Terry is an experienced primary school teacher, popular with pupils, parents and the rest of the staff. But Laurie, the new acting principal, bristles at his intuitive laid-back style. As a much younger woman in a senior position, she’s conscious of the need to assert her authority right from the start; unfortunately, her approach rubs everyone up the wrong way. Alarm bells start to ring when she catches sight of Terry at a student’s house in the evening, contrary to child safeguarding policies.
Let me introduce you to two novels by established female authors about young people struck down by serious illness, set in the social context of the British National Health Service, the first in its contemporary incarnation and the second at its inception.
It’s UK publication day for two debut novels taking a look back at 1960s in the USA, with an emphasis (at least in my reading) on the subjugation of women. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and John Murray for my review copies.
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
Over half a century ago, the social scientist and psychoanalyst, Isabel Menzies Lyth was commissioned to carry out an investigation into why so many promising nursing students were dropping out of training. What she discovered makes edifying reading for anyone using, or employed within, the human services or, indeed, any organisation at all. Despite the best intentions of all the staff, the social systems that had evolved within the hospital were like a spanner in the works, functioning against the primary task of healing the sick. Many highly motivated students, despairing at the impossibility of delivering compassionate care, simply left. Yet this human wastage was built into a system that relied on a high volume of low-paid students to deliver patient care, without having sufficient posts for them to move on to on qualification. Although the work is radically different, I’ve wondered for some time whether there’s a similar redundancy built into the creative writing industry, encouraging the dreams of far more budding writers than there are slots in the publishers’ lists.
With three high-profile husbands and two serious relationships with female colleagues, the life of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, seems to have been as original as her research endeavours. While criticised as both a woman in a man’s world and a populariser of social science, as well as her findings on the sexual freedoms of Samoan society being subject to challenge, she remains – according to my totally unscientific survey of one – the best-known anthropologist of all time. In Euphoria, Lily King brings her vividly to life in this fictionalised account of a woman with a very similar history to Mead’s during a period of fieldwork along New Guinea’s Sepik river in 1933.
Nell and her husband Fen – malarial, injured and dejected after five months with the dreadful Mumbanyo tribe, she in particular despairing at their neglect and mistreatment of babies – are about to return to Australia when Bankson, another anthropologist based on Mead’s third husband, Gregory Bateson, familiar to me through the double-blind theory, persuades them to reconsider.
Back in the day when I worked with people who had psychotic experiences, it could be something of a challenge to distinguish fact from fiction in the stories they told me about their lives. Now and then I’d find myself wondering what if their seemingly incredible account were actually true?
I was reminded of this on reading the latest novel for the Curtis Brown Book Group. Steven Strauss, twenty-something PA to the charismatic (and now deposed) founder of Resolute Aviation, Raymond Ess, is on a business trip to India with his boss. Since the company’s decline due to the collapse of a prestigious deal, Ess has been on sabbatical, or possibly sick leave. Returning to work with renewed vigour, Ess has a grandiose plan to rescue the company through the purchase of a remarkable invention he came across by chance when lost in rural India. Of course Steven doesn’t believe in the antigravity machine, but he’s persuaded to accompany his boss on his quest to find it in order to keep Ess out of the way while Resolute Aviation goes into receivership. What happens makes Steven – and we, the readers – question the boundary between madness and sanity. In the absence of gravity, what would keep us grounded to the real?
A couple of years ago, I published a post on the four criteria that make one a writer. Although I can appreciate the differing perspectives offered in the comments, I’m still happy with my description of a writer as someone who edits their work; understands the “rules” (although doesn’t necessarily follow them); has served their time; and has attracted readers beyond their immediate friends and family. Conveniently, this definition of a writer enabled me to claim the title for myself.
I didn’t really consider the word “author”, and certainly not as a stand-alone title (as opposed to “author of” such-and-such a work), until I joined The Society of Authors last summer. Even then, it was because I needed advice on my publishing contract rather than to club together with other “authors” – such an old-fashioned term, I thought, that ought to be abandoned in the way that “artists” have now rebranded themselves as “painters”. That changed when, last month, I attended an event on working with the media, led by the award-winning former BBC TV reporter, Alistair Macdonald.
Sergio Scorpioni is the president of Vallerosa, a tiny land-locked country of rich red earth and steep ravines. With polling day imminent, Sergio is nervous, despite the fact that, in an elected dictatorship in which every job from postman to government minister is passed from father to son, his re-election is more or less confirmed.
Lizzie Holmesworth is a well-meaning middle-class British student, keen to undertake some voluntary work with those less fortunate than herself as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. Arriving in Vallerosa on the overnight freight train – the country’s primary communication channel with the rest of Europe – Lizzie is overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings and the warmth of her welcome. What she doesn’t realise until much later is that the letter that preceded her, mentioning the Duke of Edinburgh’s award and bearing the image of Queen Elizabeth II on its stamp, has led them to expect a royal visitor who will endorse the government’s legitimately at this uncertain time. Reluctantly, she agrees to the president’s request that she continue with the pretence although, the more she learns about the country, the more she’s taken with the peacefulness of the lifestyle and the less she feels she has to offer.
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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