Monday, November 15, 2021

Giveaway for Astral Travel's first birthday.

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

UK only. Ends 22.11.2021. Winners selected at random.

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

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

Friday, November 05, 2021

Reading group: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Warning: plot spoil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Reading group: There There by Tommy Orange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Katie!

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

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A surprise

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

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

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Reading group: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

An outing to the Brontes

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

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

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

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

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