. First published 2012]


I don’t think I will ever lose interest in World War II fiction (especially if it is written by Simon Mawer!). ‘The Girl Who Fell from the Sky’ is one of the most exciting war stories I have read in some time – following Marian Sutro as she changes identity and prepares herself for her mission in occupied France.


I found myself very quickly immersed in the life of this young woman, so intent on doing something extraordinary, as she trains to kill, handle interrogation, and communicate in code in preparation for her parachute drop into the dark sky of France to aid the French Resistance.


Before long, we realise that her connection with an old love, Clement Pelletier, a nuclear physicist, has something to do with her appointment and I felt her anguish as she was torn between her memories of this man and her yearning to make something of herself during this tragic period of human history. Her struggle for identity (as ironic as it may sound for someone undercover) is a tangible force within the book and it is full of surprises in terms of how she evolves within the story.


I found myself wanting more from the story at times – some more detail, some more emotion. In hindsight, however, perhaps Mawer’s writing achieved the perfect balance. And that is certainly what this book is about – balance and juxtaposition. The pre-war years mingle as memories with a markedly different Europe in the 1940s; the Marian Sutro before the war and the woman who was capable of transforming herself into an agent to serve her country. This is a book about trust, a book about betrayal; it is about love and courage and how war can change everything. It is also a glimpse into the roles of women in war and the resistance in particular.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Antony

The Elephant Whisperer image


[Published 2010 by Pan Publishing. First published 2009]


As much as I am an avid animal-lover, I tend to avoid animal stories at all costs (call it childhood trauma from ‘The Incredible Journey’ and ‘Watership Down’). I can read books and watch movies about the most terrible human tragedy with some semblance of bravery, but if there is a dog or cat involved, there will be many, many tears. Hence my hesitance when ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ was thrust into my hands.


Lawrence Anthony, a passionate South African conservationist, takes on a herd of troubled elephants who have become notorious for breaking fences and being a menace. Even after the move to his reserve, Thula Thula, it doesn’t take long for him to realise that these elephants have a target on their heads.


This book follows the story of how he bonds with these animals, learns to understand them, and ultimately saves their lives through kindness. It is an amazing story – one it would be hard to believe if not in the animal world with all of its miraculous tales of survival and tenacity. I have been awed at the thought of elephants touching Anthony with their trunks, showing off their young, and learning to trust again. I will continue to be moved by this account for a long time.


In addition to recalling his experiences, Lawrence Anthony has written a special book that captures life in the bush in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. As someone who lives here (albeit in more of a metropolitan sense), I was thrilled to read a book that so accurately captures what it is to be an instrument of change in a country with a mottled past, giving readers a glimpse into Zulu culture and beliefs, and showing how, with a bit of tolerance, understanding, and effort, consensus can be reached and decisions can be made that are for the good of all.


Animal-lovers will adore the conservation aspect of this book and I am deeply moved by this man’s dedication to the protection and preservation of wildlife. I have taken a lesson on instinct and how it is dulled the more time we spend out of the bush and how it can save those who allow themselves to intuit the signs around them. I have smiled at the different forms of communication in the animal world – systems that we can only begin to understand, but which surpass our own most of the time. I have been astounded by the miracles of nature and the systems it has for every living thing and I have wept inconsolably at the heart-wrenching facts of life and death that pervade the world. What a special book!


[Want some links to some incredible follow-ups and videos, please click on one of the links below:

White Oleander quotes

I know you are learning to endure. There is nothing to be done. Just make sure nothing is wasted. Take notes. Remember it all, every insult, every tear. Tattoo it on the inside of your mind. In life, knowledge of poisons is essential. I’ve told you, nobody becomes an artist unless they have to. 113


I hated labels anyway. People don’t fit into slots – prostitute, housewife, saint – like sorting the mail. We were so mutable, fluid with fear and desire, ideals and angles, changeable as water. 123


A man’s world. But what did it mean? That men whistled and stared and yelled things at you, and you had to take it, or you could get raped or beat up. A man’s world meant places men could go but not women. It meant they had more money, and didn’t have kids, not the way women did, to look after every second. And it meant that women loved them more than they loved the women, that they could want something with all their hearts, and then not.

But I didn’t know much more about a man’s world. That place where men wore suits and watches and cuff links and went into office buildings, ate in restaurants, drove down the street talking on cell phones. I’d seen them, but their lives were as incomprehensible as the lives of Tibetan Sherpas or Amazonian chiefs. 126-7


The crystalline days of March, the rarest of seasons, came like a benediction, regal and scented with cedar and pine. Needle-cold winds rinsed every impurity from the air, so clear you could see the mountain ranges all the way to the Riverside, crisp and defined as a paint-by-numbers kit, windclouds pluming off their powdered flanks like a PBS show about Everest. The news said snowline was down to four thousand feet. These were ultramarine days, trimmed in ermine, and the nights showed all their ten thousand stars, gleaming overhead like proof, a calculus woven on the warp and weft of certain fundamental truths. 312


Loss. That’s what was in there. Grief, sorrow, wordless and unfathomable. Not what I felt this morning, septic, panicked. This was distilled […] We stood and mourned. I could imagine how Jesus felt, his pity for all humanity, how impossible it was, how admirable. The painting was Casals, a requiem […] How vast was a human being’s capacity for suffering. The only thing you could do was stand in awe of it. It wasn’t a question of survival at all. It was the fullness of it, how much could you hold, how much could you care. 331-2



White Oleander by Janet Fitch

White Oleander


[Virago Press, 1999. First published by Little, Brown 1999]


Very rarely does a book come as highly recommended as ‘White Oleander.’ After it was suggested to me by a number of my online reading friends, I decided to take it out from the library – a tattered, well-read edition with all of the markings of the following it has accrued over the years.


Now that I am done, the last page has been read, leaving me in a pensive daze, I remain overwhelmed by the brilliance of this book.


Starting as a story about a mother and her young daughter, I was immediately taken in by the unconventional relationship Astrid and Ingrid shared. Astrid struck me with her maturity and independence as a young girl. She worships her mother, feels guilt for being an imposition to this woman who epitomises freedom and beauty. Although occasionally wishing for the “normal” rituals of family life, she adores her mother for who she is and the uniqueness of their lives – a symbiosis in art that gives Astrid intelligence and insight into the world.


When her mother kills her boyfriend and goes to prison, Astrid is thrust into a world of foster families – one that can, at times, hardly offer sanctuary from the cruelties of the world.


What ensues is one of the most powerful coming of age stories I have ever read. It explores the power and confusion of womanhood in the life of a girl growing up too fast. It is also a story about mothers and daughters that covers absence, presence, and discovery – the nuances and complexities that exist in daughters and the mothers that bring them into the world. With her mother in prison, this is a novel that looks at mothers and daughters in negative, as well as positive space and magnifies the different facets of girlhood and womanhood in a very special way; showing how the people closest to us are poured into the chasms of our souls to influence us as heroes or antagonists.


Tragic and totally compelling, ‘White Oleander’ makes the reader experience tension, whimsy, and hope. It is an emotional experience to follow this endearing character through all of her trials, with a motley bunch of characters, some of whom are easily-lovable, others inspire loathing, all memorable.


In short, pick up the raggedy copy of this book from your local library and join its masses of fans.