It had been a great night at the Polari salon in Nottingham, and the audience was waiting for the final performer to take the stage, when a woman bounded from the back of the room. Scowl framed by the hood of her black anorak, and ignoring the compere’s insistence that she wasn’t on the programme, Barbara Brownskirt barked out a series of poems from her numerous unpublished collections about, among other things, her unrequited love for Judi Dench. She was scary. She was hilarious. She was – and still is – the unsuccessful lesbian Poet-in-Residence at the 197 bus stop, Penge, and the brilliant creation of writer and performer Karen McLeod.
I decided to pair these novels after reading blurbs suggesting both were about young women adapting to significant losses: the mother’s disappearance in Swimming Lessons and a close friend’s suicide in Our Magic Hour. But, on reading the latter, I felt the main character’s issues predated that particular tragedy, originating with a highly ambivalent mother in a difficult marriage. Unfortunately for the character, but very accommodating for my reading and blogging schedule, the same applies to the first novel. I hope one or both of these will appeal but, if not, you’ll find several other posts and reviews on the theme of family dynamics if you follow the link.
Among Saturday’s headlines, we learn that a middle-aged man is involved in a loving relationship. That’s news? Sadly, it is, when the man is a middle manager (a.k.a. a bishop) in the Church of England and the object of his affection is another man. It’s already feeling too much information when I’m told he’s unmarried and celibate. Oh, so he’s invisibly gay? Cue big sigh of relief?
As I’m not a member of the church, and have no desire to become one – although I’ve never been known to forgo the opportunity to sing praises to the guy-in-the-sky in one of their magnificent buildings – perhaps it’s not my business. Except that this hypocritical organisation has a stake, through seats in the House of Lords, in governing my country. Wouldn’t it be nice, until such time as they are abolished, if they adhered to the laws of the land and basic human rights that permit same-sex marriage (an institution the church tends to be particularly fond of) and physical expression of love? But it seems they’d rather avoid a split from their branches overseas (including those countries in which homophobia is sanctioned by the state) than take the moral stance they’d like to claim is theirs.
As someone who’s drawn to subtle stories with complex characters and hates being bludgeoned with being told what to think and feel, I shouldn’t be surprised that there are times when my expectations aren’t met by the book in my hands and I’m tempted to give up. Usually I try to unravel why it didn’t work for me, with the aim of both getting a stronger sense of what I like and don’t like, and what I can learn from this for my own writing. But sometimes I feel quite disorientated by my bafflement, by my lack of connection with the author’s words. If I’ve been unlucky – or chosen unwisely – and experienced a string of disconnections, I can feel quite low. The activity that has always been my refuge becomes a claustrum. It’s like being internally homeless or losing a good friend. (Or finding your compatriots have voted overwhelmingly for xenophobia, which still has me reeling almost a week on.)
It’s almost a year until my second novel, Underneath, is published. As it starts with looking around a house, I had it in mind when I posted my guest prompt over at the Carrot Ranch recently. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this would herald a theme cutting across much of my reading and reviews, from Nolan’s work on a building site in Journeyman, to an updated Wildfell in The Woman Who Ran, to the isolated manor house in The Sacred Combe, a large house in Nigeria in This House is not For Sale, a farmhouse in upstate New York which has been bought on the cheap in All Things Cease to Appear and an entire street in Prosperity Drive. Now I’m adding to that list with a novel about a former show house on an unfinished Irish housing estate from which, one by one, all four members of a family disappear and another about the strange children who come to live in an isolated mansion.
The coincidence of Charli Mills’s latest post on the loss of a secure base with the buzz about the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth later this month (more on both later in this post) reminded me of this piece on fear as a motivator that has languished in my drafts folder for well over a year.
I’m a great fan of Emma Darwin’s posts on writing because, while they’re stuffed with useful advice, she never pretends there’s a simple formula (or two or three or two hundred and three) to make our novels novel and our sentences sing. That’s not the case in some other corners of the creative writing industry. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m particularly hacked off by an implicit assumption that the classic quest underlies each and every story structure: we just have to decide what our hero wants and thwart him in his journey to find it. While I can see how that works for some fiction, lots of the novels I read and love don’t go down that route. On top of that, human motivation is a complex construct: some people genuinely don’t know what they want and some are far too passive to follow their dreams. Some are constrained by circumstances or demons from the past and some characters sabotage their own desires.
I could point out that a difficult childhood is not uncommon but, in my head, I’m already somewhere else. It won’t make me feel any better to correct his misapprehension. I concentrate on making the right non-verbals and wait for my discomfort to pass.
Out walking at the weekend, the latest post from Charli Mills was preying on my mind. She’s writing about feeling lost, and challenging us to write a 99-word story on the subject. I can do that, I think. Despite being trained in navigation, I often get lost out on the hills. But there’s another kind of lost that’s more than geographical; as a psychologist and writer, I’m interested in lost as a state of mind.
I set out on Sunday in territory less familiar than my usual stomping ground, only intermittently checking my progress against the map. Avoiding a crowd of noisy cattle, I plunged through shoulder-high bracken, soaking my trousers with the residue of the previous day’s rain. I headed for a path I thought I recognised only to realise, ten minutes later, the rest of the topography didn’t fit. But I pressed on, seesawing between anxiety and excitement. I love discovering new corners of the landscape, finding enormous satisfaction in the moment when the strange intersects with the known. But there’s an edge of concern that I’ll delve too far into unknown territory, that I won’t make it back to base in time.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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