One of the pleasures of the physical book, as opposed to ebooks, is the value it confers beyond the words within it. Many of us find, despite potential minimalist inclinations, there are books we don’t want to let go of. Part of the pleasure of the book is to look at it.
I’m proud to be taking the reins this week at the Carrot Ranch, with a flash fiction prompt on showing someone around a property. My theme arose partly from the open weekend at North Lees Hall, which attracted over a thousand visitors across the two days. Although I got rather chilled standing in the doorway trying to steer a one-way system on the two sets of stairs, it was great fun. For those who couldn’t make it to Derbyshire, here’s a virtual tour of the house, both inside and out.
Did you notice the p-word in my opening sentence? Did it make you wince? If so, I hope I can persuade you that, not only is the adjective perfectly apt for the purpose, you should lay claim to it yourself.
As Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and the Gothic, so today’s the day to share a couple of my recent reads to have you scared to go to bed.
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
It’s publication week for Sugar and Snails and I’m breathless with excitement. The buzz is building with two reviews already (from Victoria Best and from Stephanie Burton) and some lovely tweets from early readers at #SugarandSnails. Now, thanks mainly to the generous response to my request for hosts, I’ve made two excursions to other blogs (firstly, to Shiny New Books to share my thoughts on writing about secrets, the false self and insecure identities; secondly to Isabel Costello’s literary sofa to discuss the pleasures of small-press publication), and my case is packed ready to depart on the blog tour proper.
Kate Hamer’s debut novel reminds me of a conversation a friend had with her pre-teen daughter after a relative’s baby had died. “It’s the worst thing imaginable to lose a child,” said my friend. “No,” insisted her daughter. “It’s much much worse to lose a parent.” The Girl in the Red Coat doesn’t ask us to choose: it explores the nightmare scenario of a child going missing from the perspectives of both the mother and the girl.
Carmel Wakeford is eight when she becomes separated from her mother at a children’s storytelling festival (at which I think I detected a cameo role for the doyenne of children’s fiction, Jacqueline Wilson). A man who claims to be her estranged grandfather tells her her mother has been taken to hospital after an accident and that he’ll look after her now. A few days later, he gives her the devastating news that her mother is dead and her father wants her to remain with her grandfather. She’s taken to America to a new life on the fringes of society, moving between evangelical churches, where Carmel’s supposed “healing hands” are much in demand.
A man who’s always been suspicious of computers goes to buy an iPad. Unfortunately, he’s also highly suspicious of people, especially the white-shirts who seem intent to frustrate him with paperwork. The ensuing argument almost has him evicted from the shop. Meet Ove: a crotchety old geezer who’s thwarted every way he turns. He can’t even be left in peace to end his own life.
I’m always intrigued when a novel worms its way so deeply under my skin I start behaving like the main character. So what if this was a million-copy bestseller, I wasn’t going to trust a writer who reckons the first thing I need to know is the age of his main character (fifty-nine), closely followed by the kind of car he drives (a Saab). To hell with the respectful approach I’d outlined in my post on my reading for reviews, this one was going to be a meditation on the minutiae of getting it wrong. Never mind that, in going to test drive a new car (not a Saab) recently, my husband and I found ourselves embroiled in a disagreement similar to the one Ove engenders in the computer shop. My grumpiness was nothing to do with me, or even the fact that I was reading the novel while still enraged about the result of the recent election.
Ivo lies in bed in a hospice, part of him, at only forty, unable to accept that he’s there. His favourite nurse, Sheila, suggests he play a game to keep his mind occupied: composing an A-Z of body parts, each linked to a tale about his life. He addresses these to an initially unnamed other – using as a form of the second-person point of view I’ve discussed in a previous post – who turns out to be his girlfriend, Mia, now sorely missed.
Ivo was born into a loving family but, after his father died when he was only six, he’s always had difficulty avoiding the influence of the wrong kind of friends. An insulin-dependent diabetic from his late teens, like some other young people with the condition, he doesn’t always attend sufficiently to his self-care. On top of this, there’s Malachy, his best friend from school and his elder sister’s partner, tempting him to sample a cornucopia of drug-fuelled highs. As Ivo’s condition worsens, and the hospice staff recommend morphine for the management of this pain, he becomes increasingly anxious about the prospect of a visit from Malachy from whom he’s become estranged.
Today’s the day that the internet is going to zing with antidotes to the mammoth cruelty and indifference to suffering that exists in this world. The 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogathon, launched by Yvonne Spence just over a month ago, has rocketed through the airwaves (or do I mean fibre-optic cables?), enthusing a galaxy of bloggers and tweeters to join in. As a warmup, Charli Mills compiled a virtual anthology of the Carrot Ranchers’ compassion-themed 99-word stories. Mine focused on compassion within marriage (after all, it was Valentine’s Day when I posted) and the self-compassion that’s needed for compassion for others to thrive. My contribution to the 1000 Voices is to elaborate the ideas behind that flash.
It might seem contradictory to focus on the self when the genesis of this movement was to combat the despair at an apparent lack of compassion for others. Yet one of the examples that Charli gave in her post introducing the compassion prompt made me think about how people can find compassion for others difficult because they haven’t experienced sufficient compassion themselves. Even if compassion doesn’t require them to do anything, it might feel too big a burden to take on, especially if they’ve been shackled with caring for others when they were desperately in need of care themselves.
Seven-year-old Millie has been studying Dead Things since the death of her dog, Rambo. Number twenty-eight on her list takes up two pages of her exercise book: MY DAD. Still, at least she’s got her mum, until even she leaves her to wait beside the Ginormous Women’s Underwear stand at the department store and doesn’t come back. Eighty-seven-year-old Karl, who once typed love letters with his fingers on his deceased wife’s skin, has fled the old people’s home to fulfil their shared dream of camping out in the department store overnight. Eighty-two-year-old Agatha has not left her house since the death of her husband seven years before, her days following a strict timetable which includes analysing her aged body and writing angry letters of complaint. When the three meet up, they embark on a road and rail trip across Australia in search of Millie’s mum.
I was a little disturbed by this novel, not so much in respect of the unsettling subject matter, but in the way that subject was handled. I’ve wondered how much of that is me, and how much the writer, and have come to the unbiased or sitting-on-the-fence conclusion (depending on the way you choose to look at it) that it’s a bit of both. It raises a question I’ve considered before on Annecdotal, especially in my review of Jemma Wayne’s After Before, as to whether a novel is weakened by drawing parallels between extreme and milder transgressions or acts of injustice. It also forces me to confront the limits of my openness as a reader to alternative treatments of controversial issues.
Bernadine Bishop, who died in 2013, has an interesting history: the youngest witness in the Lady Chatterley trial, she published two novels in her twenties, taught for ten years in a London comprehensive, before retraining as a psychotherapist. On retirement in 2010, she returned to writing fiction, with her first later novel, Unexpected Lessons in Love, which drew on her experience as a mother undergoing cancer treatment, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2013. If you’ve followed my series on fictional therapists, you’ll appreciate that I was intrigued when I read that Hidden Knowledge stems from her experience as a therapist.
What can I say to attract you to a novel that starts and ends with a funeral and mines a deep well of sadness in between? Academy Street is one of the most honest and heart-breaking accounts of fictional grief I’ve come across, as well as one of the most beautifully written.
Tess Lohan is marvelling at a blackbird that has flown in through the window to peck at the wallpaper in the family farmhouse as a coffin is carried downstairs. Seven-year-old Tess finds herself intermittently forgetting that her mother has died, that she won’t be able to run and tell her what she’s observed.
We stay with Tess over the next six decades as she follows her sister to boarding school, moves to Dublin to train as a nurse and then to New York to spend the bulk of her life on Academy Street until, echoing the opening chapters, she returns to her beloved Easterfield for the funeral of her elder brother. Tess finds moments of intense joy in the little things, but she’s often lonely: her deepest loves are ephemeral, her losses profound*. Like Dear Thief, Academy Street addresses the pain of attachments, whether it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
The delivery room is the moniker Mira Braverman‘s husband, Peter, ascribes to the office in their North London flat from which she operates her psychotherapy practice. Over a period of just over a year, the reader bears vicarious witness to the trials and tribulations of her patients while Mira struggles to prevent her own pain intruding upon the therapeutic hour.
This is a beautiful novel about what it is to be human: about birth and death; grief and yearning; and the boundaries between public and private. It’s about conflict, from minor misunderstandings to the fragmentation of nations and all-out war. It’s about national identity, about insiders and outsiders and the risks entailed in genuinely getting to know another human being. Like therapy itself, it’s a gentle novel woven with textured detail, absorbing and gripping while proceeding patiently, eschewing formulaic tropes and attention-grabbing gimmicks, towards some deeper truth.
The narrative progresses from multiple points of view. Although, at least initially, I balked at the head hopping, it’s successful in both adding layers of nuance to the story and in highlighting one of the most interesting aspects of the therapeutic relationship. Each of Mira’s patients meets a plump woman in late middle age with an Eastern European accent, but what they make of this varies with their own personalities and needs. One perceives her as maternal; another sees a Russian or Czech intellectual; the one who comes closest to seeing her as she really is snipes at her for being a Serbian at the time of the Balkan conflict. Yet there’s a touch of humour in their different assumptions about the abstract painting hanging on her wall.
With Alzheimer’s research in the news again lately, I thought I’d better knuckle down to my much foreshadowed post on literary dementia. For readers and writers who are wary of fictional old age, the spectre of dementia might seem a definite no-no. Yet there’s so much potential in the condition for creative exploration and expression: the poignancy of loss; the enigma of memory and identity; the frustrations experienced by family and other carers; even, for those who can achieve the right tone without denigration, humour. So it’s heartening to discover young women writers who are addressing these themes in their debut novels: Emma Healey in the UK with Elizabeth Is Missing, and Fiona McFarlane in Australia with The Night Guest. I thought I’d draw on those novels, along with two less recent novels from more established writers, Getting Away With It by Julie Cohen and Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff, to explore fictional representations of dementia.
Dementia as mystery
One of the tragedies of dementia is the way in which the ordinary is rendered unfamiliar. Names of people and everyday objects are forgotten; life becomes a mystery to be solved. This aspect of the condition is beautifully played out in Elizabeth Is Missing in which eighty-one-year-old Maud attempts to resolve the dual mysteries of the sudden absence of her good friend, Elizabeth, as well as the disappearance of her elder sister in her 1940s childhood. Maud, like a true detective, tells us how she tries
to be systematic, […] to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. But I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered. I’ve phoned and there’s no answer. I haven’t seen her. I think. She hasn’t been here and I haven’t been there. What next? I suppose I should go to the house. Search for clues. And whatever I find I will write it down. I must put pens into my handbag now. The thing is to be systematic. I’ve written that down too. (p22)
The Night Guest also starts with a mystery: Ruth, a seventy-five-year-old widow living alone in a house by the sea, is woken at four in the morning by the noise of a tiger in the next room:
Something large was rubbing against Ruth’s couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with huge noses. (p1)
Dementia is also something of a mystery for those who witness the decline in a relative, as explored by a son trying to care for his mother in Scar Tissue:
When I could think about anything at all, I thought that the simplest facts about what had happened would never be clear: when her illness commenced, when she was first aware of it, whether the manner in which she had struggled with it delayed or altered its course in any way; whether the manner in which we cared for her and fought to keep her aware of her surroundings helped to slow its passage through her brain; whether it was an illness of memory or an illness of selfhood. Simple explanations will not do. They fail to accord her the necessary respect. (p170)
In their confusion, decreased competence and need for extra assistance with navigating the tasks of daily life, dementia sufferers might sometimes seem like children. This can cause frustration in relatives as in these two quotes from characters in Getting Away With It:
‘Sounds monstrous, doesn’t it? But it’s maddening, an adult acting like a child. And it isn’t like normal illness, because they won’t get better …’
‘If she were whole, herself, I could argue with her … I want her to be herself again so I can be angry with her properly …’ (p368)
Memories of the distant past are often sharper than those of more recent events, so it makes sense that Maud, in Elizabeth Is Missing, should return to an unresolved issue from her childhood. In The Night Guest, Ruth’s experience of the tiger prowling her lounge is reminiscent of a child’s conjuring of fairies, monsters or an imaginary friend. Unfortunately, her childlike innocence leaves her ripe for exploitation.
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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