Sofia and her mother, Rose, are spending the summer of 2015 in Almería. Although Sofia spends the day on the beach, this is no holiday. For much of Sofia’s life, certainly from the age of five when her Greek father moved on, Rose has suffered from a mysterious illness which renders her intermittently unable to walk. They have remortgaged Rose’s house in London and come to Spain in search of a cure at the unconventional Gómez Clinic.
I started this blog in 2013 to share my reflections on reading, writing and psychology, along with my journey to become a published novelist. I soon graduated to about twenty book reviews a month and a weekly 99-word story. Ten years later, I've transferred my writing / publication updates to my new website but will continue here with occasional reviews and flash fiction pieces, and maybe the odd personal post.
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.
Lost: the pleasures and terrors
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.
Acclaimed Israeli politician, Baruch Kotler has betrayed his wife and children in (a seemingly chaste) affair with a young woman. Never one to compromise, when he is threatened with exposure if he continues his stand against the government’s decision to forcibly withdraw Jewish settlers from the occupied territories, he flees the country and ensuing scandal along with his lover, Leora. Russian by birth, Kotler’s nostalgia for an idyllic childhood holiday, takes them to the Black Sea resort of Yalta in the Crimea. Against all odds, they pitch up at the home of Chiam Tankilevich, Kotler’s former friend who betrayed him to the KGB and thirteen years in the gulag forty years before.
I’m sitting on Isabel Costello’s literary sofa today, sharing my experience of being published by a small independent press. So who better to keep my seat warm while I’m away than Teika Bellamy, writer, artist, publisher and founder of another small press, Mother’s Milk Books? Over to you, Teika.
When I became a mother to my firstborn eight years ago, I found it to be a joyful, yet overwhelming time. I was inundated with conflicting advice from health professionals and received very few words of support. I can still clearly remember the sharp reply I received when I asked a nurse for a glass of water: ‘You’ve got a new baby now. You’d better get up and start looking after yourself.’ So I struggled out of bed with my newborn and, weak due to the post-partum haemorrhage and perineal tearing I’d just suffered with, I shuffled down the corridor and somehow managed to extract a cup’s worth of water out of the water cooler. (A difficult task when it requires two hands, you’re holding a baby and it feels like your groin might fall out of your body at any moment!)
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.
It’s 1925 and one can’t help wondering (worrying) how such a sweet ten-year-old as Teddy, entranced more by nature than the prospect of wielding a catapult, will cope with boarding school, let alone the war that neither he, nor the adults around him, could possibly foresee. Yet I didn’t feel totally engaged with him and his family until introduced to his dreadful daughter, Viola, with her half-baked hippy ideals (that are as much an opportunity to spout one of the longest words in the English language – anti-establishmentarianism – as to challenge her father). But since this is a novel in which time is not linear, but moves back and forth across the years, I didn’t have too long to wait.
Delightful as Viola’s character is, her shallow idealism is hardly original (see my review of Love and Fallout for another young woman who embraces a cause as a means of forging her own identity), but Kate Atkinson is too proficient a writer to leave it at that. Viola has much more in common with the pre-war version of her father than she realises (when he roamed through Europe working on the land), and a stronger rationale for her angry sense of victimhood than the reader appreciates, until approaching the end.
Quirky women on the attachments that formed them: Lillian on Life and The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
Novels of character often address the question of how our experiences define us. In The Lives of Women, Elaine was shaped by the tragedy that brought her childhood to an abrupt end. Lillian, another middle-aged woman subjecting her life to an unflinching review, sees herself through a succession of lovers and, to a lesser extent, her parents’ marriage and the constraints or otherwise of social class. Living through the postwar decades of change in Missouri, Munich, Paris, London and New York, Lillian presents at first as witty and unconventional, as bold and independent as a single woman can be in a world where the apotheosis of achievement is to work as PA to the (male) head of the organisation (and never mind too much about what the business of that organisation might be).
In her late 50s, Lillian refuses to be held back by the embarrassments of her ageing body; all she needs is a pot of KY Jelly strategically placed at the bedside and she can continue to welcome her married lover into her home. She might have been a late starter sexually, but she soon caught up, learning how to adapt herself to a man’s desires, “pretending not to notice … [being] the key to so much” (p142). Even as she acknowledges her disappointments, she has no room for self-pity (p152):
I think I, ah, sort of lost my mind this year?
Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Yeah, he says finally. I think a lot of women go through that.
What, abandon their dissertations?
Lose their minds. Having a kid.
It’s a year now since Walker was born, and Ari is still struggling. Most days, the baby goes to a childminder so she can go through the motions of working on her dissertation, about how feminist organisations implode (p46) and even her supervisor is beginning to see through the façade (p22):
There’s a curt email from Marianne about the dissertation. How is the thinking coming?
… Does Marianne actually think I’m working on my dissertation? Does she think I give a flying fuck about my dissertation? It’s all I can do to bathe occasionally, keep the house reasonably tidy, feed us, launder, get some sleep …
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.
9 Fictional psychologists and psychological therapists: 8. By Blood by Ellen Ullman
Who can say they’ve never dreamt of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the intimate exchanges between people who don’t even know we exist? Such an opportunity presents itself to the unnamed narrator of this unusual and multi-layered novel when he rents a room in an office block right next to a psychotherapist in 1974 San Francisco. A troubled, and troubling, university professor on enforced leave from his post, and veteran of decades of unsuccessful therapies, he is obsessively drawn to the unfolding story of the young woman to whom he refers as “my patient”. Adopted as a baby, her journey to discover the identity of her birth mother takes her, via Israel, from affluent 1930s Berlin to the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. As a reader, I also became engrossed in her tragic story but, in keeping with the parameters I’ve set myself in this series of reviews, I’ll now turn my attention away from the content to the process of its telling, packaged as it is within a series of therapeutic encounters over the course of around sixteen months.
This was one of the most credible fictional accounts of psychotherapy I’ve discovered so far. Alongside the mind-blowing personal discoveries, were the sulks and silences, the tedium, the long hard graft for both patient and therapist in their search for the truth. While some might find the fly-on-the-wall approach introduces an unnecessary distancing from the patient’s narrative, it works well as a way of exploring the process and rituals of therapy. His observations, such as this on the Christmas break:
For most of my 20s I lived with a man who had spent his early years in a village in Punjab. His father, despite being permanently settled in the UK and not having a huge amount of surplus cash, was determined to buy a house with a plot of land for each of his sons “back home”. In his mind, it was worth going without in his current place of residence to invest in the place where his family had lived for generations.
I was reminded of this on reading Johanna Lane’s debut novel, Black Lake. An Indian immigrant might seem worlds away from of a country gentleman in Donegal, yet my ex-boyfriend’s father and Irish patriarch, John Campbell, shared a similar tenacious attachment to their ancestral lands. While one moved thousands of miles away and the other made an uncomfortable compromise to enable him to stay, both their identities were rooted in the soil of their homelands.
What do you understand by the term “a good child”? Does it imply a particular proficiency in getting up to mischief and other childish things? Or does it mean, as for the Saddeq children growing up in Lahore in the new nation of Pakistan, suppressing their own inclinations and desires in favour of their mother’s strict demands? In a divide-a-rule regime reminiscent of the British Raj, the boys, Sully and Jakie, are destined to be doctors, their learning beaten into them by a tutor they nickname, appropriately, Basher, while the girls, Mae and little Lana, hug their mother’s shadow, dressed up like dolls in scratchy frilly dresses unsuitable for the suffocating heat. Until the day they can escape their manipulative mother through marriage for the girls and education abroad for the boys, they have no choice but to comply.
How well-prepared are such good children for their future adult lives? As the novel explores, children who are discouraged from questioning authority might struggle to protect themselves by appropriately saying no. On the surface, the Saddeq offspring are successful: they have careers, relationships, children of their own. But, in different ways, they are still, even in late middle age, the insecure children their mother created, maintaining as wide a distance as they dare from their parents, still scared of their mother when duty calls them “home”. Compulsive helpers, workaholics, conflicted about intimacy; even into old age they continue striving to be good rather than happy.
Writers learn early to be wary of mirrors. It’s painful to have to score through that purple passage eloquently describing our protagonist’s physical appearance from the top of their head to the tips of their toes. When what we took for writerly innovation is revealed to be a cliché; the first time we allow our narrator to look in the mirror, could be the last.
Yet a character who never caught sight of their reflection would be an odd kettle of fish indeed. Plate-glass windows, stainless steel doors: the built environment abounds with reflective surfaces, never mind the mirror above the bathroom sink. Should these be totally out of bounds for writers? Our protagonist’s relationship to mirrors can be useful way of illustrating their character or mood. Are they obsessively drawn to mirrors or avoidant; are they anxiously checking their appearance, or an ordinary woman using lipstick and mascara to compose her outdoor face? Surely it’s the information dump that’s the problem. After all, Elmore Leonard preached against detailed description, not mirrors.
A skilfully employed shiny surface can reflect more than is apparent to the eye. For example, in Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, Frances sees
9 fictional psychologists and psychological therapists: 6. The Good House by Ann Leary
I hadn’t known of this book until I won it in a goodreads giveaway, but what a wonderful freebie it turned out to be. Not only did I find the most endearing alcoholic narrator it’s ever been my pleasure to meet, but another flawed therapist for this series.
Peter Newbold is a psychiatrist. As Salley Vickers makes clear in The Other Side of You, this doesn’t automatically qualify him to practice therapy. I don’t know if Dr Newbold has had the requisite additional training – he’s published a book on attachment issues, so clearly knows about a bit more than diagnosis and drugs – but, if he has, it’s not enough to prevent him blurring the boundaries between his professional and personal lives. I’d like to be able to tell you that his behaviour is unbelievable, but sadly some psychiatrists do feel entitled to play by their own rules, even nice chaps like Peter.
We see Dr Newbold through the eyes of the narrator, Hildy Good; not a patient, but the estate agent from whom he rents his office. Perhaps through having known him as a child, perhaps through her own mistrust of experts on the psyche, Hildy is far from in awe of his profession:
I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. (p1)
In some respects, her own intuition, honed through a party-piece she learned from a “clairvoyant” relative, is more accurate than Peter’s, except, perhaps, as regards her own problems, and, in the final analysis, where it really is a matter of life or death.
The Good House offers the reader a fairly low-key version of a therapist: Dr Newbold is only one of a wide cast of vulnerable characters muddling through as best they can. Just like real life.
For another perspective on this novel, do pop across to A Life in Books. For the next post in this series I’ll be commenting on Therapy by David Lodge.
This being my 99th blog post, I'm delighted to be able to bring something a bit special for my centenary: I'll be answering the questions set for me by Norah Colvin as part of the Liebster award.
I’d welcome your feedback and, in the meantime, let’s have some 'house' music from Talking Heads.
9 fictional psychologists and psychological therapists: 5. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers
The Other Side of You is about an encounter between two people; an encounter that, in different ways, saves both their lives. A serious suicide attempt has brought Elizabeth Cruikshank to the hospital where David McBride works as a psychoanalytically orientated psychiatrist. Shrouded in her despair, David is unable to make any progress with his patient until, recalling a painting by Caravaggio, he acknowledges their mutual stumbling humanity. In the course of a mammoth therapy session, Elizabeth shares her story of the love lost and found and lost again that led to her attempt to take her own life.
4 ways to end a childhood
My fourth author interview brings twelve-year-old Haoua to join the grown-up protagonists of the other debut novels. I don't think Futh will know what to make of her, and Grace – despite the shared experience of prison – could blow hot or cold depending on whether she sees any advantage to herself, but I'm hoping Satish will take her under his wing and indulge her dream of training to be a doctor like him. It would be hopeless of course – her childhood's about to end abruptly – but if she's going to be frozen in time on my website, I'd like to think of her at the start of the novel when, despite the poverty of her Nigerien village, she was happy.
If these four characters ever did want to find some common ground, as well as a common language to discuss it (given that Haoua doesn't speak English), I imagine it would be the painful end of childhood. Haoua's is no doubt the most harrowing and her premature propulsion into the adult role is the primary focus of the novel, but the theme is present in the other novels in my website selection, as well as on my bookshelves. You might argue – and please do – that's because that's what I look for (both Shelley Harris and Charlotte Rogan emphasised in their interviews the contribution of the reader in creating the novel); I'd argue it's because the end of childhood is rife with complications and therefore perfect fodder for fiction.
Traditionally, marriage was the signifier of adulthood for both men and women. In Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, we see how excruciatingly difficult this can be for two educated and intelligent young lovers who have not had the time to learn to live independently of their parents before coming together as a couple. How much harder for Haoua, still a child and grieving for her mother and brother, taken out of school and married against her will to a man too old, too mean, too ugly? It's hard to think of a more abrupt end to childhood. For Grace, in The Lifeboat, marriage also represents the end of childhood but, with more control over her destiny (and no father to make the arrangements), it offers security and escape from dependence on unreliable others.
Futh, the main character of Alison Moore's The Lighthouse, struggles with life. He's stuck in the past, still trying to recreate the memory (and smells) of his mother who left home after a family picnic. Grace's father committed suicide rather than face up to his business losses, abandoning Grace and her sister and mother to potential penury. Poor Haoua loses her mother to AIDS and her supportive older brother to the fighting that follows the presidential assassination. To top it all, the father who ought to be protecting her sells her off in marriage. The abrupt loss of crucial attachment figures brings childhood to an end, but it doesn't usher in adulthood.
Children don't understand morality the way adults do, or think they do: our moral capacity has to develop over time. Childhood can come to a sudden end with the realisation that one's self-interested actions can harm others, as in Ian McEwan's (again) Atonement, or when one is on the receiving end of unbearable hurt and left totally alone. As a recent immigrant to Britain, Satish, the main character of Shelley Harris's novel, was subject to playground teasing and some embarrassment at his family's difference but, until the Jubilee party, it was bearable, part of the rough and tumble of school and street life. But what happened to him there was out of proportion to anything he could have anticipated and, what's more, none of the adults he tried to speak to about it wanted to know. Unable to assimilate the experience, he buried it. Although he became a competent adult in terms of his career and family, the Jubilee party reunion made him behave once again like a child. Part of the difficulty is the shock: the loss of innocence. Even Haoua finds it hard to believe that the world would let her down so badly. And when in the end she may or may not have extracted her revenge on her husband, I like to think that's when, rather like Grace, she's choosing to say goodbye to her miserable childhood even if, as we can see, adulthood isn't going to be much better.
4. Little by little
No mention of adolescence in any of the above, and that's because the stark end of childhood doesn't cater for it. Childish one minute, grown-up the next, indulgent parents and teachers on hand to pick up the pieces if things go wrong: it doesn't make for interesting fiction, but it's a good foundation for a healthy life. Perhaps I've read novels featuring this slow-burn adolescence and repressed them – maybe you can jog my memory? – or maybe this stuff is best reserved for jokey TV sitcoms and a particular segment of real-life.
What do you think?
What are your favourite novels about the end of childhood? Are there any other patterns I've missed?
What did you think of Gavin Weston's novel Harmattan and is there anything you'd like to add about that or any of my other author interviews?
Hurrah for all you good-enough mothers out there! No job could be more important than creating another person and growing them on to adulthood. Hurrah too for you children of such mothers who today will set aside any irritations and go back, in spirit if not in body, to the warmth of her embrace.
But, let's face it, you don't need me at the party. You've got more than enough cheerleading from the cut-flower and greetings card industries. So excuse me while I turn my writerly attention to the bad-enough mothers and their offspring.
Who do I have in mind? I'm not thinking of the chicks grown older, if not much wiser, fretting over cellulite and what to put in Jocasta's lunchbox, of the kind of Bad Mothering that entails passing off a shop-bought cake as home-made. I'm not thinking of the ever-so shaming mothers whose clothes were too drab or flashy or individual for the tastes of their teenage daughters, who were too friendly or aloof towards her friends.
I'm thinking of the Mrs Wintersons and her less flamboyant sisters, of the Jeanettes and her less robust or less talented sibs. Mothers veering so far off target they must be running blindfold, yet they’re panting and sweating as if giving it their all. Mothers whose damage to their children is obvious to
everyone but themselves.
entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice
Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
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ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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2022 Reading Challenge
Anne has read 2 books toward their goal of 100 books.
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 three fiction books.
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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
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