Anna Bentz, an American in her late 30s, has moved to Zürich for the sake of her husband’s career. Bruno, a banker, is happy to settle back into the very suburb where he grew up, with his mother just around the corner. Three children later, Anna is highly dependent upon Ursula, although her mother-in-law could never be regarded as a friend. Treasuring solitude, Anna isn’t particularly skilled at friendship. Which is a problem, as she is desperately in need of a confidante. Her husband is emotionally unavailable. She loves her children but finds mothering a bore. Without a job, without even a driving licence or her own bank account, and inarticulate in Schwüzerdütsch, Anna feels alienated from her adopted country (p10):
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.
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.
When we live in a world that includes neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to ensure that the death camps aren’t forgotten. But how do we acknowledge such a horrific and shameful aspect of European history in a way that is truly authentic? How do we avoid approaching it in a way that is either overintellectualised or overly sentimental, or filtered through our own cultural identities as victims, perpetrators, collaborators or disengaged bystanders? Do we force-feed it to children too young to understand (the subject of Elissa Cahn’s flash fiction, On Behalf Of the Class, as well as one of my own eternal WIPs)? Do we turn a blind eye to the transgressions of the descendants of the survivors on account of their culture having been persecuted so much? Do we use it to work through our individual issues of terror, trauma, cruelty and guilt?
How to bear witness to the Holocaust is the subject of Peter Matthiessen’s final novel (he died earlier this year), In Paradise. One hundred and forty people – nuns and priests, Jews, Buddhists, survivors, academics, Germans, Poles, Americans and Israelis – gather at Auschwitz in the late 1990s for a week-long retreat. They sleep in the dormitories that previously housed the camp guards, they file past the piles of hair and baby shoes in the museum, meditate sitting cross-legged on the selection platform before a meagre lunch of rough bread and thin soup, and assemble in the auditorium in the evenings to give voice to their individual and collective experience. We follow this from the perspective of Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, who has joined the retreat to facilitate his research into the life and writings of Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of the camp who committed suicide at the age of twenty-eight by sticking his head in the gas oven. Little by little, Olin acknowledges a more personal motivation for being there as he uncovers uncomfortable aspects of his own family’s history.
Faced with such horror, who wouldn’t shy away?
If fiction thrives on strong emotion and conflict, Carys Bray’s debut novel, about what happens to a Mormon family after their youngest member dies, has all the right ingredients. Grief, while painful to experience, is a powerful launching pad for fiction and, as Derbhile Dromey commented in response to my post on religion and the right to die debate, religion channels conflict in believer and unbeliever alike.
Review of A Song For Issy Bradley
While four-year-old Issy Bradley is languishing in bed with undiagnosed meningitis, her mother, Claire, is shopping in Asda for affordable party food. Issy’s father, Ian, bishop of the local congregation, is out doing good works for the community and her big sister, Zippy, is lost in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Of her two brothers, seven-year-old Jacob, is swallowing his disappointment that his dad won’t be able to attend his birthday party and teenager Alma is looking for an escape route so he can go off and play football. When Issy dies, the family’s religious faith proves to be both a source of consolation and pain. The future focus, with the belief that the family will be reunited in eternity, is reassuring for Ian, as he keeps up his church duties, unaware of how much he is neglecting his family and exhausting himself. Claire, who, unlike the other Bradleys, did not grow up as a Mormon but converted when she met Ian, has always found comfort in the sense of order and obedience to a higher power, now feels deserted by God:
Well, the challenges are mounting: the prompts for 99-word flash fiction are announced on Wednesdays and bite-sized memoir every Friday afternoon. This week it’s travel horrors for flash and childhood jinks and japes for memoir – or is it the other way around? My secret¹ ambition is to write a piece that satisfies both simultaneously but, until I get there, I’m making do with incorporating my separate responses into the one post; it gives me another excuse for navel-gazing on the writing process from memory to memoir or not.
Time was when I loved to travel, although now I much prefer to stay at home. But I have lots of cherished memories; I even have a stack of travel diaries I could use to check my facts. Charli’s prompt sparked off a stream of reminiscence, of thrills and spills and moments of, if not quite terror, some pretty dodgy stuff. Were I better raconteur, my travels would make for some great dinner-table storytelling, but my adventures have made only a rare appearance in my fiction and, when they did, I got confused as to what was memory and what imagination. When it came to my 99-words I was overwhelmed with possibilities, yet none seemed strong enough to demand their moment on the screen.
Charli²: But it’s fiction, you’re allowed to make things up!
Annecdotist: Yeah, but somehow I don’t want to this time; I want a story that stays faithful to the things I’ve seen and done.
Lisa²: Ha ha, you’re being converted to memoir.
Annecdotist: Only for this particular topic.
In the end, an idea bubbled to the surface and I grabbed it before it could sink back down again and another take its place. I don’t know why it chose me, but here it is:
I was scared as you were, believe me, but I smothered my anxieties with thoughts of tulips, van Gogh and canals as we bedded down with the down-and-outs in a dusky recess of the shopping mall.
A perfect plan in daylight: a lift halfway to Amsterdam. We’d pass the early hours in the waiting room and catch the first train out. No-one mentioned that the station closed its doors at night.
The police beamed torchlight across our faces. I thought they might relax the rules for two sisters, strangers to the city, but they ushered us into the night.
HAVE you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to your teenage years? To your first love? Close friends? Not just as an idle thought, but to really immerse yourself in those years, actually talk to those people and see whether their memories match yours?
Dusty Springfield sang about Going Back – the song was played at her funeral – to “the things I learned so well, in my youth”. I carried my story with me for many years but what was it I learned back then? When I started writing notes for a memoir, I knew I too had to go back.
Moving away from home was something we all did after school. In the sixth form we were a close group of nine friends, sharing the boredom of school days, waiting for the excitement of the sort of nights everyone recalls from those vivid, growing-up years; high on the future, bonds strengthened by alcohol, and a new awareness of selves and sexual power.
Then it was university, new lives, friends, marriages, children. But I never forgot the feeling of belonging I had with those friends. Had they felt it too, those three girls and five boys? And when a tragic death ripped the heart out of the group, could we ever be together again and feel the same?
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
My recent post about the challenge of representing the reality of terror in fiction attracted some interesting feedback. I’m not alone in shying away from graphic details, it seems. In fact, my main interest in fictional terror is in its potential long-term impact, which is often more subtle. Like a plucked string, terror keeps on vibrating even when the original trauma has passed.
The enduring effects of the narrator’s imprisonment and torture are eloquently described in In the Orchard, the Swallows:
They took everything from me. My health, my family. They took from me the person I might have been, and returned in its place half a man, a shadow. Even now I am not sure I will feel lasting pleasure again. My capacity for it has been damaged. The suffering has retreated, but it leaves behind it an absence, a joylessness. If you are able, imagine breathing, and nothing stirring within. Yes, I feel relief that I am free, and it is a deep relief at that, but there is no joy. My pleasures have gone from me, like petals pulled from a flower head, or lost to a winter frost. Peter Hobbs (p 109)
Life continues, but in an almost zombified state, the illusion of safety destroyed.
In Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the trauma of the trenches continues for the hospitalised soldiers in the form of hallucinations and nightmares and in hysterical symptoms such as mutism, paralysis and bodily contortions. What was then termed shellshock, we now label post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that grants sufferers more sympathetic understanding and access to treatment. Yet psychiatric diagnosis is always a dual-edged sword and perhaps runs the risk of pathologising an extreme, but normal, reaction to an abnormal situation.
finding truth through fiction
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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