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.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Interview on Curled up with a Good Book

I'm delighted to have been interviewed by Chelle on her wonderfully busy book blog, Curled up with a Good Book. She asked me about my early ambitions, how long it takes me to write a book and even if I believe in love at first sight! You can read the interview here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Reading group: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Some of us present had already read this short book, and thoroughly agreed with Doug, who couldn't make the meeting and wrote to say, 'It was stunning the first time I read it and just as captivating the second time.' Everyone, in fact, thought it was brilliant. 

It's the first-person narration of a woman, Lucy Barton, looking back many years later to a period of a few weeks when, as a young mother, having developed a mysterious fever after a minor operation, she lay in hospital separated from her two small daughters, and woke to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. 

The novel centres on the few days that her mother stays there on watch in the chair beside the bed, hardly sleeping, and, after many years of being out of touch, regales Lucy with tales of the lives of people in their rural background. Nothing much happens in the present time, apart from this tentative but growing relationship, abruptly ended when there's an apparent emergency and Lucy has to be prepared for theatre, and her mother, seeming to take fright, leaves precipitously. There are visits from Lucy's doctor and a single visit from her children. However, contemplative commentary from present-day narrator Lucy reveals a whole backstory of a troubled poverty-stricken childhood, the subsequent fact of Lucy's marriage breakdown, the beginnings of which turn out to have been running subtextually under that hospital time, her lifetime struggles to free herself psychologically from her harsh background, and her linked development as a writer. And as Mark pointed out, Lucy's story widens out through her developing sensibility to include wider issues - the fate of native Americans, Nazism, gender and Aids.

Chiefly the portrayal of the development of a creative sensibility out of straitened circumstances, the book is written in a plain, matter-of fact prose, yet holds a deep emotional punch.

 But this is my story.

And yet it is the story of many...

...But this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.

Mark, who had suggested the book, said that once again he was staggered that such simple prose - few metaphors, little lyricism - could create a great book. I didn't say this in the meeting, but I think it's this emotional withholding - echoed in the displacement with which Lucy and her mother talk about other people's stories but not their own troubled relationship - that is so moving, illustrative of the emotional suppression and damage.

If there was one note of demurral about the book's brilliance it came from Jenny who said that she felt that the appearance of the mother beside Lucy's bed was something of a device. There were then murmurs of agreement - but no one, including Jenny, thought that that really mattered. However, someone, I think Clare, said then that she had wondered if the mother's appearance wasn't real, she is a figment of Lucy's fevered mind as she  works on coming to terms with her past and her relationship with her mother. This hadn't occurred to anyone else (and I haven't seen it suggested in any of the reviews I've read), but it would indeed be a better explanation as to why the mother seems never to need to sleep while she's there (she says she can only ever 'cat-nap', which causes Lucy to wonder about her mother's own damaged history), as well as her sudden unexplained departure just at the moment of Lucy's emergency, when Lucy's dreaming/hallucinating consciousness would be disrupted. The matter-of-fact prose militates against such an interpretation, however, and later statements and the following consciously parallel situation seem to contradict it: 'I saw my mother only one time after she came to see me in the hospital ... [she] became ill and so I was the one, then, who went to her hospital room in Chicago, to sit at the foot of her bed.'

However, in spite of this uncertainty, we were all deeply moved by the book, and as usual when we feel a book is brilliant, we had little more to say beyond praising it and picking out sections for particular admiration.

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

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Interview: Friday Night Drinks

Last night I was delighted to be on Julie Morris's blog A Little Book Problem, in her Friday Night drinks series. She asked me about some wide-ranging things, including my proudest moment and my biggest writing challenge, and I revealed my drinking habits and something about my feet I've kept quiet about until now! Thank you so much, Julie, for hosting me. The interview is here.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Emma's Book Blog tour stop

Last stop on the Random Things blog tour for Astral Travel was on Emma's Book Blog, where it received a nice review from Emma (left) which ends: 'Beautifully written, Astral Travel is a fascinating and sobering read about family dynamics, damning secrets and prejudice.' Thank you, Emma, and many thanks indeed to Anne Cater for organising the tour!

There are three days left to enter the giveaway on Anne's blog.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Astral Travel giveaway. Random things blog tour

Today on the blog tour for Astral Travel, Random Things tour organiser Anne Cater is hosting a giveaway. For the chance of winning a free copy of Astral Travel, simply go to this post on Anne's blog, Random Things Through My Letterbox, and click on the link for the prize widget. The prize is open for 14 days. (Uk only.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Relentlessly Purple blog tour stop

Today Astral Travel lands on Relentlessly Purple, where blogger Ember says she really enjoyed reading a 'different kind of mystery book'. I find this gratifying, as although Astral Travel is metafictive and deals with some pretty hefty issues, it is after all basically a mystery. The fundamental mystery is narrator Jo's complicated father whose Irish background is shrouded in silence, and who is two very different men: a talkative charmer in the outside world and in her mother's tales about their early life together, but throughout Jo's childhood broody and bad-tempered in the home. And there are other mysteries: why does Jo's mother have such different memories from Jo's of their life during Jo's childhood? And why did the family move about so often in a way that isn't fully explained? The novel consists of Jo's quest to understand these things, and her discovery of the truth behind it all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

B for Book Review blog tour stop

Today on its Random Things blog tour, Astral Travel whizzes into B for Book Review, where you can read an extract from the beginning of the novel. This beginning is called 'Before and After', and is a kind of prologue in two sections, the first of which takes place after the major events of the novel, the second taking us right back to a time before it all started, to the narrator's childhood and the beginning of a mysterious change in her father which is to propel the whole novel. The extract on B for Book Review takes us from the very start to partway through this second section.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Booklymatters blog tour stop

The RandomThings book tour for Astral Travel kicks off today at Booklymatters with a review which begins:

This brilliant book is about the stories we tell ourselves, how we learn to handle the realities we cannot escape from, and exactly how much of our truest selves we are willing to expose or share in search of essential connection and resolution. 

The review then goes on to consider the 'stories within stories' aspect of the book - the way that stories can seem one way, but when you delve deeper, as m protagonist Jo does, you can find they have entirely different meanings and even be different stories altogether. You can read the whole review here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Astral Travel Book Tour

Next week Astral Travel is indeed travelling - to some great blogs and Instagram accounts. Here's the schedule beginning Monday. There'll be reviews, an extract, and a giveaway if you're interested in trying for a free copy.

21st June: Bookly Matters (Instagram) @booklymatters

22nd June: B for Bookreview @BookreviewsB

23rd June: Relentlessly Purple @Lentlesslypurpl

24th June: Random things through My Letterbox @annecater

25th June: Emmaz Book Blog @corkyyorky


Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Reading group: The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Warning: plot spoil.

John suggested this short and, to quote Doug, 'extremely unusual and thought-provoking' novel.

Exiled after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, its author, Agota Kristof, settled in France at the age of twenty-one, and thirty years later produced The Notebook, written in French, the first of a trilogy of novels concerning twin brothers. This first novel takes the form of the notebook that the clever twin brothers, in this book unnamed, keep after being evacuated as children during wartime to stay with their grandmother. It is a present-tense record of events as they adjust to life under those circumstances, written in the plural first person, 'we', with no differentiation whatever between the two brothers. It charts their self-conscious adjustment to amorality in order to survive in a world of immorality and perversion. They learn to steal, blackmail and even kill, always as a matter of expediency for both themselves and the downtrodden others they help. We can assume that it all takes place during World War Two and in the Hungarian countryside, but neither is ever named, nor are the occupying armies (clearly the Germans and then the Russians), nor the persecuted and murdered Jews.

Our discussion opened with two basic questions that were puzzling members. Firstly, the book is written in a very simple style. Early on in the novel the twins make a rule for themselves for writing: 

...the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do... Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

Mark said he couldn't understand how, in spite of that simplicity, it was somehow a really great book. I think that very objectivity gives the book a great poignancy, formally illustrating the repression of feeling that is necessary for the boys to survive (and the reduction of humanity created by war). The simplicity also gives the book a fairytale air and a consequent universality, as does the lack of naming. The novel, too, is full of fairytale-like grotesques, the grandmother who poisoned her husband and deprives her grandsons of basic comforts and the money their mother sends for them, the sexually incontinent hair-lipped girl and her mother who pretends to be deaf and blind, the priest who interferes with the girl, and his young female housekeeper and the masochistic billeted officer, both of whom make sexual use of the twins.

The second question led to the bulk of our discussion. During the whole of the novel the twins speak entirely as one - their utterances are prefaced only with 'We say' - and they are as one in their actions and plans. However: at the very end of the book, their father appears, needing help to escape into the West across the nearby barbed-wire frontier erected by the Russians. They agree to help him. Their father goes over the first section of the double fence, steps on a mine and is killed, and the last words of the novel follow:

Yes, there is a way of crossing the frontier: it's to get someone else to go first.

Picking up the sack, walking in Father's footprints, then over his inert body, one of us goes to the other country.

The other goes back to Grandmother's house.

Clare wanted to know Why? Why, in the first place, did either of them need to go across the frontier when they had finally built themselves a good life where they were? And, more importantly, why did they separate when they had been as one for the whole of the book preceding?

Had they planned together that only one of them should go over, or had one of the brothers been tricking the other? Had one brother been speaking for the other all along; were they not after all as one in their plans as portrayed? I said, but there is no hint whatever that the narrator is unreliable, and everyone agreed. John, who had been profoundly impressed by that ending, felt that, having been so bound together, the twins in the end needed to individuate. My view is that such realist-psychological explanations are inappropriate: the novel is not intended as psychologically realist in that way. Like the notebook it purports to be, it eschews feelings and motives. A question I asked in the meeting, but which never got a satisfactory answer at the time, was Why has the author chosen to make the narrative voice that of twins speaking as one? The answer, I think, is that, rather than realist characters, they are a kind of collective, or at least doubled, Everyman undergoing the universal circumstance of wartime upheaval. Having read about the following two novels in the trilogy (though I haven't read them), it seems to me that the point of separating the twins at the end is to allow in the following novels an exploration of the differing and/or similar circumstances of Communism and capitalism that Kristof herself experienced. However, perhaps reading the first book in isolation led to more psychological interpretations of its ending.

All in all, we thought it a great and memorable novel, which seemed here to be brilliantly translated by Alan Sheridan, and we were extremely pleased to have read it.

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

New story shortlisted

I'm very happy that a new story of mine has been shortlisted for the Short Fiction Journall/University of Essex Wild Writing Prize. I'm not allowed at this stage to say which one of the shortlisted stories it is, as they have to be presented anonymously to the two judges who consider them at this stage. It's a nice boost, as I have felt at something of a distance from writing recently, other, more practical matters having kept me away from my desk and displacing from my head a new novel idea I've had brewing. 

Astral Travel keeps me busy: all four of the videos I made about novels with which Astral Travel has certain connections can now be seen together on my YouTube playlist.

And in June there will be a blog tour for Astral Travel, organised by the wonderful Anne Cater.

And now I think I have a few days at least to sink back into that day-dreamy parallel dimension that a new idea always is...

Friday, April 23, 2021

Talking About Astral Travel (4)

Here's the fourth and last of the short videos in which I talk about novels with which my own, Astral Travel, has some connection. This time two classics I read when I was young, Tristram Shandy and Wuthering Heights. Both have had a huge influence on my writing in general. Tristram Shandy is particularly interesting for its non-linear structure, which seems postmodern long before postmodernism. To me it's a searingly truthful mode, as it mimics the non-linear way in which we tend to think and remember. Wuthering Heights is notable for its structure - a story filtered by first one narrator and then another to whom she tells the tale, in a way that explores viewpoint and the way that stories are experenced and told. Inevitably, with my literary obsession with the fluidity of time and with contingency, Astral Travel carries the imprint of both.

Interview: Lucky 13

Today I'm featured on the blog of energetic writer Matthew Clark Leach. He's running a series of author interviews in which 13 questions are posed, and today it's my turn - answering on subjects from my own writing to my favourite karaoke song. Thanks to Matthew for inviting me. It was great fun!

You can read the interview here.

And Matthew's children's book, Henry Took and the Secret of Christmas, is available here.  

Reading group: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

A long time ago now, we read Beloved by Toni Morrison, considered by many to be her greatest novel, and all of us loved it. This time Jenny suggested her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Although we were agreed that it doesn't have the stature of Beloved, we all also really liked it, and Mark, who couldn't make the meeting, sent word that he had loved it.

Set in post-Depression 1940s Ohio, it concerns the tragic figure of Pecola, a young girl from a poor black family who is so degraded and effaced by the racist white gaze that she longs for blue eyes like Shirley Temple - for, in other words, the only concept she has of beauty, whiteness. With a narrative frame that is the voice of a less downtrodden schoolfriend, now adult, the novel also includes the voices and histories of other characters, in particular Pecola's parents whose stories have led them to the degradation, including at one point homelessness, in which they end up. Morrison explains in an Afterword written many years later that her aim with this structure was to avoid leading readers into 'the comfort of pitying Pecola rather than into an interrogation of themselves for [her] smashing.' The idea was to 'break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader', and thus, presumably, involve the reader's complicity and intimacy with the story and therefore Pecola's fate. Another laudable aim, provided later in the Afterword, is that she 'didn't want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola' and be thus complicit in 'the demonization process Pecola was subjected to.' However, she expresses dissatisfaction with this stratagem, saying that it didn't work: it doesn't 'handle effectively the silence at its centre: the void that is Pecola's "unbeing" ' and readers 'remained touched but not moved'.

We discussed this matter. In spite of our general admiration for the novel, some people expressed agreement with Morrison about the structure, noting that Pecola is out of focus whenever the narrative gives voice and pays attention to the stories of other characters, which it does a good deal of the time. This was the case at the crucial start of the novel, which made most of us of think for some good while that the novel was going to be about the narrator Claudia and her sister Frieda. Some wondered however if it would be impossible to make more concrete or focal a character who is such a 'void', inarticulate and silenced and overlooked by the gaze of just about everyone, including other black people (apart from Claudia and Frieda), someone who has no sense whatever of self

I said however that I didn't think it was quite true that she had no sense of self. While the novel's first incursion into Pecola's point of view has her wishing she could disappear (from the brutality of her home situation and, more crucially from the ugliness she believes she suffers), even forcing herself, psychologically, to become invisible, this scene segues into another in which is she walking down the street to buy candy. Still sharing her point of view, we share her sensations and thoughts. She is carrying her pennies in her shoe:

A sweet, endurable, even cherished irritation, full of promise and delicate security... She moves down the avenue gently buffeted by the familiar and therefore loved images. The dandelions at the base of the telephone pole... She thought they were pretty... Skates would go well over this sidewalk.

There is a personality here, a concrete self with which we are allowed to identify. Therefore when it all goes wrong, when the white shop owner fails to meet her gaze, looking everywhere but at her as if she is non-human or invisible, we have an already concrete sense of the self that is being negated and denied, and a visceral knowledge of the fact that that negation comes from outside.

Immediately after this scene another follows in which Pecola makes one of her regular visits to the women who live in the apartment above her family, three jolly sex workers. As someone in our group pointed out, unlike the general population, the three women treat her with affection and respect, and she is reflected in their eyes for both Pecola and us - and portrayed through the dramatic mode of dialogue - as a curious, chatty and normal little girl. And after all, I said, doesn't the fact that Pecola has a dream - even if it is a self-negating dream to be physically different - imply a certain dynamism? At which Jenny, I think, pointed out that Pecola is in fact proactive in trying to get blue eyes, taking charge of her own fate, however misguidedly and tragically.

Towards the end there is a scene composed entirely of dialogue between two voices of Pecola: that of the Pecola who now believes she has blue eyes, and that of a rational no-nonsense Pecola who questions what she has done, indeed calls her 'silly'. In her Afterword Morrison refers to this scene as Pecola 'hallucinating' a self, which implies that the no-nonsense Pecola is not the 'real' one, and her speeches are presented in italics, as though somehow parenthesised. However, to me at any rate, it doesn't actually read like that; it reads more like the very real psychological split or double vision of oneself that can occur when one is presented by the outside world with a warped image of oneself. Morrison comments critically of this scene that it is 'a kind of outside-the-book conversation', which is perhaps true, since scenes located in Pecola's viewpoint are vastly outnumbered by those from others' viewpoints: Pecola's first menstruation, for instance is seen from the viewpoint of Claudia and Frieda, as is the searing scene in which the three girls witness Pecola's mother being more attentive and caring with the little white girl whose family she works for than she ever is with Pecola, while Pecola's rape by her father is portrayed from his point of view (the last being the reason, I assume, that the book was at one time banned in the USA).

However, we all really liked the book and appreciated its political message and the impact it must have had on publication in 1970. In particular Jenny and Ann were impressed by the way the novel shows that the contempt of the white gaze can poison the black gaze in turn, making lighter-skinned black people despise those who are darker, and those who are darker despise themselves. Doug had one quibble, which concerned the language of the book. In her Afterword, Morrison writes in detail about its language. She wanted a language for the book that was 'undeniably black', she says, but wanted to draw a wide constituency of readers into identification. She was trying therefore  for a 'race-specific yet race-free prose. Prose free of racial hierarchy and triumphalism'. For this reason, she says, she began with a colloquial phrase, 'Quiet as it's kept', implying a secret about to be revealed, and thus drawing the reader into gossipy confidence. I'm afraid I don't know what Doug's precise doubt was, whether he wondered if it was too colloquial or not colloquial enough. He did make a reference to its possibly greater suitability at the time of first publication, but I'm afraid Zoom, with its tendency to foreground and highlight interruptions, zoomed us on to other matters.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Talking About Astral Travel (3)

Here's the third of the videos in which I talk about novels that are connected in one way or another with my own, Astral Travel. This time, two Irish novels - Edna O'Brien's Girl With Green Eyes and John McGahern's Amongst Women - and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.  The first two share with Astral Travel a figure common in Irish literature, the difficult and oppressive father. Vonnegut's book, which I first read a very long time ago, is a very different kind of novel from Astral Travel, but I guess it influenced a certain aspect of the structure of Astral Travel, and a particular motif. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Cocky Watchman by Ailsa Cox

Cocky Watchman by Ailsa cox is the latest from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar imprint, limited-edition singe-story pamphlets, dedicated to the uncanny. 

This haunting story opens with intimations of unease as a writer and teacher of writing takes a ride home in a taxi through the dark eerie plain of west Lancashire, the trains having been cancelled for no explained reason. It's Mischief Night, the night before Halloween, when children cause mayhem, an ancient Liverpool tradition much older than Halloween. In the distance there are bursts of pre-bonfire-night explosions - at home her dog will be whimpering and cowering - and the Scouse cabbie is a potentially threatening man, 'big' and with a 'closed-shaved head'. But he wants to talk, in fact he came from the suburb in which she lives, and 'he liked to reminisce'. The writer, our narrator, is eager to draw him out. 'A writer's never off duty,' she thinks pragmatically, 'that's what I always told my students'. 
And he has indeed a tale to tell, a mysterious tale connected with Mischief Night, of a 'cocky watchman' (a Liverpool term for a sharp-eyed and alert watchman) who once guarded the small park near where she lives and told tales to the kids who gathered around his brazier. It is a tale of fire, of fascination with fire, and of the way that stories can leap like flames and take hold in the sometimes dangerous obsessions of others. Meanwhile, in a subtle authorial manoeuvre, the narrative voice takes over the story from that of the cabbie, as the tale catches in the narrator's mind and begins to flare.

Arrived home, the narrator thinks of the ghost story she could write if she made use of the tale. But the haunting is much deeper than any conventional ghostly apparition. For someone involved in what happened to the watchman, she muses, there would be 'always the smell of smoke coming from somewhere'. And it is the story itself, and its telling, that haunts the narrator, in a way that moves her on to a different future. 

To be haunted in turn by this cleverly calibrated story, you can buy it here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Mainstream published

This week sees the publication of Mainstream, an anthology of stories from the edges to which I was invited to contribute. It's really exciting. Editors Justin David and Nathan Evans have done a wonderful job of publicity - I don't think I've been involved in a non-mainstream project that has been quite so buzzy. There's even a song ,'Permission', written and recorded by Andrew M Pisnu of Memory Flowers, and a video. The book was crowd-funded with the publisher Unbound, and thank you so much to those who pledged support. It includes several of the more well-known authors writing about experiences that tend to be overlooked in mainstream literary culture, but also 15 exciting newcomers. My own contribution, 'Alignment', set in a hospital, is a story about conceptions of class inferiority and the power plays and gaslighting that can result.

The book can be bought here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Talking About AstralTravel (2)

Here's another video in which I talk about novels with some connection with my own, Astral Travel, this time All My Puny sorrows by Miriam Toews and The Gathering by Anne Enright. I read both of these novels while I was already embarked on Astral Travel, and was struck by some of the similarities, particularly in theme. As I say in the video, sometimes when you're writing a novel, you keep coming across connections with what you're doing - in the news, in books, in things people say, etc - and it's a though you're tuning into something in the air, and it's a very exciting feeling!  

Friday, April 02, 2021

Talking about Astral Travel (1)


Here's a link to a video, the first of four in which I talk about some novels that in some way relate to Astral Travel.

Some of these novels were actual influences on my writing in general and/or on Astral Travel in particular - usually ones I read a long time ago; others I read while I was writing Astral Travel and they resonated in ways that made me feel that what I was doing was an acceptable thing to be doing; and others just have certain aspects with similarities to some of those in Astral Travel.

In this first video, I talk about Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which I read when I was already embarked on Astral Travel, and which, though a very different kind of book, had some very strong resonances for me, and Enid Blyton's Enchanted Wood, an extract from which I read at the age of 6 and which, after I had finished writing Astral travel, I was stunned to realise might be behind something that happens near the beginning of my book.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Reading group: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Warning: plot spoil

We've been in lockdown for so long now I thought we needed cheering up, so I suggested this comic novel by Maria Semple, which I had read a while back when I was blogging the Women's Prize shortlist, and had enjoyed.

It consists of a series of emails, letters and notes from various characters, compiled by fourteen-year-old Bee and interwoven with her own narration, in an effort to make sense of the disappearance of her mother Bernadette - a somewhat kooky woman who had refused to take part in the activities of the school parent group and spurned the parochial snobbishness of the other mothers, for which she was much disliked.

As I told the group, I enjoyed the book even more this time around, as the first time I read it I had to do so in something of a hurry, and this time I was able to relish the things I really liked about it: the wit, the language - every character has their own voice, each one pitch perfect without an authorial foot put wrong - the clever structure, and the very clever way the plot is revealed. 

Most people in the group agreed, and appreciated the satirical fun the author pokes at the American middle-classes and various aspects of contemporary life. It's something of an outrageous plot, and as Ann said, the book tends towards farce. There is however a serious message, which, as Clare put it, is the difficult tension for women between their own careers and creativity and the creativity and commitment of motherhood. Only slowly does it become clear to the reader that Bernadette has been a prizewinning architect, partly because she is intially seen through the (somewhat vicious) eyes of the local mothers, and of course of Bee herself, simply as a mother, but also because her earlier role as an architect has been buried by circumstances that will gradually be revealed as the correspondence is accumulated and pieced together. One part of Bernadette's retreat is to do with the difficulties - and one devastating event - that she experienced as a woman in a male sphere, but more fundamentally it is to do with the tragedies she underwent as a mother: the loss of several babies in miscarriages for which she has suffered long-term grief, and the near-death and subsequent vulnerability of her one surviving baby, Bee, to whom she then felt she needed to devote all of her creative energy and attention. The letter describing this last is to me extremely moving, and in the middle of this very funny comedy I found myself crying. Once Bee and her father are finally armed with this truth, they set out to find Bernadette, and I'm very glad to say that the novel has the happy ending which, although people said was perhaps the Hollywood aspect of this novel, I was very much hoping for. As Clare said at the start of our meeting, Bernadette is an attractively kooky character, Bee a very likeable teenager, and their relationship touching, so I was invested in a happy ending for them. 

There was just one dissenter in our group over this novel. Mark said he found it too slight. He said he had read novels that were far more effectively biting about contemporary American society. I objected that, while the book does poke fun at several aspects of American life, that's not its only agenda, and the deeper message about creativity and motherhood is perhaps more fundamental. Everyone else agreed. Mark then complained that it wasn't clear at the end which Bernadette chose, motherhood or her own creativity, and I countered that the whole point of the book is that there shouldn't be that sort of binary choice, society should be arranged so that creative women can operate a balance between motherhood and their other creative pursuits. 

This led on to a long and intent conversation about the issue of parenthood and careers, and however slight Mark may have thought the novel, it certainly generated a lot of thought and discussion amongst us. 

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

On Writing 'The Words He Said"

In addition to my podcast extract of 'The Words He Said', there's now a short piece by me on the Lonely Crowd Press website on the composition of the story. As I said when I first placed the story, I felt it was a bit different from the other stories I was writing at the time, which to me were linked by contemporary issues, but, as I say in the piece, it very much echoes some of the overriding themes of my wider work.

Reading Group: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Warning: plot spoil

Doug suggested this prize-winning Norwegian book, first published in 2003. Set around the millennium, it's the first-person narration of Trond, a widower in his late sixties, who decides to retire to an isolated part of Norway, the kind of place he has always longed to be 'even when everything was going well, as it so often did', where 'there was only silence' and time could be 'something I live inside and fill with physical things ... and does not vanish when I am not looking.'

Unfortunately, the hoped-for mental peace is immediately shattered when he meets his nearest neighbour, an event that unexpectedly takes him back to a momentous summer three years after the second world war when, at the age of fifteen, he stayed with his father in his father's cabin near the woods in another rural area, away from his mother and sister in the city, and momentous events in his life occurred. From this point the novel then becomes a series of vivid and extended flashbacks to that summer, alternating with the snowy present as Trond settles himself into his cabin for the winter and tries to comes to terms with that past.

Doug said he really loved the book, and all of us agreed that it was beautifully written (and presumably beautifully translated, by Anne Born), moving and hauntingly atmospheric. John noted that the beginning of the novel is composed in very short sentences - and Mark agreed, commenting that the novel was Hemingwayesque - but in fact as the past takes over for Trond, this careful, measured prose gives way to a more fluid style, at times becoming stream-of-consciousness. My only problem with that, I said, was that it made me read quickly (and voraciously), and I felt at times I was reading too quickly and missing things, in particular clues, and John said he had the same experience.

There is indeed an air of mystery over the whole novel, which is partly a result of Trond's only slowly awakening  realisations. In the present there are the difficulties of a past buried by psychological necessity and by time, and in that past Trond is an adolescent from whom important truths are being hidden. When the present-day Trond first meets his neighbour, who is out in the dark looking for his dog, Trond is strangely disturbed by him, in particular by his nervousness, especially when the neighbour says he may have to shoot the (disturbingly fearful-aggressive) dog and, seemingly compulsively, tells him about once having had to shoot another dog.

He had lost his confidence, it was clear ... I suddenly felt desperately sorry for him. The feeling welled up from I don't know where, from some place out in the dark, where something might have happened in a different time entirely, or from somewhere in my own life I had long since forgotten...

However, in spite of this vague feeling of recognition, and even though the neighbour has given his name, Lars Haug, Trond does not immediately realise that they are connected by that long-ago summer, and in fact, we will discover, much more. It is only as the first flashback unfolds that the reader can begin to make the connection.

That first flashback begins when, early one morning, the fifteen-year-old Trond is invited by a neighbouring lad, Jon, to go 'out stealing horses' - Jon's phrase - and is mystified by Jon's undergoing what seems to be a kind of nervous breakdown in which he becomes alien and potentially violent. Only the next day will Trond learn that the day before the 'horse-stealing' incident, Jon, who had been meant to be looking after his ten-year-old twin brothers, had left his gun unattended, and ten-year-old Lars had picked it up and accidentally shot dead his twin. And only slowly, over the course of that summer, will Trond realise what is going on between his father and Jon's mother, has in fact been going on for years, and how that phrase 'out stealing horses' connects the two. There are early indications in the novel that that summer of his fifteenth year was the last time Trond ever saw his father, but it will be fairly late in the novel that a major fact - a fact of which the present-day Trond would be acutely aware in the presence of Lars but clearly can't face broaching - will be confirmed for the reader: that Trond's father became stepfather to the ten-year-old Lars.

Jenny said that her one problem with the novel was that there were too many gaps - we never know about that life that Lars lived with Trond's father before Lars left, aged twenty, never to return (Jon, who had run away to sea immediately after the shooting, having returned to claim the farm that Lars had been working); we never know exactly what happened in the relationship between Trond's father and Lars's mother in the war years; we know little of Trond's past career and life with his wife and daughters. The rest of us felt on the contrary that it was these gaps that created the poignancy of the novel and were psychologically acceptable - both Trond and Lars are blanking painful pasts, and Trond's intervening life, which he makes clear was successful and happy, in psychological terms falls away in significance once the unresolved nature of the past comes to dominate.

Ann said little about this book, but did say that she found it oddly ambivalent, with which I agreed. It's a book about a man's relationship with his father, a father he had looked up to and who had schooled him in a tough physical masculinity but then abandoned him, and as such it seems to me strongly to examine and question the issue of masculinity. Trond's father encourages him in the toughest processes of haymaking, he instructs him in the felling of trees, he takes him on a rite-of-passage horseback trek; he tells him that 'you decide for yourself when it will hurt'. But his father's own masculinity fails: he chooses the wrong time of year to fell his trees and send logs down the river (in order, it will turn out, to earn money to send to the family he is planning to abandon), and there will turn out to be an ulterior (and real) motive for the horseback trek: to check on the progress of the logs, of which they will find too many stranded in the drying river, never to make it to Sweden where they would have been sold. There is too a suggestion that the cowardly way in which he abandoned his family is an ultimate failure of masculinity. Trond's retirement retreat to the 'outback' is perhaps a way of returning to that unresolved masculinity and there are poignant moments when he finds he knows how to do certain tasks because his father taught him, and others when he doesn't, because his father didn't. On skimming through the book to write this report, I came upon a moment when he watches Lars expertly cutting wood, which, having read the whole book I found particularly poignant, as Lars would of course have been taught by Trond's father. I have to say however that on my first reading that poignancy was lost on me, as it's not entirely clear at that stage in the book how things ended up between Trond's father and Lars's mother. In fact, I feel that the initial encounters between Lars and Trond would be more strongly charged if the reader had the information that is withheld.

I did find it all very moving, but couldn't help reflecting on finishing the book that there was nevertheless a certain fundamental ambivalence about masculinity on the parts of both narrator Trond and possibly the author. It struck me that the women in the novel get short shrift: they are either dead (Trond's wife and sister) or forgotten (Trond has difficulty at one moment in remembering his wife's face; he has gone away without even telling his daughters where he is, and makes no mention of them until one of them turns up looking for him; he refers to his other daughter as 'the other one' and we never learn her name), or they are sex objects (the milkmaid and Jon and Lars's mother). Trond remembers that when his father returned to Oslo after the war, his sister and mother ran down the road to greet and embrace him, but Trond's father looked over them at Trond with 'a secret smile', and Trond 'realised that from now on it was all about the two of us, we had a pact.' Trond says that he was fond of his sister, but she remains in the very background of this story. All of this may well be authorial comment on Trond's former training in masculinity, but for me the fact that there is no sense for the reader in the narration of the experience or inner life of these women makes the present-day Trond, and the book, ambivalent.

Doug agreed that the treatment of the women was the one weakness in the book, but Mark rigorously defended it from this criticism, finding its focus, as a book about a father-son bond, acceptable. He pointed also to the character of Jon's mother who is physically strong, working with the men at the haymaking and tree-felling and also heroically brave as a resistance activist during the war - although I would still contend that Trond views her, however inevitably, from the outside. Mark also, rightly, picked out the fact that when Trond's visiting daughter suggests that perhaps he wants her never to come back again, he realises that he doesn't want that at all, and that he should, as she suggests, get himself a phone - in other words, not completely bury himself away in his macho outback. Mark did conclude by saying that he accepted that it was a male book written for men. I didn't get a chance to say so at the time, but I profoundly disagree with this: speaking for myself, as a woman relating to men and with sons, I find masculinity, and the kind of questioning of its macho version that we encounter here, of huge interest and importance. 

The ending, as we commented, is curious: the book concludes with an episode in which the fifteen-year-old Trond accompanies his abandoned mother to Karlstad to collect the money from the timber. It turns out to be a paltry amount, and can't be taken out of Sweden back to Norway. Trond's feelings towards his mother on this trip are indeed ambivalent. He looks at her sleeping on the train as they travel there, and is clearly repulsed:

Her eyes were closed, and the heavy lids rested on the round cheeks as if everything save sleeping was unnatural to this face, and I thought: for Christ's sake, he just disappeared and left me with her.

Oh, I did love my mother, I'm not saying that I didn't, but what future I could read in the face before me was not what I had imagined. Merely to look at that face for longer than three minutes made the world push at my shoulders from both sides. It made me short of breath.

Here he is replicating the presumed attitude of his father, and as they wander the streets of Karlstad looking for the bank he becomes unreasonably aggressive to a stranger who is unable to tell them the way, on the point of hitting him, and it is clear that he sees this as connected with the training he has received from his father that summer: 

I was as tall as he was and in good shape after that summer, for I had used my body for all kinds of things. I had bent it and stretched it in all directions and lifted and pushed just about everything and hauled and tugged at stone and wood and rowed the boat both up and down the river... Now I felt strong and invincible, and this man did not exactly look like an athlete ... [I] felt one hand clenching automatically. It felt warm and good and tight in all its joints...

But then:

...It dawned on me that from that small patch of cobbles I stood on there were lines going out in several directions ... the different roads I could take, and having chosen one of them, the portcullis would come crashing down, and someone would hoist the drawbridge up...

He chooses not to take that destructive macho step.

He remains 'sullen and ungiving' towards his mother, but when she comes out of the bank with the news about the money, there is a shift. 'She laughed out loud ... all of a sudden she was wide awake.' She  decides to spend what little there is on a new suit for  him:

It was a perfect fit. I stood there looking at myself in the mirror ... I did not look like a boy at all ... I could swear my mother blushed when she saw me... my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple... It was like dancing, I thought.

This is extremely moving, and the implication I take from it is that this time with his mother has turned Trond into a different kind of man from the one his time with his father could have turned him into. The ambivalence does return:

We were never to walk like that again. When we came home to Oslo, she fell back into her own weight and remained that way for the rest of her life.

Even so, the novel ends by returning to the memory of that moment of lightness, and, reporting that his hand had felt 'swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard', the adult Trond makes the final comment, 'we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt' with, I take it, a new meaning for the phrase, referring to the choices to be made between different kinds of masculinity.

This is perhaps linked to the twinning theme of the novel that Mark pointed out: not only are there twins in the Haug household, one of whom dies and the other of whom lives, Trond's mother had twin brothers, one of whom was shot by the Gestapo, another of whom survived. In both cases the surviving twin's life is shadowed by the loss, as Trond is perhaps shadowed by the alternatives for how to live as a man.

There were a few other, more random comments. Near the start of the meeting John had said that he hadn't much liked the long passages describing haymaking and woodcutting. He called them 'long-winded' and said they were boring and obvious if you'd actually done those things yourself, but I think he also meant that their length and detail were a rather macho aspect of the novel itself. (Personally, however, I was fascinated by the description of the now-disappeared traditional Norwegian method of haymaking, having experienced our very different British and now also discontinued traditional method.)

Some people said that they found it too much of a stretch that Trond's present-day neighbour turns out to be Lars - as Ann said, Norway is a huge country. Trond does in fact comment on the fact that this is the kind of coincidence you'd find hard to accept in modern-day fiction: 'if this had been something in a novel it would have been irritating'. I really liked that - the truism that some things that do happen in life would seem just too strange for fiction, but others found it simply an excuse that they didn't buy.

I said that one thing I found utterly admirable was Petterson's ability to describe emotions and the shifts in the adolescent Trond's alignment with the world, as in the section above describing his reaction to his mother, and in the following passage in which Trond finds himself sexually attracted to Jon's mother:

Jon's mother ... smelled of sun and resin as I no doubt did myself, but also of something more that made me dizzy and on the verge of tears, and I did not want her to be the mother of anyone, living or dead.

And that ability is surely anything but macho.

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

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Reading from 'The Words He Said'

In a post in March 2019 I wrote about having a story taken by the The Lonely Crowd, the acclaimed Welsh literary magazine edited by John Lavin. Unforseen circumstances delayed publication of the issue in which it was due to appear, but it came out in December and turns out to be a bumper five-year anniversary issue with lots of wonderful content. 

John Lavin is doing a fantastic job of spreading the word about the issue, and he has invited us contributors to write about our pieces and to do readings, all of which can be read and heard on the Lonely Press website. My reading from the beginning of my story, 'The Words He Said' - a story about communication and non-communication, and the long-term consequences of a single pivotal moment between two lovers - can be listened to here.

If you would like to read the rest of the story, and all of the other great content, the magazine is available here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ailsa Cox reviews Astral Travel in Litro

It's a particular thrill when a writer whose work you admire - Ailsa Cox writes accomplished and moving short stories - and a literature professor to boot, praises your book. Reviewing Astral Travel for Litro Magazine, she calls it 'riveting,' 'wonderful' and a 'page-turner'. 

Astral Travel is a story about a painful history, but I like to think it's told with a light touch, and to my gratification Ailsa corroborates this:

Astral Travel is written so vividly, in such a freewheeling style, that the narrative twists and turns are navigated with ease. Despite the underlying anger, and the sadness, Jo is a likeable narrator with an ironic tone of voice and a comic sensibility. 

(I have to return the compliment: this is a lucid, beautifully written review).

I'm not sure why Litro have chosen to illustrate this review with a picture of a church door, but perhaps it's because Ailsa picks up on the crucial theme of identity that is at the novel's core and what she calls 'the multiple allegiances that [protagonist Jo] inherits – Welsh, Irish, Jewish, Methodist, Catholic and more ... just part of her struggle towards self-definition beyond patriarchal control.'

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Annabel Gaskell reviews Astral Travel for Shiny New Books

It's hard to describe how on top of the world I feel when I get a review that so understands what my work is doing, and at the same time really likes it, as does this fabulous review of Astral Travel by Annabel Gaskell for Shiny New Books.

She says of Astral Travel:

This book is beautifully constructed... At three short of four hundred pages, Astral Travel is a longish book, but it never dragged; nor was it a purely sensational read. This fine novel was, however, emotionally gripping, Baines shows great empathy towards her characters and I was totally engrossed by it, especially in Jo’s search for the truth. A book to lose yourself in – heartily recommended.

It did happen to be a beautifully sunny morning when I woke to this review (so different from some of our recent gloomy days), but everything does seems touched with magic as a result: the frost on the low roof just below my upstairs window is sparkling with rainbow colours and all the light on the bare sycamore across the road looks golden. And the first of the sweet peas I planted a fortnight ago has popped up a shoot!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

neverimitate reviews Astral Travel, and a podcast interview for The Wormhole.

I so admire the industry and application of book bloggers. Jackie Law has a very busy blog, neverimitate - I don't know how she manages to read as much as she does, and write about it all. I'm very grateful that she's given Astral Travel a detailed and thoughtful review, and thrilled, I must say, that she says it's 'a lingering and recommended read.'

Charlie Place, whose blog is The Wormhole, conducts podcast interviews with the authors whose books she has reviewed - that must be such a lot of work! - and last week she interviewed me about my story collection, Used to Be and Astral Travel - with a little bit, too, about writing drama for radio. I realised I'd never done an interview like this before - via telephone or zoom - previously, it's always been in person or via email. We did it via audio zoom, and I wondered beforehand if I'd miss the visual cues/clues of an in-person interview, but in the event found it worked very well. You can hear the podcast here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Reviews of Astral Travel and Joachim Boaz on The Birth Machine

It's the first day of February, and there are snowdrops up in the garden, a bit of hope in these dreadful times!  

Astral Travel has had a couple more nice reviews. The Mole at Our Book Reviews Online says he 'couldn't stop reading' and he 'loved this story', and calls it 'highly recommended'. (Full review here.) And an appreciative review comes from Nakisha Towers on Everybody's Reviewing, a website/blog of Leicester University's Centre for Creative Writing.

And I came belatedly across this nice review of The Birth Machine by Joachim Boaz in a blog survey he recently made of medical science fiction. It amuses me when people classify The Birth Machine as science fiction - it is actually listed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - since, as far as I was concerned, I was writing about social reality. The 'birth machine' of the title (which also relates to the alienation of the birthing mother through medicalisation) refers to a device for inducing labour that was actually introduced into labour wards in the early 70s, when the book is set. At one time I found the assumption that it was science fiction frustrating, as it seemed like a potential negation or at least continued overlooking of the re-life social experience of women. 

I know that Margaret Atwood has said the same about the Handmaid's Tale, that in fact nothing in that novel had not already happened to women somewhere in the world by the time she wrote the novel. The Birth Machine is not even set in a speculative future, as is The Handmaid's Tale, so would seem even less prone to being pushed into the science-fiction category. I'm more relaxed about it now, though, and think that if people want take The Birth Machine as metaphorical (as surely science fiction is), a metaphor for certain dangerous ways of thinking, then that's fine - and is better than its being taken as a simple plea for natural childbirth, which at times it has been, and which as far as I'm concerned it definitely is not.

I'm happy to say that, after a long period of being unable to write - of having no creative room in my head beside preoccupation with our strange new circumstances under coronavirus - I've begun to write again. (As I've said, I found I need to know what I'm writing into, and now I do: lockdown has become normality!) I've actually got a new novel brewing (nothing written down yet) and I've completed a new story which I realised, when it was finished, was a stepping stone towards the novel in terms of theme. It wasn't exactly a flash of lightning kind of thing as writing a story so often can be for me, and I abandoned it twice. I had a basic scenario with a compelling image which seemed to resonate deeply, but which seemed somehow too big to handle, to unpick and take further, and so the story kept going nowhere. Then one day it came to me what was wrong: the scenario with which I had begun was actually not the beginning but the end of the story, its culmination. Sometimes what seems like a complete writing block can be dispelled by a simple solution, in this case structural.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Astral Travel 'Best of Best 2020 Reads' on The Wormhole

I'm delighted that on her popular blog The Wormhole, Charlie Place (pictured) includes Astral Travel in her 'Best of Best' reads of 2020, and that in another blog post, for her December reading, she calls it 'superb'. She says it's 'probably the best book about child abuse I've read', which gave me a little weird twitch, since I don't regard it as a book about child abuse - but then that's the interesting thing about books, that readers make of a book what they will. Once you've written a book and it's out there, it's no longer yours really, but theirs. Indeed, that's the magic of reading that first set me on this route when I was a child... 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Another nice review to offset another lockdown

Second day of a new lockdown predicted to last for several months! I hadn't realised quite how flattened I was feeling by this turn of events until I switched on my phone this morning to discover this really great review from Susan Osborne on A Life in Books. Instantly the whole world around me seemed brighter, the air softer, the day ahead more shaped and purposeful, and my body lighter and lither. (Just shows how even mild dejection can affect you physically.)

The story and structure of Astral Travel are quite complex - although I don't think it reads as difficult at all! There are stories within stories, and layers and meanings which remain hidden for much of the novel, emerging only later. I think it's therefore probably quite difficult to write about without either misrepresenting it or giving the game away, but if you want to know precisely what Astral Travel is about, then this review does it beautifully. (There really is an art to book reviewing.) Plus Susan Osborne calls the novel 'immersive' and 'deeply engrossing' and 'a fine novel, written with skill and empathy'!

You can read the whole review here