Friday, December 20, 2013

New Review of Red Room

I was in the city centre yesterday afternoon - in Primark, actually, getting socks and marvelling at others buying reindeer-printed knickers and pink-spotted onesies - when a notice came through on my phone of a new, really enthusiastic review of Red Room. Kathryn Eastman of the Nut Press blog finds the book a 'strong collection' and seems to love every story in it, assuring her readers that 'once you finish, you'll want to dip back in again.'

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine now on Kindle.

From time to time people have written to me and asked whether my books are on Kindle, and I'm delighted now to announce that two of my Salt books are.

For those who don't know, Too Many Magpies is a short novel about our sense that the world is a newly dangerous place, and in which a young mother married to a scientist and putting her faith in rationality is suddenly swept off her feet by a mysterious stranger with a very different view of the world. It's a question really (in the book) of how we look at things: do we believe in magic or do we put our faith in science? It's not a simple question, of course, because although true science is based on rationality and empiricism, a lot of so-called scientific practice has been based in faith, often replacing hypothesis with untested certainty. (Funnily enough,  I came into the room last night in the middle of a TV programme John was watching, about the truly lethal character of much in the Victorian environment - including clothing, household goods and even food additives, some of them thought at the time to be health-giving, and advertised as 'pure'.)

The Birth Machine is even more directly concerned with the tendency of applied scientists to base their calculations in leaps of faith and to leave unknown factors out of the equation. The focus here is on the practice of obstetrics - the protagonist, Zelda, is about to give birth -  but also on wider issues of who owns the right to knowledge and the power of language (the language of science, the language of fairy tales etc) to shape our reality and thus our fates, and as Zelda sinks under the influence of drugs, dark secrets are dragged up from her past.

I don't know about you, but I'm finding my relationship with the electronic side of books changing all the time. To begin with, I didn't even use my Kindle very often, but I've come to find it indispensable for travelling and for when I really just can't wait two or three days to get a book - or indeed to get a book while I'm away from home without a nearby bookshop and won't be back for a while to get my post. And talking of magic: there really is nothing like suddenly wanting to read a book and simply pressing a button or two and having it right there in less than a minute!

And as for writing: as I said a few posts ago, while I've always banged on in the past about my need to write a first draft by hand, I'm now finding I'm writing more and more straight to the computer...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

East of the Web

I'm delighted that another of my stories is to be published in the online magazine, East of the Web. If you don't already know East of the Web I recommend that you pay a visit: it's a fount of stories. Everything they've ever published is there online, easily accessible, and there's an amazing variety, something to suit every taste, while the standard is consistently high. It's definitely a place one is proud to place a story. I've got two stories proudly on there already: 'Compass and Torch' and 'A Glossary of Bread' (both now collected in Balancing on the Edge of the World). They were both stories I'd previously found hard to place: I think the problem with 'Glossary' was that it's a bit off the wall in its form (it's structured around definitions of bread), but I'm not quite sure what the problem was with 'Compass and Torch' which I see as a pretty traditional piece. In any case, East of the Web believed in them both, different as they are, and were vindicated: 'Glossary' was afterwards published again in the prestigious lit mag Stand, and 'Compass and Torch' was picked off the site for an English school textbook, and by the AQA examining board, whose GCSE syllabus it ended up on. That's how significant East of the Web is. Among the most recent publications there is a story by Ailsa Cox, my one-time co-editor on Metropolitan short-story magazine.

My new story, 'Falling,' was shortlisted and Highly Commended in the Sean O'Faolain competition.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lancashire launch of Red Room

Across the moorland from Bolton to Blackburn last night, very appropriate for the Lancashire launch of Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes. We thought we weren't going to get there in time (John drove me): we'd allowed an hour and three-quarters (thinking we'd have a coffee beforehand) but the motorway up to Bolton was jammed and at a crawl. Arriving also by the skin of their teeth were the other two readers, Carys Davies and Sarah Dobbs. Our waiting editor, A (Andrea) J Ashworth must have been having kittens! The library ladies were waiting too with very welcome tea and chocolate biscuits.  A lovely warm crowd had come to hear us read, and to hear Andrea talk about the book, many of them Bronte enthusiasts, including someone in a Wuthering Heights T-shirt, though there were people there too whose interest in the Brontes was newly rekindled. Two people told Andrea afterwards that they had been prompted by the event to re-read Jane Eyre beforehand. We had some wonderful photos taken by Derren Lee Poole, and with his kind permission I include a few below.

Here's Andrea introducing the evening and explaining how she suggested the idea of an anthology to the Bronte Birthplace Trust, and was then asked to edit it:

Sarah read from her moving story, 'Behind All the Closed Doors', about a young boy whose mother has died and who finds comfort in books in the way the Brontes did. She left us all moved and thoughtful (as I think you can see from my face in the pic!).

Carys then read her poignant story, 'Bonnet', about an imagined visit by Charlotte Bronte to her London publisher with whom she is known to have been in love, and concerning real-life letters that did pass between them. I think it must have been hard for Carys to read it without crying and many of us were choked up, I think.

Before she read Carys said that she thought Bronte aficionados tend to fall into two different camps, the Charlotte camp and the Emily camp. Here I am about to read and telling her that in fact I loved both when I was young, though maybe I did incline a little more towards Emily, as my story, which is inspired by Wuthering Heights, perhaps shows:

Lots of books were bought and signed. Thank you so much to the lovely audience, to the library staff, to Andrea, to Carys and Sarah and to Derren.

Red Room is available here.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Know where your venue is

Last night we had a lovely Red Room evening at the Portico Library with its original Victorian shelves of leather-backed 'Polite Literature' and founded if I remember correctly by Elizabeth Gaskell's husband William - so apt for readings from a book of stories inspired by the Brontes. Our editor, A (Andrea) J Ashworth, whose brilliant idea the book was, introduced the five contributors who read: Bill Broady, Felicity Skelton, Rowena Macdonald, Vanessa Gebbie and me. A fair crowd turned up to listen, including another contributor to the collection, Sarah Dobbs, and the library staff  hosted us all handsomely, putting on a welcome spread of nibbles.

Only one blip, beforehand: I couldn't find the place! No-one would think that I'd been numerous times to the Portico for other readings, and that once I even went there regularly for meetings when I was a judge of the Portico Prize: walking along Moseley Street from Piccadilly I went straight past it and was almost at St Peter's Square before I realised. Worse: poor Vanessa was dragged along with me: we'd met three hours earlier only just up the road in Piccadilly Gardens, to chat and catch up, so expected to be at the venue in plenty of time. In the end, because of my error, we were hardly early at all! Partly this is because we were still chatting so hard I wasn't concentrating, and partly because the entrance is round the corner in Charlotte Street - and pretty modest, too: it really is like going through a secret door and up a tunnelling staircase which then opens out onto a magic world, the glowing lamplit library. Anyway, all was well in the end, and it was a great evening.

Photography was quite hard with my (by current standards) rather rudimentary camera, since, rather than creating an overall brightness, the library has retained the cosy, peaceful Victorian mode of spots of light for reading by, but John (who joined us) managed to take some pics with it.

First Bill Broady read his story 'Heathcliff versus Sherlock Holmes' which features a couple on a first date arguing comically about the merits of those two characters.

Next up was Felicity Skelton, whose story 'The Curate's Wife - a Fantasy' is about an imagined meeting on the lonely darkening moor between Charlotte Bronte and a famous figure from history (I won't reveal who!):

Then Rowena Macdonald read extracts from her longer 'A Child of Pleasure,' a story of two modern characters based on two from Charlotte Bronte's Villette. I followed with an extract from 'That Turbulent Stillness', my story of a girl who models herself too closely on Bronte heroines, and finally Vanessa read her hilarious feminist re-writing of the famous chapter in Jane Eyre, which begins, 'Reader, I married him.' Here are  Sarah Dobbs (left), me (centre) and Vanessa talking afterwards.

Thanks so much to the Portico Library staff, to Andrea and to the other contributors for their great readings, and to everyone who came to listen.

On Wednesday I'll be taking part in another reading for the book at Blackburn Library (7 pm), along with Sarah Dobbs and Carys Davies. (No advance booking: just turn up.) I don't actually know Blackburn, so if I fail at first to find the venue, at least this time it won't be through overconfidence that I know where it is!

Red Room is available from Amazon, The Book Depository, etc, and direct from the publisher, Unthank Books.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

New book from a great writer: Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

I'm delighted that today this blog is the latest stop in Nuala Ní Chonchúir's tour of her wonderful new chapbook of flash fictions, Of Dublin and Other Fictions (Tower Press). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm a great admirer of Nuala's work: her control of language is wonderful, and her fiction is earthy and witty yet lyrical and always moving. This new and delightfully designed book may be little in size, but it packs a huge punch. The themes it covers are wide-ranging and huge, from a historical look at women's experience of the battlefield to a searingly vivid depiction of the grief of a widower to a wry insight into the experience of an immigrant hotel worker. There's also an impressive range in style. I'm always keen to know the processes of writers I admire, and I jumped at the chance to ask Nuala:

EB: Nuala, I'm amazed at the breadth of subject matter and worlds this little book covers, from the viewpoint of a statue of Jesus in 'Jesus of Dublin' and the historical piece about a battle, '12th July 1691',  to the very contemporary 'The Road that Mills and Boon Built'. Could you say something about that, and what you find attractive or useful about flash fiction as a vehicle?

NUALA: I’ve been working on novels for the last few years and they are so time-consuming, as you know. So I think flash occur to me instead of poems. (My poetry well is dry just now.) It might be because I am in fiction mode, but when something outside of the novel strikes me, and I want to write about it, it emerges as a flash.
I’ve spent the last year on a historical novel and at least one bit of the research for that inspired a story in Of Dublin, ‘Treedaughter’. My novel is domestic (oh, crime of crimes!) so I was reading up a lot about 19th century baking techniques etc. and I came across some egglore that sparked ‘Treedaughter’.
'12th July 1691' was written in response to the Jacobite war. One of the battles took place five miles from where I live and we took that battle – Aughrim – as a theme for my Artist Collective’s annual exhibition.
I love flash as both reader and writer; I love that they support the surreal so well and that language is key. I also like that, unlike many poems, flash have a narrative thrust. They just suit me, I think. Here’s an example of the type of flash I enjoy, ‘Body of Sister Jean Marie’ by Emily Davis-Fletcher from Southword

EB: ‘Treedaughter' and 'Jesus of Dublin' are surreal, yet others are grounded in a rich realism - such as the wry and touching  'Room 313' (about a hotel chambermaid) and the earthy 'Penny and Leo and Married Bliss' (a rewriting of Joyce's Ulysses). Can you talk about the fact that you use these two different approaches in your writing?

NUALA: I’m attached to the surreal in visual art as much as in fiction – I love a dripping Dali or mad Max Ernst piece more than, say, an ancient religious picture. In writing, I don’t make any decisions about what or how to write – things occur to me in certain ways and I follow them to see if they lead anywhere.
 ‘Room 313’ was a commission from a Serbian magazine who wanted stories set in hotels (I think I can’t write to order but sometimes it works out).  'Jesus of Dublin' is about a real statue in Dublin’s O’Connell Street and I love it and I wondered what he would say if he could speak.
I think because language is sacred to me that even in realistic stories I like to add a bit of something that is off-kilter or odd, even if it is just an unusual place-name or character name. The mundane doesn’t interest me and my brain often alights on the surreal, or likes to twiddle with things, to make them enjoyable to write.

EB: Many – though not all – of these stories are written in the first person. Do you think flash fiction particularly lends itself to this mode, and if so why?

NUALA: I hadn’t realised that, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’m obsessed with the first person and the second person as narrative voices. Third person doesn’t attract me that much. I like to ‘be’ the character I am writing about and that is so easy in first person POV.
Whether it suits flash in general better or not, I don’t know. It certainly suits me because the voice of a story is important to me – it has to sound right, like a real person, and if I haven’t got that, I don’t have a story.

Thanks so much to Nuala. Do buy the book, you won't regret it. It's available here.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. Of Dublin and Other Fictions is just out in the US and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos will be published in spring 2014 by New Island.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Honno ghost story anthology

Although some of my work has included spooky elements, I don't think I've ever written an out-and-out ghost story before. However, I did write one recently and I'm delighted that it's to be published in an anthology of ghost stories from the Welsh Women's Press, Honno, next autumn.

The story came out of a trip I made in May 2012. John and I travelled to Bristol to the launch of the second short fiction collection by my good writing friend, Tania Hershman, My Mother Was an Upright Piano - a lovely event at the Arnolfini Centre on the docks. Here's a photo of us having dinner afterwards (Tania is third from left and I'm next to her; far right is Bristol Prize founder Joe Melia).

In spite of having relatives in Bristol I'd never before made anything but flying visits there, so this time I stayed on afterwards and explored. One place that made a huge impression on me was the Georgian House, built for the sugar merchant John Pinney, preserved more or less in its original state and furnished in the way it would have been in Pinney's lifetime.

It's a beautiful house, with clean lines and airy spaces, so unlike the dark Victorian gothic that lends itself so well to the brooding and unearthly. Not at all suggestive of ghosts... And yet...

The house stayed in mind, an idea was forming, and there I was a year later setting a ghost story in just such a house...

Honno previously published two other short stories of mine, in their anthology Power: 'Power', which is collected in Balancing on the Edge of the World, and another, 'Skin Eaters.'.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Reading group: Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips

John suggested this novel, which he remembered causing a sensation when it was published in 1984. Set in an unidentified town in the American mid-south it tells the story of three generations of a family from the Depression to the era of the Vietnam war in the early seventies. It is told in a spare yet haunting prose via the alternating perspectives of husband and wife Jean and Mitch, who marry soon after the Second World War, and their two children, Danner, a girl, and Billy her younger brother who ends up in Vietnam. Danner's is however the central consciousness: the novel begins with Jean's and then Mitch's first-person reminiscences of their experiences growing up, as told to their daughter Danner, which makes it clear that all of the following intimate third-person sections are filtered through Danner's consciousness, and suggests, as John said, that the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.

The events described, as John said, are mundane in the extreme except for the way they are punctuated and coloured by war which, taking place elsewhere, nevertheless takes away the men and thus affects the family. John said that to some extent the novel, with its grounding in mundane day-to-day details, could be said to be boring, though this could be a deliberate contrast with the drama of what happens to Billy in Vietnam. I pointed out that, in spite of the seeming innovation of the multiple voices (and some temporal overlapping across the voices), in fact overall the book is structurally very linear. However, John said that oddly he had remembered the drama concerning Billy as coming much earlier in the novel than he discovered it to be on this second reading, and wondered if this was significant: while it comes only towards the end it detonates in such a way that in retrospect everything that has gone before is coloured by it.

John felt that the book was a depiction of the breakdown of the American Dream. The people are so ordinary, and what happens to them - even the effect of the wars on them - is so ordinary that, as Jenny said, it belies the myth that anyone can be anything, and anyone can be special. The family aspires in true American-Dream tradition - Jean's father begins with a successful business; Mitch's family own land and a successful farm; after the second world war Mitch and his uncle, Clayton, begin a concrete business which at first succeeds - but everything is doomed, and the family moves away from middle-class relative affluence until Mitch is an unhappy divorced travelling salesman living in a basement with his aunt. All of the men in the book are obsessed with machines - with cars and concrete-tipping vehicles and aeroplanes - and John pointed to the old prison building in the book, full of old rusting vehicles and machines, as a symbol of the breakdown of an increasingly mechanised society and the American Dream. Jenny, who had liked the book, saw an additional significance in the machine imagery: the people were cogs in the machine of society. For this reason there's actually no real point in aspiring, and this is why, towards the end, Billy becomes fatalist about being drafted.

People were generally agreed that it was, on this level, a depressing book, though nearly everyone thought it was redeemed from this by the liveliness and resonance of the prose. Clare, who was particularly impressed by the prose, said that she had to agree with John about the ordinariness of the events and the piling on of domestic and workaday detail, and that she probably wouldn't have been able to bear reading the bulk of the book if the prose hadn't been so brilliant. There was agreement that the book took on a more dramatic life towards the end, but Ann said she felt you had to really suffer to get there: she said she kept feeling she just couldn't stand another one-page description of 'how they made the grits' etc. Doug, who had been pretty silent, now said that he couldn't stand the book at all, and he hadn't liked any of the characters, and that was pretty much all he had to say on the subject.

Mark now stood up for the book by pointing out that it was one of the first to address the subject of the Vietnam war, coming before any of the famous eighties films. He said the piling on of workaday detail was justified precisely because it showed the texture of daily life into which the wars seeped. John commented that there might be a theoretical point in that kind of inclusivity, but the question was, did it make for a good novel? People pointed to an episode concerning a leper in Mitch's childhood (an episode that was in fact out of the ordinary) and the fact that it didn't seem to relate particularly to anything else in the novel. There was a general suspicion that it was in fact something that had happened in the author's family, compelling her to include it, and that this may be the impulse behind the inclusion of so much of the detail.

There was some disagreement as to whether it was possible to identify with the characters. I said that it was, that I had identified with them, but Clare said that, brilliantly written as she thought they were, you were looking at them from a certain distance rather than identifying with them. I could see that this might apply to the characters other than Danner, since their perceptions are clearly filtered through hers, but I didn't think it applied to Danner herself. In any case, we even share the characters' dreams, and in the sections where Danner's mother Jean reminisces, speaking directly to her, there is to me such a sense of the closeness of the two that identification with Jean is created for the reader. I think I was alone in this view, though, and John even went so far as to say he thought the characters were deliberately ciphers/stereotypes intended to show the typical nature of their American experience.

John said finally that, although he had to say that he hadn't found the book as stunning as he had when he read it years ago, he still thought it very good, and I think that most people, apart from the determinedly curmudgeonly Doug, and possibly Ann, agreed.

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

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Red Room review.

Here's another really super review of Red Room, by short-story writer Elaine Chiew. She calls it 'a daring, playful collection' and finds 'amazing' the 'breadth and depth of the stories'.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Red Room Publication Day

It's publication day for Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, and there two more wonderful reviews.

The Petals and Pages blog finds the collection 'rich with clues [about the original Bronte works] but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them', and The Bronte Blog 'can't recommend this collection enough'! 

See this post for previous reviews.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reading group: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Warning: spoiler.

It's six weeks now since we discussed this book, the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel set in the American Deep South of the thirties and concerning a lawyer's defence of a black man accused of rape, told from a later perspective in the first-person voice of his daughter Scout who was a small child at the time.

I've been too busy writing to report our discussion, so I doubt that I'll remember much of our comment, but here goes:

Jenny recommended the book because she'd never read it before and felt it was one she should, and as soon as she suggested it there was a general murmur of pleasure: most people remembered it with affection. Personally, I remembered it as rather worthy, as did Mark, although we thought we may have been being influenced by the drama adaptations we'd seen - Mark by the film and I by a stage version. In the event, we all found we liked it very much, and there wasn't in fact a lot of discussion, which, as someone pointed out, often happens when we all like a book. However, people did pick up on one or two points that had given them pause, and the discussion we did have was interesting in that ultimately we unpicked the nature of our pleasure and found it possibly dubious.

We very much loved Scout's viewpoint and voice, which wryly - often comically - recreates the mentality and sometimes incomplete understanding of the child while anatomising a small-town society steeped in racial and class prejudice - and on that level, the level of the prose, Mark and I found that it wasn't worthy after all. We spent some time referring to moments we had really liked, including the laugh-out-loud moment when Scout, dressed as a leg of pork for the school concert, having fallen asleep behind the stage, fails to make her entrance when called and then does so belatedly, and we are told that 'Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills'. People very much appreciated the insight into small-town life of the time and place.

Someone then questioned the relevance, or rather the prominence, of the strand in the novel concerning Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbour: it's a strand with which the novel indeed begins and ends. The children (Scout, her elder brother Jem and their friend Dill), who have never sighted Boo Radley, simultaneously regard him as a bogeyman and are fascinated by him; finally however he rescues Scout and Jem when (just after the hilarious moment described above) Bob Ewell, whose daughter accused the black man of rape, tries to take revenge on their father Atticus by attacking them. I said Boo Radley is meant to stand for the concept of  'the other' which is at the root of racism, but the objection came back: yes, but he isn't black (in fact, since he's never been out he's very, very white!). Someone countered that the novel is about class as well as race prejudice, and Boo Radley stands for the concept of 'the other' in all forms of prejudice. However, there was a sense in the room that we hadn't really resolved the issue.

Someone questioned the character of Atticus, the lawyer: he just seems to be far too reasonable and good to be true; others of us didn't share the objection; personally, I really loved and relished the portrayal. However I did express a doubt which John and I had shared prior to the meeting, regarding Atticus's moral position at the end of the novel. In the struggle with Bob Ewell, Ewell is killed with a knife, and to begin with it seems that thirteen-year-old Jem must have seized the knife off Ewell and killed him. However, Sheriff Tate, who has looked at the body, insists that the evidence shows that Ewell must have fallen on his own knife. Atticus, believing that Tate is covering up to protect Jem, insists, according his moral principles, that Jem must face up to his actions. When he finally realises that it's the highly sensitive Boo Radley whom Tate is covering up for (and who would never be able to withstand any public requirement to account for his action), Atticus gives in and colludes in the deception. John and I weren't sure whether we were happy with the moral ambiguity of that, and John thought it pretty rich that in the book a white man who has killed someone goes free from suspicion while a black man has been hanged for a rape he didn't commit. Doug, however, disagreed, believing that the moral ambiguity was acceptable in the circumstances and precisely the point that the book is making.

I then voiced something I had been mulling: no one in our group is black, and I said I wondered what black people made of the book. Ann, who had been having similar thoughts, said immediately that she thought they would much prefer Toni Morrison's Beloved (which we discussed previously). To Kill a Mockingbird, she said, is how America would like to see itself: upright and reasonable in the face of oppression and prejudice. Atticus, personifying America's view of itself, massages America's conscience. Beloved, on the contrary, exposes the sheer pain of the black experience and thus dramatically challenges America's conscience. I thought this a penetrating insight. Beloved of course takes the black perspective, whereas this book remains firmly with the white, if liberal, perspective. Basically, the reason we had so enjoyed the book was that it had charmed us with its upright white hero and its wry prose that can only emerge from a fundamental position of comfort, and this, from our present-day perspective, brings into question the radical nature of the book.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Red Room reviews and events

Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, to be launched on Friday (1st November)  has already had some very nice reviews.

Maryom of Our Book Reviews Online declares: 'Reader, I loved it!' (Whole review here.)

Rebecca Burns of Sabotage Reviews calls it 'a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read'. (Review here.)

Michelle Bailat-Jones of Necessary Fiction say it's 'a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology.' (Here.) I think she must be referring to my story, 'That Turbulent Stillness,' in mentioning 'a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance' (though, actually, the story is intended as an ironic comment on romance!).

There are several events lined up to launch the anthology. I'll be taking part in three of them:

* Friday, November 22nd at 7pm - Portico Library, Manchester: Readings from Vanessa Gebbie, Elizabeth Baines, Rowena Macdonald, Bill Broady and Felicity Skelton. Tickets available from the library or on this link.

* Wednesday, November 27th at 7pm - Blackburn Library, Blackburn: Readings from Elizabeth Baines, Carys Davies and Sarah Dobbs. Tickets available from the library or pay on the door. Details here.

* Saturday, January 18 2014 at 12pm-3pm - Waterstones, York: Signing with Elizabeth Baines, Bill Broady and 
editor A J Ashworth

and there's to be an Unthank prose event on Thursday November 7th at the Garden House, Norwich, 7.30 pm, to launch both Red Room and Unthank's Unthology 4. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Catch-up again

Here I am once more after a silence. I have to tell you that I am quite jealous of those who can go on blogging while they're engaged on a big or biggish writing project (or can they?). For three weeks recently, while I was in Wales, my days consisted of waking at 7, downing some porridge and then going back to bed with my laptop and typing like mad until about 5, and then needing so badly to move my body that I just went out walking for the remaining daylight, finally collapsing in the pub with mental and physical exhaustion - and, actually, screen fatigue. Since then I have been at my desk, but by the time I've crammed daily household tasks and work as a reader for a literary magazine around the writing, there's been no time or headspace left.

It's been a strange few weeks in other ways. As everyone in the blogosphere knows, on 18th October blogger Norman Geras died, the husband of my dear friend writer Adele Geras, and a beacon of intellectual power and reason for me as well as everyone in the blogging world, which has cast a sadness over the last ten days. I'm also still going through the after-effects of the fall I had in June: for most of the summer I had a very sore arm and was pretty much incapacitated (couldn't put my own coat on!), though it's on the mend now. And the fall so smashed my front tooth that last week I had to have proper dental surgery; not painful actually - I have a wonderful dentist - but it conked me out for a few days.

So I've been pretty much distracted, and missed altogether reporting on the October issue of a new edition of Short Circuit, the Salt book on writing short stories edited by Vanessa Gebbie, with several new chapters by additional authors (I have a chapter in it). It's a wonderful source book, and I often dip into it: nothing like getting other authors' perspectives on the process and learning from them. And I love the new jazzy cover.

I managed to get to four events at the Manchester Literature Festival. Normally I'd have blogged about them in detail, but suffice to say I enjoyed them all. The first was a completely mind-blowing and inspiring event with Ali Smith at the university (the event was also part of a conference on innovative women's writing). Smith read and was interviewed by the university's Kaye Mitchell. Smith's prose is just the bee's knees as far as I'm concerned, and then she turned out to be a charismatic yet informal speaker, and the main message I came away with was the utter seriousness of play in creativity.

The following week I attended two more inspiring events with women writers, running back-to-back at the Anthony Burgess centre: firstly, a Comma event in which short-story writers Alison Mcleod and Jane Rogers spoke about the short stories of Katherine Mansfield and Dostoevsky respectively. Alison pointed out Mansfield's innovation, and really stirred me to go and read her again, and Jane completely opened my eyes (and I think that of many of the audience) to a part of Dostoevsky's oevre of which we had previously been unaware. Following on from this was another reading and discussion with two more women short-story writers, Sarah Hall and Deborah Levy, also chaired by Kaye Mitchell. Sarah Hall read the beginning of her BBC-National-Short-Story-Award-winning story, 'Butcher's Perfume' (published in The Beautiful Indifference [Faber]), and I was again struck by its insights and the steely yet jewel-like glint of its language. Deborah Levy treated us to a haunting story from her book Black Vodka (And Other Stories), and several people I spoke to afterwards said how much they had loved her lilting prose.  Finally, on the penultimate day of the festival, a lovely event in the beautiful Halle St Peter's (a renovated church which is now a rehearsal space for the Halle): two Michaels, Schmidt and Symmons-Roberts, reading stunning poetry - Schmidt from his new book The Stories of My Life (Smith Doorstop) and Symmons-Roberts from his Forward-winning collection Drysalter (Cape).

In recent years I've come to take such readings for granted, but having been cut off from the literary buzz and coming back, I've been reminded that they were out of the question in my small-town background, and I can't help feeling it a privilege to hear writers you admire read their own work and talk about it. And clearly others feel the same: every Lit Fest event I went to was packed, and I understand it was the same for most of the festival, many events selling out right at the beginning.

Oh, I had one other really nice literary evening: a delicious dinner cooked for our book group's tenth anniversary by one of our members, with contributions from others. (Well, actually it was the eleventh, but time has slipped by so quickly we didn't realise that last year was our tenth!) We have another discussion meeting tomorrow, and I haven't even got around to writing up the discussion we had about six weeks ago now...

Monday, October 07, 2013

Being wined and dined

I'm writing this in the pause between two sections of my work-in-progress - I've been pretty much immersed in it recently, and simply haven't had the time or headspace for anything much else, which includes everything from blogging and social networking to shopping and cleaning, or even, some days, getting dressed.

I did recently have two wonderful moments of being an out-in-the-world Writer, however. It's a fair while since I've been wined and dined as a writer - the best times for that were when I was writing TV novelisations, and I have been taken out to dinner a couple of times by Radio 4 producers - but in the last three weeks it's happened twice! Firstly, I was interviewed for the local lifestyle magazine over lunch in Didsbury's Cibo Italian tapas restaurant (delicious!) and secondly, I was invited to the reading group based on Gert Vos's Oren restaurant in Caernarfon - an event that was postponed from the summer because of the fall I had in London. While I'd say that the reading group I belong to is more of a drinking reading group (!), this is an eating one, and Gert served up the most delicious chicken soup made with the unusual vegetable pictured above, tomatillo, a member of the nightshade family (to which tomatoes and spuds belong), a lovely warming casserole with pumpkin, and a fantastic chocolatey cake made with local bilberries - all while we chatted about my books and other things.

It really is a privilege, I think, to have a chance to find out people's reaction to your work, whatever they say. In fact, they paid me the loveliest compliment as far I'm concerned: one of the members asked me if I also wrote plays (which of course I do), because she felt there was something vivid about my writing which made her feel as if she was really there in the story, seeing it all through the characters' eyes and feeling all the emotions and everything, and the others agreed. She wondered if that was because I was accustomed to describing the scene, etc. I explained that actually you're not really supposed to write in a lot of the scenery in playwriting, as that's really the director's job, and you're definitely not supposed to spell out what the characters are feeling, as the dialogue should indicate that clearly to the actors. But I was thrilled that she felt like that - it's one of the things I set out to achieve when I write: to bring readers under the spell of the experience I'm trying to recreate. The group said they also thought it was unusual: most novels and stories they read keep you at a slight distance from everything. That did in fact make me wonder if what I'm trying to achieve is in fact a good thing: if in fact many readers want not to be drawn in, not to have to undergo any emotional disruption. Indeed, one of the members said that the story 'Compass and Torch' (in Balancing on the Edge of the World and on the AQA GCSE syllabus) had affected her so deeply she had had a sleepless night: it had brought back memories of her own divorce, and had made her wonder if her own daughter had experienced it in the way the little boy in the story does - and I felt the need to apologise! It's not the first time someone has said this sort of thing to me: one friend, a widow, said that after reading Too Many Magpies she wondered if her marriage had been as happy as she had thought, and I really did feel bad about that.

John, who was there with me, laughingly mentioned the fact that some city schoolchildren have thought that at the end of  'Compass and Torch' the father and son are trampled by the wild ponies. I've written about this before as an instance of our sensation-seeking culture affecting what we expect of literature, and our loss of interest in and awareness of the subtly psychological, but now two members of the group said that they too had wondered if something terrible and physical like that had happened - rather than the psychological and emotional death I'm intending. I guess I now do really have to wonder if I have in fact got quite the right balance, quite the right wording at the end of that story, and I think it really is invaluable, this kind of feedback, in making you scrutinise your own work and the way you work in future.

One interesting moment was when I mentioned that the story was actually set (in my mind) on a hillside very near Caernarfon (that was where I witnessed the incident that sparked the story). One member expressed surprise: because I'd used the word 'moor' or 'moorland' (can't remember which, and I don't have the book on me), she had assumed it was set in Yorkshire - an interesting lesson in the power of diction and the connotations of words. (Hillside being more appropriately Anglo-Welsh, I think.)

One of the members said she was particularly struck by the flash fiction 'Conundrum' (also in Balancing), which I found interesting, as I don't think anyone has picked it out before, and she said she's used it with a group in her work as an occupational psychologist.

One question they asked me was how I write, in the physical sense. In the past I have always replied to this question that I write the first draft by hand, that it has always been linked in my head with drawing, the sweep of the wrist recreating patterns in the brain. As time has gone on I've got quite fetishist about it: if I haven't had my Silver Cross fountain pen and my bottle of Lamy ink and my pile of Pukka Pads with their beautifully silky paper, I've panicked and felt I couldn't write. Yet, for the first time in my life, I am now writing something directly onto the keyboard. I'm not sure how it happened. I do remember that I started out writing it by hand, and then got annoyed - with my own handwriting (which has got worse and worse, especially when my thoughts are running away more quickly than I can write neatly) and the consequent lack of clarity when I glanced back over what I'd written - and the next thing I knew I was rattling away on the laptop! Whether this will be a permanent state of affairs, I don't know: possibly I can do it this time as the thing I'm writing is very linear and the plot is unfolding in a logical way - and maybe other, less linear things would be less easy this way. But as it is, I'm finding it much, much easier to edit as I go along - there's yesterday's work all neat and clear in Times New Roman - and I'm thrilled that for once I'll be spared my traditional several-week typing-up stage.

We discussed many things, bookish and non-bookish - including the very interesting topic of writing as therapy, which all of the members felt they had done at one time or another, and whether any writing, from a writer's point of view, is ever not therapeutic in some way (I don't believe it is).

When we'd finished eating, I read some snippets to the group, including what I thought an apt section from Too Many Magpies, about food and cooking.

It was a lovely evening. Thanks so much to the members for inviting me into their lovely warm and intelligent company, and thank you to Gert for my delicious dinner!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Red Room arrives

I've been away in Wales for three weeks (writing pretty solidly), and got back to find waiting for me my author's copy of Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, edited by A J Ashworth (which I wrote about here). Very exciting - it's a lovely book. Yesterday I went to visit my mum and sister. After lunch when I visit they often ask me to read them a story I've recently written, and so I took Red Room and read my contribution, 'That Turbulent Stillness.' They laughed their heads off, and I have to say I didn't realise quite how funny the story was before I read it out loud to an audience. Or maybe it's just our family sense of humour: I guess I'll find out when I take part in two readings for the book in November. If any of you are in the vicinities on those dates and fancy coming along, it would be lovely to see you:

Portico Library, Manchester, Friday 22nd November. Doors open 6.30 pm. Other contributors include Vanessa Gebbie.

Blackburn Library, Wednesday 27th November, 7.00pm.  I'll be reading with two other contributors to the book, Carys Davies and Sarah Dobbs. Details here.

The book is available for pre-order at a discount from The Book Depository.

Friday, September 06, 2013

New story in The View From Here

The excellent online magazine The View From Here kicks off its autumn season today, and I'm chuffed to be in the fiction slot, The Front View, with a new story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told'.

I suppose you could say that 'Tides' is a bit of a metafiction, but I hesitate to use that word because it sounds as if the story is far more experimental, hermetic - whatever - than I think it is. A short while ago the reading group I'm in had a couple of writing-group sessions, and I brought this story and made the mistake of calling it metafiction, and I think it put people off and they approached it fairly critically. (I think they liked it in the end, though!). See, that's the danger of labels, yet they're what we're stuck with in this marketing literary culture...

Anyway, I'd be really interested to know what other people think. You can read the story here.

Many thanks to Kate Brown, Fiction Editor at The View From Here.

Crossposted with Fictionbitch.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reading group: The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd

Warning: spoilers (in abundance).

This is a book about which we had to agree to differ.

Set in 1936 and the opening years of the twentieth century, and told in three sections, it concerns the approach of 32-year-old Los Angeles architect Kay Fischer by a stranger claiming to be her father, and the subsequent revelation of a love story taking place in Manila against the aftermath of the little-known American-Philippine war.

I don't normally reiterate in detail the plots of the novels we have discussed, but have found it necessary in writing about this one to look back in detail at the precise plot details of the first section, and to outline them here.

The first section is told in the first-person narrative voice of Kay, relating how in 1936 Los Angeles she is stalked and then approached by the scruffy, somewhat 'craven' and Latinate-looking Carriscant (though oddly he does have moments of seeming more prepossessing), not only claiming to be her father but saying that he needs her help. Kay has indeed been brought up by a stepfather, Rudolph Fischer, the second husband of her mother Annaliese, but her biological father was an Englishman, missionary Hugh Paget, who died in a fire in New Guinea when she was a baby. She dismisses the stranger and his claim, although, without mentioning anything of the matter to her mother, she quizzes her about her real father. Her mother repeats the familiar story, mentioning details, when quizzed, about Hugh's English family (all now dead). However, Kay notes from the photo of Hugh as a young man which her mother now shows her for the first time ever, that Hugh has fair hair unlike her own, and when she asks her mother at what time of day she was born, her mother repeats the time that Carriscant quoted in a bid to prove he was her father. Carriscant writes and asks Kay to contact him at his address, a cheap boarding house, saying that they 'must talk properly' and that 'there is so much to say'. She meets him, but he turns out to be not yet prepared to talk in the way promised - on the contrary he is considerably taciturn - and she experiences a reluctance to push him for information. He does however interrupt her small talk to tell her that he needs her help in tracking down a policeman called Paton Bobby, though he is mysterious about why. With the help of her ex-husband (their marriage failed after their baby was stillborn, but they still fraternise), Kay uncovers Paton Bobby’s whereabouts and then accompanies Carriscant on the train journey to Paton Bobby's home in Santa Fe. She is still in the dark as to the purpose, and even about Carriscant himself (he signed his letter to her 'Dr' but has cryptically mentioned that he's a cook, elaborating no further): ‘As far as this quest was concerned,' she narrates, 'he was reluctant to tell me anything’, and once again she makes the decision not to ask any further: ‘I did not want to give him the satisfaction of practising his maddening obliquity on me any more’. When they arrive, the reunion between the two men is puzzlingly emotionally charged, and a change comes over Carriscant: having complained of feeling sick with anxiety before the meeting, he becomes suddenly forceful. Angry at being kept in the dark, Kay now demands an explanation, but Carriscant still refuses to give her one yet. She retreats to the taxi, from where she witnesses a leavetaking in which Paton Bobby seems to have been crying.

Back in the car Carriscant shows her a photo of a public prizegiving, cut from a ten-year-old Portuguese newspaper he says he happened to find. He points to a woman in the picture and tells Kay now that this was his reason for seeking out Paton Bobby: he wanted Paton Bobby to confirm that the woman in the picture is the woman Carriscant suspects it is, and whom Carriscant had previously thought might be dead. (Paton Bobby has indeed confirmed this). Carriscant now asks Kay to accompany him to Lisbon to find the woman, though he has not explained even who the woman is, leave alone why he needs to find her (and Kay hasn't asked). Kay refuses, still rejecting the notion that he could be her father. However, she takes her mother to spy on him emerging from his boarding house (without explaining why), and witnesses such an exaggerated and inappropriate lack of interest from her mother in Carriscant himself, or in why they are spying on him, that she decides her mother does in fact recognise him, and she becomes convinced, for the moment, that he must be her father. By the time Carriscant next approaches her, however, with the results of a library search he has conducted into the likely circumstances and whereabouts of the woman in the picture (though his interest in the woman is still not revealed), Kay is unconvinced again and has had enough of him. He urges her further to go with him to Lisbon, and asks her to pay for the trip, and she basically sends him packing. Finally, however, after the house she has just designed and built has been sneakily demolished by a rival, she agrees to go with Carriscant to Lisbon. It is on this journey that Carriscant at last tells her his story, a story which Kay then retells for the reader 'allow[ing] myself some of the licence of the writer of fiction [and] embellish[ing] with information I obtained later and with facts gleaned from my own researches', and which forms the next, and the main, section of the novel.

It is a story beginning in 1902 Manila, concerning the adulterous love affair between the brilliant young surgeon Carriscant, unhappily married to Annaliese, and Delphine, the beautiful young wife of the American Colonel Sieverance. Set as background against this story is a crime investigation overseen by the American policeman Paton Bobby: the murders of two members of the Colonel's regiment and a Filipino woman, in which the bodies are butchered and roughly sewn up again, one of them found with a surgical scalpel planted beside it.

Clare, Doug and Mark are William Boyd fans, and both Clare and Doug have tried previously and unsuccessfully to get us to read Boyd novels, and this time Clare was successful. Introducing this novel, she expressed admiration for the standard of its prose, for its enjoyability and its depiction of human behaviour under stress. She found particularly good Boyd's descriptions of scenery and weather, and his ability to conjure a strong and vivid sense of place.

Doug nodded, endorsing her, although he didn’t think it was one of Boyd's best novels, and he liked the first section concerning Kay better than the story set in the Philippines. Trevor said he enjoyed it too but on the contrary he was much keener on the Philippines story - which culminates in a dramatic Romeo-and-Juliet-type bid for elopement involving a medically-induced death-like trance, a bid foiled by Carriscant's arrest for the murders.

Jenny said that she enjoyed the book too, but she would have liked things to have been tied up at the end. In the short third and final section, the novel returns to 1936 and Lisbon. Kay and Carrisant have found the woman he was looking for, Delphine, and now know what happened to her after she fled to Vienna without Carriscant but pregnant with his baby. She lost the baby and was later twice married and widowed, her past buried and never known by either of her two later husbands. Now she is living with a son from her last marriage, who is caring for her as she is dying. Carriscant is happy now that he knows what happened to her, his quest fulfilled, but as the novel comes to a close, Kay muses that much remains unexplained. Who, for instance, framed Carriscant for the murders? Was it Paton Bobby? And why? And who did commit the murders? Was it, after all, Carriscant's anaesthetist, whom Paton Bobby originally suspected since he was from a rebel Filipino family (but who had died in the maiden flight of the aeroplane he had built)? Was it, as Carriscant now suggests, his butchering surgical rival, Cruz, looking for body parts to practise on? Or was it, as Kay thinks most likely, Sieverance, removing his accomplices in the military atrocities she has now read occurred on the island? Or, this reader even wonders, was it Paton Bobby, since when Kay asks Carriscant in the first section why they are looking for Paton Bobby and who he is, Carriscant replies, " 'I suppose you could say that I'm looking for a killer." '? And, it now turns out, after Delphine's escape and Carriscant's arrest and incarceration, her husband was found dead, shot in the head. Carriscant tells Kay that during the private audience he has now had with Delphine, she revealed to him that Sieverance had been shot accidentally when, brought back by Carriscant from her death-like trance, she had slipped back to her home for the play she had been writing. Surprising Sieverance there, she had been taken for a burglar and in the ensuing struggle the gun he had armed himself with had gone off. But Kay doesn't believe him: there are things about the circumstances that don't hold water (Sieverance was found dead in bed, for instance). Did Delphine deliberately go back to shoot her husband in his sleep? Or - more likely from his manner as Kay quizzes him - was it Carriscant who killed him just before he was arrested? Kay cannot know and she decides: 'What good would my detections do, my reasoned detections? What do we know of other people anyway, of the human heart's imaginings? ... I had my theories, my dark thoughts, my suspicions, my version of events as they had unfolded all those years ago in Manila. But what does it matter?', and the novel very much ends with a sense of all being thus right with the world.

Trevor and Doug said that they had no objection to this: that's exactly how life is, you often don't know the truth of situations. I think that's true, and I like fiction in which the mode of telling acknowledges this. But I said I didn't think that this was that sort of novel: it very much starts out in the mode of a traditional thriller. The whole of the first section is set up as a mystery hingeing on circumstantial details, facts and missing facts, thus setting up in the reader traditional expectations of solution. It was as if, for me, Boyd was self-consciously tacking a postmodern ending onto a traditional thriller in a way that failed. Doug and Trevor, however, roundly disagreed with me, and thought that, simply by virtue of this stratagem, it was that sort of novel.

There was a deeper, more thematic failure of resolution and focus, I found. The first section, with its whole chapters devoted to Kay's rather unusual relationship with her ex-husband (she seems to despise yet mother him and they continue to have sex occasionally), the details and history of her work and battles as an architect and her personal uncertainties and aspirations - with one whole, if short, chapter on a visit to her dead child's grave - makes you think that the novel is going to be about the impact of Carriscant's arrival on Kay and on the other parts of her life. However all of this is abruptly abandoned. Others - even those championing the novel - agreed with this. Ann said that she couldn't see why Boyd needed the first section. Why, indeed, did Carriscant need to seek Kay out to help him track down Delphine? Trevor and Doug said, because he needed her to pay for the trip. Trevor did comment musingly that just contacting Kay for money would make Carriscant a pretty dodgy character, and at this point the group seemed uncertain as to what precise attitude we were meant to take to Carriscant, since in the second section the third-person narrative takes his point of view and has the reader gunning for him as an up-and-coming modern surgeon with old-fashioned and vengeful rivals, and for him and Delphine; at the end of the novel, while having certain suspicions about him, Kay clearly comes down on the side of empathising and sympathising with him.  If we are not meant to share this empathy, but are meant to view Carriscant ironically, then the reader's emotional investment in his predicament in the second section is squandered. In fact, looking back now through the novel I find that when Carriscant first approaches Kay he says he needs her forgiveness (as well as her help), but there is little sense of this in the following proceedings, and it's significant that it had slipped us all by. For a lot of the novel I thought that maybe it would turn out that Kay was Delphine's child, which would make her resonantly relevant to the quest, but it turns out at the end of the novel of course that Delphine lost the baby she was carrying when she fled, and that Annaliese had been newly pregnant with Kay at the point that Carriscant was in the act of leaving her (and then was arrested and incarcerated for many years). Clare and Doug protested, defending the first section for its psychological interest, though John pointed out to Clare that in her brief introduction she had called that section a kind of preface, and had said that the story begins properly with the second section, which she conceded.

I felt reluctant to pour cold water on other people's pleasure in a book, but literary honesty compelled me to say that in fact I had found the whole thing preposterous. Most obviously, I found the Romeo-and-Juliet-type elopement plot preposterous. Doug and Trevor would later object that the pair had been driven to desperate measures: in 1903 it would have been quite impossible for an adulterous couple to end up together in the small community of a foreign colony, they would simply have to disappear. I don't disagree with that, but nevertheless doubt the likelihood of them resorting to bottles of blood to fake miscarriage and ice-chests for lowering the temperature of bodies to fake subsequent death (John pointed out that Carriscant wasn't even sure he would be able to revive Delphine!). But also, unlike Clare and Doug, I didn't find the first section in any way psychologically convincing. I found Kay's attitude to Carriscant confusing and lacking conviction: at one point she would seem to be about to accept that he could be her father, and the next she would be refusing to accept any such thing. I didn't feel that I was being presented with the psychological conflict which of course in theory Kay would be likely to experience; that just wasn't there in the book and so the changes came over as inconsistency. Clare objected that it was there in the book, and pointed to moments such as that where Kay speaks of the 'curiosity' about Carriscant which is driving her. 'By now,' Kay says at one point on catching sight of him, 'the familiar aggregate of emotions coagulated inside me ... a tacky mass of surprise, curiosity, fractiousness and fatigue.' But the point is, she needs to tell us that; her emotions aren't properly dramatised and are conveyed via a mechanical reasoning that to me reads suspiciously like the author trying to justify to himself the situation he's set up. Conversely, at times the whole thing slips into melodrama, such as the following, which takes place not long before the Lisbon trip: ' "You are are not my father," I shouted at him. "Hugh Paget was my father. How dare you -"  "No, I am, I am, Kay!" he shouted back. "I am!" '

I said that as a result I found it preposterous that Kay should keep on meeting Carriscant when he is refusing to tell her anything, and complying with his requests for help (especially when at one point at the start he has said that he only wanted to talk to her, nothing more!), indeed even embarking on and paying for the trip to Lisbon without knowing the purpose. I found it ridiculous that, given that she does thus do so, and given her professed curiosity, she should at the same time feel reluctance to question him and accept his lack of willingness to talk. Ultimately, I also find it preposterous that Carriscant doesn't tell her anything until they are on the trip. Right at the end it becomes clear that the newspaper photograph was sent to Carriscant by Delphine herself when she knew she was dying, c/o the Milan hospital where Carriscant had worked. In fact, of course, he created an elaborate fabrication involving the now clearly faked need to have Paton Bobby's confirmation of the woman's identity, and trumped-up library searches. There was even convoluted discussion about the people present in the photo, and workings out of the implications of their likely situations. In fact, I didn't bother to follow these calculations: it was hard to apply one's interest when what one didn't even know the significance of the woman (for the same reason, I didn't find Kay's interest in them convincing), and one wonders if this prompting of reader inattentiveness allows the author to get away with the inconsistency. Kay, in any case, doesn't remark on the inconsistencies and fabrications now emerged, but merely asks Carriscant mildly why he didn't tell her that the photo had come directly from Delphine. He replies, ' "I thought it seemed more dramatic, more of a challenge the way I told it. Would enthuse you more" ', which smacks to me of an authorial bid to do the same, ie artificially setting up a sense of mystery merely for its own sake. If, on the contrary, this is meant to be a postmodern joke, then having worked to invest my attention in the plot details, I don't find that it works.

I also was sorry to say that I didn't find the book well written on the level of prose. I agree that Boyd is very good at describing place and weather, but for me this did not compensate for other difficulties. I found many sentences clumsy and careless. This sentence, for instance, contains a rudimentary error of repetition: 'It was little more than a smoke-darkened room with a long zinc-topped bar ... with a shelf above ranged with small dumpy barrels, with spigots attached...' (my italics), and there are several sentences throughout bearing this infelicity in sentence construction, leading to repetitive convoluted clauses. I laughed out loud at the following, in which we are told of the incompetence of Carriscant's surgical rival in removing tumours from tongues: 'Manila was full of mumbling semi-mutes with needlessly stumpy tongues as a consequence of Cruz's heavy-handed speediness' - not, I think, in a way the author intended. I also found the narrative voice of the first section uncertain and unconvincing. Kay's first-person narrative is by no means an interior monologue: she addresses the reader as an objective stranger to whom she needs to give an account of her history and the circumstances of her life, yet we are also party to the details of her sexual encounters in a way that would be more appropriate to an internal monologue. Others in the group however had no problem with this. I also found the prose pompous, as exemplified in the reference to Carriscant's 'obliquity' above. John agreed with me on all of these counts, and in fact he had been so put off by the novel that he had only skimmed it.

We discussed the title, The Blue Afternoon, about which some people were a little puzzled. As Clare and others pointed out, there are many references to blue throughout the book. The 'blue afternoon' is the afternoon on which Carriscant and Delphine first consummate their relationship, an afternoon of rain and sun when the light seems to turns blue (a phenomenon which is indeed beautifully conjured, and, by - for once - recreating Carriscant's transcendent emotional experience, primes one not to view him ironically). However, no one really knew what the significance of the blueness was, and I felt that, like the apparently postmodern ending, it was an attempt at a metaphorical mode that sat at odds with the thriller and adventure-story aspects of the novel.

Trevor said that the trouble was that it seemed that Boyd was considered a bit of a commercial novelist, and I didn't like commercial novels and was judging him by different criteria. I said that I understood that, on the contrary, Boyd was considered literary, and Clare then read out from the biography in her copy a list of the prestigious literary awards he has won.

Clare said that she had really enjoyed finding out about architecture and the making of early planes (chapters which I found research-heavy and tedious, the latter smacking of Boys'-Own adventure), and several people said they were fascinated to learn of the American-Philippine war, of which they hadn't previously known. (An old bone of contention in the group is whether one goes to fiction for factual information, which I certainly don't, but I didn't pursue this.)

Then people, chiefly Jenny and Ann, pondered other unresolved issues in the book. What about the elaborate lies that it turns out Kay's mother has told her, even showing her a photograph of the non-existent Hugh Paget! And why did she need to do that last, when she had told her that all the other photos were lost in the fire (ie couldn't all of them have been lost in the fire?) And who is the man in the photo? Why did she need to construct such an elaborate lie at all? And what would this would do to Kay's feelings about her mother and her own lied-to past? In fact, Kay considers none of the above questions; she simply sweeps it all aside as if solving a crossword puzzle, and as if no emotions whatever need be involved. What about the fact that, right at the end, Carriscant reveals that he is now running a restaurant in the Philippines, and is married with a family? How does this figure with his journey to Los Angeles and then Lisbon? And how does that fit with his down-and-out air, and the fact that Kay notices when she first meets him that there is grime under his fingernails? Come to think, this last doesn't fit with the personal habits of an ex-surgeon, either (especially one who in the past championed antisepsis!). The thought occurs: was Carriscant just a lying rogue, were the somewhat far-fetched events in 1902 just another elaborate lie? Had Kay just been taken for a ride? She does say that as they are leaving Lisbon
I was full of doubts, of conflicting versions and explanations of this strange and complex story I had been told. But at least I knew there had been a man called Salvador Carriscant and he had been in love with a woman called Delphine Sieverance. That much I could confirm, having witnessed it with my own eyes.
Is it another postmodern joke, wickedly and deliberately squandering the reader's investment in a tall tale? If so, the joke was certainly lost on us all: for one thing, as I say, having found it necessary to look in detail at the first section in order to examine how its elements are unresolved or contradicted, I discovered that some of those details had passed me by, and I, and I think others, didn't at first see some of the contradictions.

There is in fact a prologue to the whole book, in which Kay remembers sitting on another 'blue afternoon' with Carriscant mid-Atlantic, in which she unequivocally refers to him as her father and in which she narrates that Carriscant illustrated to her then the ease of cutting flesh with a scalpel by tricking her into cutting his arm with her eyes closed. (This seems heavily symbolic, but I'm not sure, in view of the uncertainties, of what. Is it meant to signify the ease of tricking people into significant action or investment, as he has tricked her, and as the author has tricked the reader? Do the closed eyes signify her gullibility in the face of a big con trick?). Ann wondered if, in view of all the other mysteries, it was another mystery of circumstance (deliberate or otherwise), as she had been left with the impression that in the scene Kay was a child. Had Kay in fact been with Carriscant when she was a child? In fact, this was a misimpression: the scene takes place on the boat to or from Lisbon, but I feel Ann's mistake was understandable and a function of the prose. In this piece, which we come to at the outset, trying to get our bearings about the situation, there's no hint of Kay's age at the time, or of the oddity of the relationship between the two characters, and indeed it has the quality of a long-ago memory. I see this as a narrative shortcoming, which indeed I also see replicated at the start of Boyd's better-known novel Brazzeville Beach, where, in spite of the carefully enumerated details of the beach and the political situation, we go for several pages without knowing who our first-person narrator is.

Finally Jenny said, And what about the fact that the down-at-heel Carriscant had been heir to a landowning fortune, which would have come to him when his mother died?

'Another unsolved mystery!' she said, ending the discussion.

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