The average person walks at a rate of three miles an hour. But none of us is the average person. The time we take to walk from A to B varies with our general fitness, the length of our stride and our eagerness to reach our destination. The contours of the land, the smoothness of the path and even the weather also impact on our journey times. Diligent planners will take these factors into account when embarking on a country walk, but even pantsers can make judicious use of the three-miles-an-hour rule in knowing we can’t cover in a day a distance that would take the average person a week.
These three novels featuring three fictional celebrities take us from the leader of an anti-establishment artists’ movement in 1930s Australia, to an Arab-Berber boxer in colonial Algeria and to a Nigerian musician and political activist in late 20th-century Kenya. Each illustrates the intertwining of social and psychological issues, and the costs and compromises of fame.
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Version One Laura Barnett is obsessed by the image of a woman on a bicycle swerving to avoid hitting a dog, watched over by a young man casually walking down a lane. Eva and Jim are nineteen, students at Cambridge in 1958, she studying English and he law. Laura has some idea about their backgrounds – Eva the daughter of Jewish musicians who fled Austria in 1938; Jim the son of a now-deceased famous painter and an unstable mother – but she can’t make up her mind where to take them next. So she writes three different versions of their story, falling in love with each such that she can’t bear to discard any one of them. So she puts all three in the same novel.
Version Two Laura Barnett likes romance, but she’s a bit suspicious of the happy-ever-after premise. Although still young herself, she doesn’t agree that later-life get-togethers are somehow inferior to younger couplings. She sets herself the task of writing a novel that will follow the same two characters across their entire adult lives through three different versions of their story: one in which they marry young and two in which they don’t, Eva instead marrying her original boyfriend, the narcissistic actor, David. In these latter two, Eva and Jim’s paths cross intermittently, in one version resulting in an extramarital affair, another in which they recognise their mutual attraction but, either through circumstances or restraint, they remain loyal to their other partners.
Fifteen-year-old Jules is taken in by the cool kids at the arty Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp, or perhaps, this being the early 70s they’d be the trendy set. (Don’t ask me, I only lived through that period.) Whatever (which they definitely didn’t say back then, or certainly not in a flippant way), they are so in love with irony they adopt the name “the interestings”, not registering that even their irony can be ironic. The camp is idyllic, indulging the teenagers to believe in their talent. Jules, from a small town with small-town ambitions, still grieving her father’s death less than a year before, leaves convinced she can make it as an actor (or would it have been an actress back then?).
I’ve recently dispatched the acknowledgements page to my publisher for my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, in which I’m intending to thank my therapist. Given that I've decided not to name her, to protect the boundaries of our relationship, there might seem little point. Yet I couldn’t exclude someone who, despite not having read a word of the text, has made a significant contribution to the novel by safeguarding my sanity through the long process of writing and preparing for publication. Nevertheless, I do have some anxieties about flag-waving this contribution so blatantly, when it is my impression that the writing world is, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, hostile towards psychotherapy.
It’s well over a year since a book of psychoanalytic case studies made the longlist for the Guardian first book award (even if, sadly, it didn’t progress any further). Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life reads like a short story collection, with lots to satisfy those attracted to serious fiction. Yet, only the week before the longlist was published, the same newspaper featured Charlotte Mendelson’s contribution to the Twitter fiction challenge, a neat cameo that works on the premise that therapy takes away one’s well-being. It seems a shame that many writers should share society’s unease about therapy when there’s so much overlap between the two endeavours.
She knows it’s futile to try to explain what’s going on inside her – she can’t even explain it to herself – so she makes no more reference to it, focusing instead on giving the best impression of herself she can.
One of the most painful aspects of mental distress and disorder can be the inability of other people to acknowledge the lived experience, the need to cover up for their sake an additional strain on an already fragile psyche. So no wonder Grace is relieved when her husband, Gordon, leaves her alone on their narrow-boat home to go on a fishing trip with a friend. A couple of days earlier Grace saw what she took to be the ghost of her deceased first husband, Pete, her deepest and most disturbing love. Gordon, fearing a repeat of the breakdown that had her hospitalised following the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah, wants her to go to the doctor. Grace herself just wants time to revisit the memories of the handsome man who used to beat her, and the daughter who withdrew into the solace of illegal highs.
Struggling to pay the bills, the once-celebrated photographer Rebecca Winter rents out her stylish New York apartment and moves into a dilapidated cottage on the edge of a forest. Divorced from her dreadful husband, bearing the financial burden of her mother’s nursing home care and with a son still struggling to secure his footing on the career ladder, Rebecca feels worlds away from any significant support, as well as from the woman she used to be. Like Tess Lohan in Academy Street, Rebecca tries to make the best of things but, in the early chapters at least, she is beset by a sense of loss and loneliness (p67):
with the peculiar empty feeling that she often had instead of sadness, as though her body knew that it was better to feel nothing at all rather than the something her mother’s playing and her father’s jollity and her fading bank balance evoked.
Blogs, e-books and print-on-demand technology are heralding a new era in publishing, a democratisation in which anyone with access to the Internet may become a publisher or book reviewer. It’s perhaps too soon to tell whether this will be a curse or blessing for readers and writers, but there’s no doubt that we readers and writers live in interesting times. But this is nothing new: revolution and reinvention lie at the foundation of publishing, which makes a novel set in mid-fifteenth century Germany particularly pertinent today.
Peter is unhappy to be called home from Paris to corrupt and feuding Mainz, wrenched by his father from his vocation as a scribe copying sacred texts. He’s unhappier still when apprenticed to the blunt and ambitious Hans Gutenberg in a fetid workshop of hellish furnaces and tedious tasks. His introduction to his master’s mission is unsettling:
Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his heart squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread. (p16-17)
This weekend’s post from Safia Moore at Top of the Tent, on the motif of loss in Seamus Heaney’s life and poetry, reminded me I’d been meaning to do a post of my own on the theme of grief in fiction and those who create it. While, with reviews of twelve novels I’m hoping to publish this month, I might regret it, the first day of September with autumn creeping upon us seems a good time to revisit my notes and transform them into a proper post.
My first post last month was a review of a novel about a family trying to come to terms with the death of a child. Its author, Carys Bray, told me that her own experience of losing a child, albeit in different circumstances, had contributed to her interest in grief and its effects on people. Unresolved grief was the trigger for Janet Watson’s memoir of her adolescence, Nothing Ever Happens in Wentworth. Yet, for many of us, the relationship between grief and loss in our own lives and on the page is less transparent.
I’m ambivalent about school. On a personal level, I achieved good outcomes from my long ago schooldays, but this was more by dint of my capacity for obedience than any genuine nurturing of my intellect and creativity. (I’m always pleasantly surprised when children these days claim to enjoy school.) On a political level, the view that mass education can be used to weaken working-class culture sits alongside the genuine enthusiasm for learning I’ve witnessed in places where a school place can’t be taken for granted.
How does this translate into my reading and writing? As a child, I lapped up Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, although the settings were worlds away from my own experience. The junior equivalent of the country-house genre, St Clare’s, Malory Towers and the like served merely as the backdrop for schoolgirl adventures. And that’s the thing with school stories, the experience is so near universal, it’s difficult to untangle the school aspect from the fact of being a child. When I wrote my bite-size memoir, School at Seven, it was more about friendship betrayed than education. Of my short fiction, school provides the setting for the hormone-heavy story of adolescence, Kinky Norm, and frames the parent-child conflict in both Jessica’s Navel and Elementary Mechanics. The epistolary Bathroom Suite is more about inequality than school refusal.
I had an encouraging response to the musical link I included in my recent post on water-themed fiction. I used to provide a musical accompaniment to my posts quite frequently – up until the beginning of this year I was actively populating my Google+ page with a YouTube link to each blog post – but somehow I'd lost the habit. The latest flash fiction challenge from Charli Mills seems a timely reminder to re-establish the link between music and words.
I’ve published a couple of short stories on a musical theme: there’s my flash Getting It Together with Elvis; my short stories Melanie’s Last Tune about a narcissistic music teacher and The Invention of Harmony about a mediaeval nun’s fear of her own creativity. So it didn’t take me long to come up with an idea for the required 99 words. I’m pairing this with the march from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, although anything that sparks different reactions would do:
Oh, Professor Lodge, if only you’d named this novel A Narcissist’s Diary or perhaps Tubby’s Dodgy Knee. But Therapy! The title’s crying out for a place in this series, and you know what that means. Yes, I had to read the thing, and think about it, and I so hate doing negative reviews (and I am doing so only in the knowledge that you are big enough to take it/be totally unaware that I live and breathe on this earth). Yes, I could’ve bailed out when I realised your title encompasses a broad church of therapy: physiotherapy; aromatherapy; acupuncture and a rambling form of cognitive-behaviour therapy for which the dreadful manualised Improving Access to Psychological Therapies might have been especially invented – but I’d already paid for the book.
I hardly cared that your narrator’s bungled attempt to clarify the difference between a psychiatrist and a cognitive-behaviour therapist (p15) had me longing to introduce you to Sally Vickers, whose novel, The Other Side of You, featured my last therapist but one. In fact it was almost a relief to be jolted out of my stupor by the subsequent revelation (p212) that said cognitive-behavioural therapist was licensed to prescribe antidepressant medication, outing her as a psychiatrist (or some other kind of medical doctor) after all. Yet I’d have gladly renounced my pedantry in exchange for a spark of connection with character or story to lift me above the morass of ennui.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional with mutterings about reading and writing seasoned with psychology.
Annecdotist is the persona through whom I navigate that in-between space. When not roaming the blogosphere, I'm reading or writing, tramping the moors, battling the slugs in my vegetable plot or struggling to sing.
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Sugar and Snails on 2016 shortlist
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