Three Brits and an American – my 2018 book choices.

Oddly I wasn’t asked by the Guardian, the Observer etc to review my books of the year. I’ll ignore the snub and proceed anyway.

My runaway favourite was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It’s a short novel, probably a novella. But Moss packs in enough themes, informations, emotions and landscape for her book to resonate way beyond the time it takes to read. As a reader with a dreadful tendency to 38922230skim, I was forced to concentrate on every word, lest I miss something important, or beautiful, or poignant, or funny, or all of those. Silvie is the teenage daughter of an obsessive amateur historian. She and her long suffering mother accompany him to enactments of Ancient British life, along with a gullible, irresponsible professor and his wiser students. The violence in their way of life builds among the flora (is it poisonous?) and fauna (can they trap or spear it?) of the Northumbrian landscape. The writing is poetic – the stream was…still the colour of whisky in a bottle, murmuring over the stones – but Moss pulls no punches; her instructions on how to skin a rabbit nearly turned me vegetarian. You sense that she shares the horrible father’s fascination with living another culture, and her research is convincing. This isn’t just atmosphere though – there’s a strong and menacing contemporary story that mirrors the ancient ones, and you won’t be able to put it down.

35212538I was intrigued to see a novel with five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London get long listed for the Man Booker Prize. This year, my own Magic Carpet was rejected by more than one publisher because, er, five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London could be confusing. Checking out the opposition, I found Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is fantastic. Where my characters have houses in a run down suburb, his live on an estate (except the family who’s “made it”). At first the snob in me didn’t want to read the idiom I hear on the bus every day, but I was so quickly drawn into the story of these characters that I began to empathise with them and enjoy the style. Gunaratne gets four of the contrasting voices, so far as I can tell, perfectly – they could be on any bus I take. The only one that works less well for me is the middle aged Irish woman. But the interrelated stories of the fatherless young Muslim boy, the black fitness fanatic and his disabled Montserrat born father, and the weedy British Asian rapper had me hooked, their hopes snuffed out relentlessly but always resurgent against a background of unfolding tensions and injustice. “Dust of an old order mixing up with the sweat of the new. All I do-tho is head down and go beast-mode when I can. Mission to get out these Ends is enough.” I closed the book rooting for them, hoping that against the odds, one of them would have their gifts and strengths recognised.

37805364Those were the standout two for me from 2018, but honourable mention goes to a favourite author, Andrew Miller, for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A deserting soldier is pursued by a member of his regiment from Spain via Bristol to the Highlands and Islands during the Napoleonic wars, giving rise to urban and country settings, seascapes and capitals and early pioneering hospitals (anything medical is a strength of Miller’s). Characters reflect the position of women, the orphaned and the destitute, and even the worst embody at least some kindness alongside the cruelty, show at least some fellowship amid the isolation. There’s a love story and a war story: Miller is always good for a readable yarn with serious resonances and fascinating historical research. It would be a perfect book if, ultimately, it wasn’t just a shade too improbable.

17349743Finally, here’s a writer who died in 1965 but she’s my rediscovery of the year so I’m claiming her for 2018. Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is a hilarious horror story of a family trapped in a cult of their own making, dysfunctioning away in their ridiculous nouveau riche ancestral home with all the neurosis, snobbery and fancy dress you could want. There’s a funeral, lots of gin, a garden party and a doll’s house and a hidden apartment and several seances and the servants must be sent away in case they see and tell too much…Hooray! There are more Shirley Jackson books I haven’t read – I just wrapped one up for a friend and unwrapped it again because I can’t bear to let it go before reading it.

The blog is going to be intermittent from now on. I’m finding the glare of the screen difficult; it’s a side effect of treatment for an eye condition. So I’m going to try and concentrate on novel number three instead and keep away from the keyboard otherwise. I’ve loved blogging and I want to thank all those who’ve read and commented over the past few years. I’ll certainly be back if novels number two and three (when finished)  get a publisher, or if I suddenly have something I want to say. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and why not curl up with one of the above books – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

© Jessica Norrie 2018

 

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Fortune favours the brave

I chose this title for today’s blog post for two reasons:

1) This is a new venture: my first author interview on the blog. When given the opportunity I was keen to write about Jennie Ensor and her book because I so admire what she’s done. If this goes down well I may do more interviews in future.

2) More importantly, Jennie’s novel is about childhood sexual abuse. It’s not autobiography and shouldn’t be read as such, but during the publishing journey she has opened up about her own childhood experiences. The reception and sales of the book look pretty good to me so far and she has much to be proud of. Hence the title. Now on with the show.

40951635The Girl in his Eyes (Bloodhound Books, Sept 18) is the story of Laura, a young woman who can’t find her niche in life. She drifts through jobs ranging from unfulfilling to dodgy; she can’t give of her best in either, and she can’t make friends. “As if she had no free will whatsoever.” She was sexually abused by her father Paul, who “always had to be in control”. We soon see he was in control of Laura’s mother too, rendering parenting from both sides damaged. Without spoilers, the plot involves whether Laura can recover and also whether she can stop it happening to others. Ensor’s background is journalism. She sets out the context, the facts, the questions arising and the denouement efficiently, readably and well. I’d have liked a more original style in places, but style is hardly the most important thing about this novel, and it’s a page turner.

It’s hard to find Laura’s personality for the first two thirds of the book, for Laura as well as the reader. That’s the point – what happened to her in childhood has effaced her as a human being. “…an invisible cloak separated her from the world, containing within it all the bad things …she couldn’t let anyone see.” Her story is told in third person, with her mother’s and, bravely, her father’s in alternating chapters. Though I cringed as I read, I think Paul’s are the most successful chapters. Ensor captures (what I imagine to be) the self justification and twistedness of an abuser so well. Paul is only too real, nasty man, and so is mother Suzanne. But do read it and find out for yourself.

Q. I liked the discreet, reticent way you wrote the abuse scenes, and also those when Paul is attracted to another 12-year-old girl, Emma. The worst scenario would be accidentally writing something that some readers found seductive, yet to avoid such scenes altogether would be to create elephants in the room. Did it take you a long time to find the right balance?

A. Most readers seem to agree that the grooming/abuse scenes in the novel are not at all gratuitous or over the top, though for many they were unsettling. I did my best to write JEnsor blog postthem so as to minimise the possibility of some readers getting turned on by what Paul was doing – or wanting to do – to Emma, but I also wanted to indicate clearly to the reader what actually was going on. When I first wrote those scenes I didn’t think about balance, I just wrote what came to me. Later on, I cut a few descriptions of Emma from Paul’s point of view, e.g. how Emma smelled to him, and certain things which seemed too intimate or likely to offend/repel. Details can be powerful but beyond a certain point, I think it is definitely best to leave things to the reader’s imagination.

Also, there is the issue of point of view. The novel is all written in the close third person. Given that I wrote the grooming/abuse scenes from Paul’s POV, I knew it would be possible at times for readers to interpret that Emma is being ‘seductive’ with Paul rather than purely a victim, because in his twisted mind that’s how he perceives her. I wanted to get inside his head but felt uneasy about readers being drawn into too high a degree of empathy for his loathsome behaviour. However, I intentionally let some of Emma’s actions remain open to interpretation, to show how the carrot of being discovered as a model affects her better judgement. All in all, this needed a lot of pondering to get right.

Q. Laura has one friend, Rachel. “…sometimes she had the disconcerting feeling that Rachel looked on her as an object of curiosity, much as a biologist might examine the contents of a petri dish”. Does Rachel do all that you’d want a friend to do in Laura’s situation? Do you think Laura looks on herself that way, too?

A. Rachel is not the ideal friend, for sure. She is interested in Laura and has some insight into what she is going through, but is unable or unwilling to go the extra mile to support Laura. When I wrote the scenes with Rachel, I didn’t feel too much sympathy for her. But by the time I came to redraft the novel a few years later, I had more understanding of how difficult it can be to support a friend who is behaving self destructively. As for Laura’s view of herself – I wanted her to be, for much of the novel at least, unaware of how her behaviour is driven by her past abuse, so that she is, to an extent, surprised by how she herself acts.

Q. One aspect I liked was how you explore the mother’s experience, as wife, mother and friend. “Even now [says Laura], I’m going round on tippy toes to save (mother) from the harsh reality.” I got the sense you started off quite judgmental but became more sympathetic to her as the story continued – would I be right?

A. I wanted to show how Laura’s mother Suzanne develops as a character in response to her overwhelming pain of knowing what her husband has done to their daughter – which is something she has suspected deep down but not been able to face. I also wanted to show how the relationship between Laura and her mother changes as a result of this. Laura is rightly angry with her mother early on, but by the end of the novel both women have changed. I wouldn’t say I became more sympathetic to Suzanne, but I definitely hoped that readers might take a more nuanced view of her by the end of the novel.

Q. This is an affluent, suburban family – or appears to be. Appearances are very important in the book. Why did you decide on that particular social background?

A. Yes, this is an affluent family, living in a detached house in a prime part of London (Wimbledon village). I’m attracted to the idea of dark things coming from the outwardly ‘normal’ suburban family – and it is somehow less expected that a sex abuser will live in a nice house, have a fast car and a good job, which I think makes the set up more interesting.

JEnsor blog post 2From what I know about paedophiles, apart from being mainly men they come from all social and economic backgrounds – from the well-off professional classes to the unemployed. However, I do think that it’s plausible that stressful situations such as the threat of unemployment and subsequent loss of power might affect a man’s behaviour. The novel is set in 2011, during the last economic downturn, when employment was particularly insecure, and the stresses on a successful businessman in his fifties facing redundancy for the first time (as Paul is) would be significant. In my own family, which inspired some aspects of The Girl in His Eyes, my father was often out of work and our family was impacted by the resulting high stress levels and uncertainty about how we would get by. Paul’s current job insecurity is perhaps one factor that drives him to start grooming another girl.

Q. You’ve written the book in sections from three points of view. How comfortable was it to put yourself inside Paul’s head?

A. I started out with that structure as it seemed the best way to tell the story. I wanted to show how all three characters respond to extreme circumstances, in a way that would let me get inside their heads but allow me to pull back at times (eg to help the reader understand what was going on for a character).

Re Paul, I wanted to show the development of his attraction into an increasing obsession towards Emma, and how his distorted thinking enabled him to consider doing things other men wouldn’t. I had several men in my head who I drew from when creating him. While I enjoy writing ‘bad’ characters in general, it was certainly difficult and draining at times to go to some of the places I needed to go to with him.

Q. Describe your emotions since the publication of The Girl in his Eyes.

A. Huge relief and excitement that the novel was finally published, and gratitude that it was getting such strong (and mostly very positive) reactions from readers. Also I felt both anxious and at times frankly terrified when I began talking publicly in the media about my book and its inspiration – the family I grew up in and my own experiences of abuse as a child. Thankfully, I’ve had much support online and from those close to me. I’m very glad I was able to share some of what drove me to write this novel, and in doing so to spread the message that victims of sexual violence and abuse should not be shamed into silence. After speaking live to Jo Good on Radio London knowing that thousands had been listening, I was on such a high you wouldn’t believe. As I’ve said in other places, the speaking out I’ve done lately has definitely awoken my inner activist!

Q. What will you follow this book with – or do you think you deserve a rest?

31200537A. Though I care greatly about many social justice and women’s issues, I’m definitely a writer first and foremost. I’m pleased to be getting absorbed in work on a fourth novel, a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. I hope to finish the first draft before my third novel is published next May with Bombshell Books, an imprint of Bloodhound Books. It’s rather different from The Girl in His Eyes – a family drama with a brazenly comic streak, about a scientist who’s torn between her stalling career and the demands of her family. I think I needed to cheer myself up after the darkness in my first two books!

Q. Finally, I’ve worried about chapters in my own work in progress, where a character abuses a child. Do I have the right to write of this, not having experienced it myself? As my blog readers will know, I do think it raises questions, writing in the voice of those who’ve had experiences I don’t share.

A. I strongly feel that writers should write about anything they want or need to write about, no matter what they’ve experienced and what colour, gender etc they are.

Hear, hear!

I was very chuffed when Ensor commented: “Your questions are about the most thoughtful I’ve received, and I would have answered them all if not for the space constraint!” So if you want to hear answers to more of them, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll invite her back. Or take a look at her own Blog/website,Facebook,Twitter,Instagram and/or Goodreads pages.

© Jessica Norrie 2018; Answers ©Jennie Ensor 2018

Last but not least: any readers affected by issues raised in this blog post may want to consider contacting the National Association for People Abused in Childhood at https://napac.org.uk/ or by phoning 0808 801 0331.


Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

WWhite4
Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

storytelling 2

In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

storytelling 1

Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Learning to write with Lucy Barton

In 2015 a creative writing tutor told me: “Publishers don’t want books about writing and writers; readers don’t want to read them.” In 2016, along came My Name is Lucy Barton,  longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Elizabeth Strout, a stylish and moving author, can elucidate in few words what others take lifetimes to understand. Lucy Barton themes include motherhood, memory, childhood, abuse, small town life and much else, but for this post I’ll concentrate on writing.

Lucy becomes a successful writer after escaping poverty and ostracism. She writes what she cannot say. “…books brought me things…they made me feel less alone…I thought, I will write and people will not feel so alone!” A major influence on Lucy is another fictional  author, Sarah Payne, whose writing advice is a generous gift from Strout to writers everywhere. 27875970Self deprecating Sarah: ” ‘I’m just a writer…Oh you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.’ ” When people are kind to her and she can be kind back, she relaxes. Otherwise, she’s nervous and tired (though beautifully groomed). Yet she lectures on the professional author treadmill, a mouthpiece for valuable guidance.

At one lecture, Sarah defines the job of a fiction writer. “To report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” She mentions readers who have threatened her for the views of characters she’s written, and she’s emphatic that her job “is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” This strikes me as more an American problem than a UK one. Here, we tend to say: if you don’t like what a character or a world represents, just don’t read it, and anyway, it’s fiction. But I wonder whether the passage, ironically, comes from experiences Strout has had herself as a writer. The idea of attacking a writer for a character’s views clearly angers her: as Sarah says, “Never ever defend your work.”

25893709Sarah aims for compassion: “There was something decent in the way the friend and Sarah treated this man who was in pain…” After a student aims a cruel comment at her, “Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgement…” “…you never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”

“…we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.”  Sarah says: “If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” Lucy admires that: “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful”. It’s good counsel, but perhaps Sarah can’t – or won’t – always follow it herself. A male friend calls Sarah a good writer, but with ” ‘softness of compassion’ that ruins her work” and Lucy too feels “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” In fact it’s what Strout’s characters do again and again, circling the unnameable. Paradoxically, it’s a more evocative way of writing than a clear description would be. (When I blogged Behind the words, between the lines on writing silence, I had not yet read Strout, or there she would be.)

As a writer who struggles with plot, I was relieved by Sarah’s dictum: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Even if she’s only a fictional voice, I so want to believe she’s right! Lucy also appears in Anything is Possible (2017) and I’d be happy to hearing more and more of her her one story, from various angles.

Finally, “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” I do not know, and have decided not to try and find out, whether Elizabeth Strout is a believer. But I think Sarah’s is a loving God.

328741031Other writing advice comes from Lucy’s high school teacher who told her not to use the word ” ‘cheap – it is not nice and it’s not accurate.’ ” (It’s good to read a book that values teachers’ contributions!) And Lucy’s friend Jeremy who tells her to be “ruthless”, which she decides means “grabbing on to myself … saying: ‘This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go… and I will hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!’ “

As a writer, I find fictional Sarah Payne’s instructions comforting, generous, challenging, and compassionate. As is the writing of Elizabeth Strout; I’ll return to her other themes soon.

Footnotes:

  1. I’m fairly sure Strout isn’t aware of the British namesake Sarah Payne, whose daughter Sara Payne was murdered after disappearing from a cornfield where she was playing. If only their tragic story had been one of Strout’s compassionate fictional chronicles of small town America instead of real life.
  2. My giveaway of three mystery books – one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked and one I’ve written – is still open if you comment here on my short story before April 19th BST. Please do!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

30008702

I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017