Monday, November 15, 2021

Giveaway for Astral Travel's first birthday.


It's a year today that Astral Travel was published, and I'm celebrating by running a giveaway. If you'd like the chance to win a copy for yourself, or for a friend for Christmas, then you can enter here by commenting below, or on one of my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (@elizabeth_baines_writer) accounts. There will be two winners on each platform. (Please enter on only one platform).

UK only. Ends 22.11.2021. Winners selected at random.

If you're wondering if it would make a good Christmas present, I'm pleased to say that many of the review comments have implied that it would. Ailsa Cox called it a 'great page turner' on Litro Magazine, Shiny New Books said it was 'a book to lose yourself in'. The Mole on Our book Reviews said he 'couldn't stop reading', and the Bookmunch reviewer 'greedily consumed every paragraph, and yearned for more free time when I had to put the book down to do something inconsequential like work or sleep.' Indeed, an Amazon reviewer said it had 'solved her Christmas present problems.'

So leave a comment if you'd like to enter here. It can be bought from all good bookshops or direct from Salt Publishing

Friday, November 05, 2021

Reading group: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Warning: plot spoil.

This prizewinning novel, published in 2020, centres on the life led in Stratford-upon-Avon by Shakespeare's wife, the woman known as Anne - or Agnes - Hathaway, while Shakespeare was living his life as a playwright in London, during which time their eleven-year-old son Hamnet died. The novel has received almost blanket rave reviews in the mainstream literary pages, claimed by some as O'Farrell's 'finest novel yet.' 

It seemed to me an idea full of exciting thematic possibilities, and promising perhaps some interesting insights about a playwright whose work makes up such a huge part of our literary consciousness and literary tradition. In addition, I had read another novel by O'Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, which I had found immersive (though that was perhaps partly because its subject matter links to that in my own novel Astral Travel, which I was writing at the time), so I was keen to read Hamnet and suggested it for the group. I am sorry to say that in the event I was surprised to be extremely disappointed in this book, and almost everyone present felt the same, as did Mark, who was unable to attend but sent a pretty dismissive note about the book. Ann said that she had almost given up on it, and John had done so. Only Jenny, who had read it twice, liked it, and said she liked it even more the second time around. 

The book opens with eleven-year-old Hamnet coming downstairs to look for help because his twin sister upstairs has been taken ill, finding no one else at home and having to seek elsewhere. Straight away for me the novel revealed one of its main faults. The situation depicted here is clearly one of urgency - and some reviewers have indeed praised it for its urgency - but I found that the writing militated against any sense of urgency whatever. It is leisurely, ponderous even, with far too much time and space - pages, in fact - spent describing the surroundings, basically setting the Elizabethan scene, as the boy runs looking for help. We get a long contemplative description of the house, of the boy's grandfather's glove-making workshop, of the streets as he runs through them. We are told by the narrator that the boy in fact isn't noticing these things  - and then we are treated to a page-long portrayal of the boy's personality: 'He has a tendency to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him' - but the point is we are being made to notice, indeed relish the scene around him - as a matter of historical curiosity - as well as the filled-in character study, and so the boy's present worries and the plight of his sister become defocussed and distanced.

This is a problem that continues for the whole of the book, which moves between the events around Hamnet's death and the earlier courtship and marriage of Anne/Agnes and Shakespeare. It felt to me - and to the others in the group - that the whole novel consisted mainly of scene-setting. Since the novel is set mainly within an absence - Shakespeare's absence from the family home - for much of the book not much happens (in spite of the title, Hamnet is in fact out of focus for much of the book). Instead, much is given over to describing the household setups and processes and the herbal ministrations of Agnes who is depicted here as a kind of fay/wild creature of the woods cum earth mother/healer-witch with supernatural senses. Reviewers have said that the book wears its research lightly, but we felt that on the contrary the research smothers and weighs it down entirely. As for the prose itself, the rhythm is soporific, with frequent overblown lists of nouns or adjectives divided by commas, usually in sets of three, creating a downward fall at the ends of sentences: Agnes's bees cling 'to their comb, their prize, their work'; 'Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre.' The distancing of the characters and situation is further created by occasional authorial pullings back from the scenes, as, for instance, we see them interacting through the eyes of a group of unknowing children watching from afar, or from the viewpoint of a flying owl, or simply a detached authorial viewpoint. As John pointed out, the viewpoint is all over the place, moving from character to character and out towards the narrator without any apparent reason or scheme, with a resulting loss of forward narrative drive. As Ann in our group said, the whole thing would have pulled together better if it had all been done from Agnes's viewpoint.

So for us the book lacked narrative drive and psychological pulse, and it never seemed to me fully imagined. The characters - including Agnes - never came fully to life, which belies the blurb's claims for it as 'the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten' and 'the story of a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves.'

These are outright misrepresentations, as is the claim that it's 'the story of a kestrel and its mistress'. (One viewpoint that is never included is that of the kestrel Agnes owns when Shakespeare first meets her; it quickly disappears from the book after she gives it up to move into the Shakespeare family home, and little use is made of it thematically.) Hamnet, as I say, is forgotten for much of the book, and it is a clear authorial choice to make the book very much not Shakesepeare's story, but Agnes's. He is absent from this story in more ways than one. He is never actually named - he is the 'tutor', 'the glovemaker's son', 'the playwright'. When he does appear - near the start, as tutor to Agnes's stepbrothers and as her suitor, and later when he visits the family home from London, he is still something of an absence, with a strangely wimpish personality for the writer of those lusty plays. There is an implication that in the early days his real nature was being suppressed - there are hidden depths that Agnes divines at their first meeting via her clairvoyant method of pressing the skin between first finger and thumb, a hidden 'landscape' - and, as far as I remember, there is even a statement that he reverts to his earlier personality when he returns, ie that he has a different personality in London from the one he has at home, but we have to take the author's word for it. We never see any real evidence of that psychological 'landscape' beyond our extratextual knowledge of those plays. The only hint of any spirit in him is his memory of an incident when, for once, he stood up to his bullying father, but his subsequent behaviour with his father belies the promise of this (and in fact comes over as inconsistency). We all thought it a great mistake to make Shakespeare such a nothingness, since it gave us no clue as to Agnes's attraction to him, or the emotional import for her of his absence from their home. Someone, I think Doug, said, to the agreement of others, that it was in any case very hard, due to the overall distancing, to get a grip on Agnes's psychology, and on her development from a wild child of the woods to the earth mother/witch of the subsequent chapters.

Something else bogging the narrative down is irrelevant detail, often holding up the action at potentially dynamic moments and dissipating the possibility of tension. For instance, as we are leading up to the climax of the book, Agnes finally goes to London to seek out her husband, and arrives at the house where he is lodging. She is greeted by a girl who is described in such vivid detail that I and others in the group thought she was going to be significant, but she turns out not to be significant in any way. Even Jenny wondered why, in a section describing the progress of a plague-carrying flea from Alexandria to Stratford, much is made of the fact that the sailor boy involved was from the Isle of Wight, with ultimately no apparent significance.

As for the 'climax', it seemed anticlimactic, and certainly artificial. Agnes (who can't read) travels to London because she has been told that the title of Shakespeare's current play is the name of their dead son. (An epigraph explains that 'Hamnet' and 'Hamlet' were interchangeable for Elizabethans.) This has deeply upset her. When it comes to Hamnet, her clairvoyance has failed her: used to 'seeing' people's futures, she did not foresee Hamnet's death, and, used to sensing the presence of the departed, she has been unable to sense any presence of the dead Hamnet. Now, with this news, she feels that Shakespeare has stolen him from her. None of this rang psychologically true for us (why wouldn't she see it as Shakespeare's tribute to Hamnet?), and in any case we didn't find it convincing as a reason for her journey to London. Arriving at a performance of the play, she discovers Shakespeare playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and in the role of Hamlet a boy whom Shakespeare has chosen for his likeness to Hamnet, and has schooled in Hamnet's demeanour and gestures. At this she understands: Shakespeare has brought his dead son back and taken his place as a ghost. At least I think that was it: it was hard to make head or tail of the psychology of it, and by this time I hardly cared. And it seemed an extremely artificial way of linking Shakespeare's son and the play, which seem otherwise to have no connection beyond the name.

There has been a long-standing discussion in our group about whether or not you come to novels for facts. I am very strongly of the view that facts are not what you come to novels for, but, since Shakespeare is such a huge part of my own literary background, I did approach this novel with an interest in the historical setting. However, all of the above led me not to trust this portrayal, and I have to admit that if I come across an obviously wrong fact in a novel, then my whole trust in the novel crumbles. There were some glaring errors here. It's not unusual to come across errors in novels, missed by copyeditors (and I put my own hand up - I know that at least one of my novels has at least one blooper), but as Ann said, it's hard to forgive factual errors that are central to a novel, as happens here. The biggest error for me came with the treatment of the fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith: throughout they are treated by the author as identical twins (not possible if the twins are of different sex). Much is made of their identical nature, presumably in an attempt to establish the biographical basis of the themes of twinning and mirroring in Shakespeare's plays. Furthermore, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of their identicality: while we are told that they would sometimes dress up in each other's clothes in a way that fooled the whole family, it later turns out that Judith is a weakling, and obviously smaller than her brother. Ann said that the point at which she almost gave up on the novel was when the ship with the plague-carrying flea docked at (landlocked) Aleppo.

It is not known what Hamnet died of, but this novel proposes that he died of the bubonic plague brought by this flea. Ann, who is an expert in social history, pointed out that people would have kept well away from a house of pestilence, which does not happen here. She also felt that travel between Stratford and London would have been easier in the Elizabethan era than is portrayed and indeed made much of in Agnes's journey to London. Ann also noted something that had occurred to me: that, in spite of the stress in this novel on the household doings - Agnes's gardening and bee-keeping and medicine-making, the breadmaking and soap-making - there is no sense of the sheer back-breaking work that all this would have been, or its time-consuming nature. It would not in fact have been possible to do all of the things that Agnes seems to do, with apparent miraculous ease, in one day, or indeed as discreetly as she seems to in her early days living with Shakespeare's family. In spite of the supposed emotional hardship for Agnes of her husband's absence, which should have been unsettling, and her grief after her son's death, the whole thing came over as an unrealistic idyll. Ann said that what it reminded her of more than anything was the tales of Little Grey Rabbit (who lives in a house and bakes and grows carrots). By sheer coincidence, the day before our meeting I had been looking at a book of Beatrix Potter nursery rhymes, and an illustration of a rabbit tipping cowslips from her pinafore into an old-fashioned steen to make cowslip wine had immediately brought this book to mind for me. Ann suggested that the reason it has been so praised in spite of all its faults, is precisely that feelgood fairytale air, just right for a readership locked down in a pandemic and requiring comfort and escape from harsh realities. This seemed completely right to the rest of us, and Jenny said with a grin that that was probably why she enjoyed it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Reading group: There There by Tommy Orange

Doug suggested this powerful multi-viewpoint novel that follows several characters struggling with their confused and sometimes uncertain Native American identity, all about to converge on a powwow in Oakland, California. The title, There There  is a quote taken from a statement by Gertrude Stein, who, returning to Oakland, her childhood home, found it so changed, so different from the 'there' of her memory,  that 'there is no there there.' All of the characters, some of whom are connected in ways they don't even know about, share the weight of an obliterated past, which is propelling them towards the centripetal point, the powwow that symbolises the lost 'there' of Native American homelands and identity.  All are what a Prologue describes as 'urban Indians':

Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our  assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours [...] We were not urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act [...] Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn't just like that. Some of us came by choice, to start over.  [...] Plenty of us are urban now. [...] They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees. [...] But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are  the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel [...] feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us...

...Urban Indians were the generation born in the city [...] We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than any sacred mountain range ... the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers [...] the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread - which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional

As the dynamic and witty prose flits from one character's consciousness to another, the painful past of each character is revealed - poverty, broken marriages, alcoholism - and each personal history is shown in turn to be the bruised consequence of white suppression and that collective lost memory. In one of the book's very many brilliant flashes, twenty-one-year-old Tony Loneman, who suffers the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome - 'There's too much space between each of the parts of my face' - thinks as he contemplates his appearance: 'it's the way history lands on a face'.

Doug wasn't able to attend the meeting, so John introduced the book instead.  He said that beforehand he had expected the book to be more difficult than he found it, as he'd read that it included 'essays'. However, when it came to it he found that this consisted simply of the contextualising Prologue and a short 'Interlude' halfway through, both presenting the history of the 'conquest' of Native Americans from the Native American point of view - and so vividly, poetically and punchily written, blending so seamlessly into the narrative, having indeed a narrative shape and character of their own, that 'essay' is an inappropriate term.

Everyone agreed, and everyone thought the book brilliantly written. One problem everyone shared, however, was that we found it hard to remember who some of the characters were (there are twelve of them); we kept getting them mixed up, especially the young men. It was hard therefore to work out the part each was  playing as they moved toward the climax. We thought that this was because unlike some reviewers we found the voices of the characters not to be distinct enough from each other and from that overall narrative voice (which we loved).

Someone commented that one brilliance of the book is the way that while undercutting stereotypes of Native Americans, it doesn't shy away from their reality, but shows how Native American lives, and even psyches, their expectations of themselves, have been forced into stereotypes by white oppression.

The book has a devastating ending. It is also leaves us up in the air as to the fates of most of the characters. We were all clear that this was aesthetically inevitable, symbolic of the cultural devastation and confusion that has been visited on Native Americans, but after being emotionally engaged with the characters and invested in their fates, we found it hard to take. We could however see that this - the effect on us as readers - was itself an aspect of the political project of the novel, and its stunning political dynamism.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

A review by Katie Lumsden of Astral Travel, and the problems of getting reviews for small publishers

Another nice surprise, in that, 11 months after publication, Katie Lumsden has reviewed Astral Travel on her BookTube channel Books and Things (at 9.42 on the video), and it's a very nice review indeed.

What I discovered this time around, when Salt and I were setting out (under conditions of lockdown!) to tell the world about Astral Travel, is that many book reviewing bloggers are now tied up with the market campaigns of big publishing houses. The big publishing houses have - they can afford - long pre-publication marketing periods, and as a result those bloggers are too committed for the future with advance copies from those publishers to be able to consider the necessarily more short-term review request of a small publisher. And in this situation, with books from the big publishers keeping on coming at reviewers, there's not a lot of chance of a book that hasn't already made a splash being reviewed retrospectively. 

So I'm very grateful indeed that Katie has given Astral Travel this attention. She says it's 'highly recommended' and a compelling read, and really likes the structure and the way the novel deals with memory.

Thank you, Katie!

Astral Travel is at 9.42, but it's worth looking at the whole video for Katie's enthusiasm for the books she talks about, and to hear about her love of Victorian novels. (Astral Travel actually adopts - slightly ironically - a Victorian and earlier mode of captioning each section with a one-sentence summary of the section's content, but she doesn't mention that.)


Thursday, September 23, 2021

A surprise

I was very surprised and not a little pleased to receive an email yesterday telling me that 'A Mountain, Three Houses', the story that was shortlisted in the spring for the Short Fiction Journal Wild Writing Prize, was also in the top 50 out of 1,100 entries to the BBC National Short Story Competition. Surprised, because the shortlist had already been announced some weeks ago, and the shortlisted stories have already been broadcast on Radio 4, so I had dismissed my entry from my mind as a fail (for me). The story charts the movement through time, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, of life on the side of a Welsh mountain, and the generations and inhabitants that have come and gone. As a result it's a longer story than I usually write, and more linear, so I guess it's more suitable for a prize in which the winning stories need to fill a half-hour radio slot, and be suitable for the listening ear. A very nice boost!

The shortlisted stories can be heard on the BBC website here.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Reading group: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Ann suggested this novel, the story of the life of an international lawyer, Sir Edward Feathers, popularly known as Old Filth. It has received wide praise as a portrayal of the psychologically damaging effects of Empire, and a portrayal of the Empire's demise. 

We first see Edward Feathers after his retirement, through the eyes of a group in the dining room of the Inner Temple, discussing him after he's left the room:

Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face ...

The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge... Said to have invented FILTH - Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap...

The Queen's Remembrancer: ...had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet... benevolent old bugger ...

CS: Never put a foot wrong... Very popular... Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar...

After providing this view of him from outside, the novel quickly moves closer in, and we next see him in his retirement cottage in Dorset after the death of his wife Betty, oddly troubled by the arrival in the next cottage of a once rival Hong Kong judge, Veneering. From this point the book then goes on to reveal, in a non-linear way that follows the workings of memory, the troubles and stresses behind Feathers' outwardly successful and comfortable if reserved appearance. In particular we are shown the pain of his experience as a Child of the Raj, and its legacy. Initially raised by a poor Malaysian family after his mother's death in childbirth, he is ripped at the age of five from this loving environment by the decision of his austere and distant father - a man himself traumatised by war - to send him back to Britain. He will never hear from his father again, the letters he writes as he grows never eliciting a response. In Britain, alongside two girl cousins and another boy similarly despatched, he is fostered in a Welsh home where they experience hardship and cruelty. The precise nature of the trauma in that place, which ends with the death of their foster mother Ma Didds, is not made clear for a long time into the book, but we are quickly made aware that Edward - Filth in the present - still carries it as a lifetime wound. After the foster home, Edward is whisked away at the age of eight to the relative peace of a fairly pastoral prep school, where he becomes friends with a boy, Jack Ingoldby, whose Yorkshire factory-owning family invite him to keep Jack company in the school holidays at their rural house, a family to which he comes to feel he belongs. However, subsequent rejection by this family, cavalier treatment by the Lancashire aunts who were never in touch before he finished boarding school - although it will turn out that all along they were being paid to look after his welfare - and a searing and abortive attempt to return to the East during the war, all render him a young man very much alone and traumatised in the world, with a clamping down of his emotions the only way to cope.

We learn all of this in flashbacks as memories flood him in the wake of the death of his wife Betty, a comfortable, tweedy woman he met and married in Hong Kong, from where, due to the fading of British influence there, they retired to Dorset. Their marriage was clearly bland, based on domestic order and neatness, and somewhat passionless (separate beds, no children). It gradually becomes clear that their sexual passions were spent elsewhere, Filth's successfully extinguished after their marriage, and Betty's expended in a liaison with Filth's rival Veneering that neither she nor Filth ever acknowledged, Filth even to himself. The reader will come to know - though Filth never does - that in the moments before Betty's fatal heart attack, she had buried a gift from Veneering in the garden. As the novel progresses, it will become clear that the marriage operated for Filth as the balm for a tortured soul, and the effect of her death on him is dramatic. He begins to behave in uncharacteristic ways; all of a sudden he leaves his Dorset isolation, and takes to the road to visit the two female cousins, Babs and Claire, with whom he spent his foster years in Wales, and with whom he has clearly not been much in contact in the intervening years. He is shocked to find Babs living in reduced and slovenly circumstances and clearly unbalanced, presumably suffering lasting psychological damage from the childhood time in Wales. Contact between the cousins now reveals to the reader the truth of what actually happened to end their time in Wales, which Filth has clearly spent his lifetime suppressing, but for which he has nevertheless suffered a lifetime's guilt - misplaced, as it turns out when Claire provides him with new information. The narrative at this point will tell us of the way the experience moulded Filth's legal judgements. We learn too of the way that connections made in Edward's troubled youth reappeared at later times, sometimes unknown to him, to help him on in life and towards his career. Reading Betty's obituary in a hotel dining room, Filth is forced too to confront her true status as a powerful woman of the establishment, acknowledgement of which he has clearly suppressed in his need for a nurturing wife. Finally, back in Dorset, Filth can at last, for the first time in his housekeeper's years of service, remember her name: the protective reserve he once created as a barrier to the outside world is broken.

Ann began our discussion of this book by saying that although she had expected to really like it she hadn't known what to make of it in the end, and I agreed: we were in fact a bit puzzled by the universal praise. Most others - Jenny, Clare, Mark and Doug - expressed great surprise and said they had really liked it. They thought it the great portrait it was praised as being and went on to pick out aspects of the book that had really struck them: in particular the portrayal of the early years in Malaysia - which they thought was beautifully poetically written, perhaps the best written bit of the book; the ultimate cruelty of the apparently welcoming family in Yorkshire - 'This is a family matter", they say in response to Edward's offer to rush there when a tragedy occurs (they had just used him!); and the awful blase but cunning selfishness of the aunts - they had used him, too! It is indeed they who must have arranged the fostering by Ma Didds. These were all things which Ann and I agreed were striking.

I said that my problem with the book was the dialogue, which I didn't find realistic but rather stilted, and which consequently never really brought the characters to life for me, and therefore failed to make me interested in their fates and left me feeling that the book was a rather artificial construct. There seemed to me a lot of conveying information to the reader through the mouths of characters, which led to unrealistic speechifying. Sometimes characters would meet for the very first time and seemingly within seconds give an unrealistically uninterrupted speech about themselves, or at least make unrealistically personal announcements about themselves, their backgrounds etc. Mrs Ingoldby talks to the young Edward about her own experience as a Child of the Raj, and the situation in the Punjab at the time, conveying it in one huge lump which feels more like an essay directed to the reader than dialogue with Eddie. When Filth arrives on his visit to his female cousin Babs, she asks him, 'Do you want tea? I make it on my gas-ring...' This doesn't chime true for me. Why would she mention the gas-ring? Since Filth is present he can clearly see how she is living and that she is about to make tea in the living room on a gas-ring (she will draw 'a half-empty milk bottle' from 'an ancient gramophone'), so there is no need for her to convey that information to him; in any case she would be unlikely to do so in such an novelistically illustrative way. Others in our group said they hadn't noticed anything amiss with the dialogue, though they did all concede that the most convincing dialogue in the book was that between Filth and his wife Betty, with which I agreed.

Ann now put her finger on what she had found unsatisfying about the book. Having herself had the experience of being sent back from abroad to boarding school in the UK, she felt that a major thing missing from the book was the culture shock of arriving here - the traditional British food and customs and the climate, which would of course be the prime experience for a small child. Others in the group pointed out that the food at Ma Didds' is mentioned, and it's made very clear that the children were cold and uncomfortable there. I felt however that Ann was right, and pointed out that we may have been told these things about the time at Ma Didds' but the sensual experience of them for the child are never conveyed - which seems a particular lack after the sensuality of the Malaysian section. 

For me there was another major gap: in a life history so generally comprehensive and which dramatises in detail Edward's other sexual episodes, there is nothing of the way he meets Betty, or of their initial relationship, beyond a late-on statement (on the belated resurgence of his lust, for a neighbour who calls round) that in the beginning Betty did arouse sexual excitement in him. Jenny said that this was probably because Betty was for him a balm against memories, but it didn't seem realistic to me that in the context he wouldn't remember, in a dramatised way, the beginnings of his relationship with her. This would also provide for the reader a stronger, more visceral sense of their relationship and of what she did ultimately mean to him.

I didn't mention it in the meeting, but I was also alienated by the only occasional but shocking snobbery. Claire is taken to Cambridge by her son Oliver while Filth is staying with her, and as they walk by the Cam 'Fat common people in tight clothes licked ice creams and ate oozing buns and shouted.' This is presumably the author's satirical portrayal of Claire, as the third-person narration here briefly and loosely adopts Claire's point of view, and the authorial intention may be to illustrate the different way that their childhood experience has affected her, leaving her untouched, indeed hardened, in her privilege. The effect for me however was to reduce the poignancy of the plight of all three children. Her later letter to Filth seems posturing and is pretentiously worded:

We three ... were absorbed in the process of handing over responsibility to the powers of darkness we had met as children, and who had met us. We were thoroughly engaged, us three. Still untamed. We were of the jungle ... You, Teddy, were horribly touched by [Ma Didds]. You became no good at love

which made it hard to be as affected as I felt I was meant to be by its summing up of the effect of the Wales experience on the three cousins, and a significant plot revelation.

Others now began to mention things about the book that they felt didn't quite work. Some said that there were too many coincidences, particularly in the way characters from the past popped up out of the blue. This was a point with which I didn't agree, since the people the book deals with move within the confines of establishment circles. In spite of the fact that everyone had agreed that the section set in Malaysia was the most vivid and affecting, people wondered if the author's knowledge of Malaysia was secondhand. I'm not sure precisely what it was about this section that made them wonder this, and it certainly hadn't struck me - as far as I'm concerned, whether or not an author has actually experienced what they're writing about is irrelevant if it comes off the page as convincing, and to me this section did. However, the phrase 'curtains of light' occurs twice to describe Hong Kong within the brief references to the long time that Filth and Betty spent there, and while the phrase is vivid, its repetition in such a brief space does I think perhaps imply a lack of rich knowledge of the place - and perhaps this is what is behind the lack of any dramatised portrayal of how Betty and Filth got together in Hong Kong.

These comments of the others did seem to imply a sharing of my sense of the book as somewhat artificial, but in conclusion they said that nevertheless they still really liked it. Mark said to the agreement of others that it had been a really compulsive read - 'What more could you want?' - and was amazed that he had never heard of this great author before.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

An outing to the Brontes


It was hard for Astral Travel being published under lockdown - the launch event cancelled, a planned article and potential others cancelled, and bookshops closed. We tried to avoid the situation by postponing, but then, just in time for our rescheduled date, we hit the third lockdown. So now that things are easing up I decided to give my book a bit of an airing by taking it on an outing or two. Astral Travel is hugely if subtly influenced by Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both in its stories-within-stories structure, and its brooding male protagonist with mysterious origins. So its outing last Friday couldn't have been more apt: the unveiling of the blue plaque on the Bronte birthplace in Thornton near Bradford, followed by the launch of Michael Stewart's new book in which he describes following the historic footpaths walked by the Brontes - a book that will be exciting to Bronte lovers and walkers alike.


The Bronte birthplace, where Patrick and Maria Bronte lived for a few short years before moving to Haworth, and where Maria gave birth to the four famous children, has undergone various uses, including at one time, a butcher's shop. At present it's a bistro and coffee house appropriately called Emily's, which, for the unveiling, laid on prosecco and the most wonderful ciccheti - Italian canapes.


It was a very, very wet day, with rain so incessant it came through umbrellas, yet about a hundred people happily turned up to squeeze into the hilly and cobbled Market Street - clearly Bronte enthusiasts, all. Afterwards we all walked over to the Arts Centre for the book launch, where it was decided in view of the weather to hold it in the meeting room indoors instead of in the garden as planned. However, there were so many people there that Michael had to do his talk and reading in relays, while people waited their turn under the big umbrellas in the yard or sheltered in the cafe and bar. 


I once lived in Bradford - it inspired the story 'Where the Starlings Fly' which is in my collection,
Used to Be - and the special atmosphere of those hilly streets and stone houses surrounded by hills hit me forcefully once again, awakening memories and melancholy creative stirrings. As we headed back to Manchester across hills shrouded in mist and driving rain, I felt that in fact the weather couldn't have been more apt for an occasion commemorating the writers of those darkly passionate books.