There’s no rain in California. The swimming pools that graced the homes of the beautiful people are nothing but rubbish tips, no-one can wash and drinking water is rationed. Just beyond Los Angeles, civilisation lies buried under mountains of moving sand. Most people have been evacuated to the camps out East; those who remain take their chances in this lawless environment. It’s not only the sun that is harsh.
The violence behind the beauty: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James & Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Emma and her friend Teddy are Americans visiting a forest reserve in southern India, to make a wildlife documentary about an innovative method of reuniting lost or injured baby elephants with their mothers. Manu, the younger son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting following the death of his cousin by a rogue elephant. After being orphaned by poachers and kept in captivity and worked as a temple elephant, the Gravedigger has escaped his chains and is causing havoc in the villages on the edge of the forest. Through these three strands, Tania James tells an engaging and moving story of the conflicting interests in nature conservation. It’s testament to her talent as a writer that it is possible to feel sympathy for each of the flawed characters in this novel, even when none of them come out particularly well – except maybe the elephant who is, after all, just being an elephant.
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.
Writing last week from the hospital bedside of her dear friend, Charli Mills invited Rough Writers to compose a 99-word story featuring a rose. I immediately thought of a scene from my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, in which the main character, Diana, looks back on her childhood. There’s not much of a narrative arc in this episode, but I thought I’d share it anyway, slightly amended, although it works better in context where it gains an additional layer of meaning:
“Don’t think it’s all a bed of roses,” said my mother, handing me the potato peeler and nudging me towards the sink.
Since my sister had left home, I’d taken to helping out with cooking and cleaning. I didn’t mind, but I was embarrassed that my mother would think I was hankering after a future as a housewife. It seemed to me that a bed of roses summed up my mother’s life exactly: perfumed petals imprisoned within a tangle of thorns. I wanted to ramble beyond the pot of soil in which she’d planted me. I wanted to bloom.
The war is barely a year old when James is shot down on his first bombing mission. Incarcerated in a POW camp, he vows to use his time productively. Instead of digging escape tunnels from which he’d inevitably be recaptured, James dedicates himself to a detailed study of a pair of redstarts nesting beyond the barbed wire. He records his observations in a notebook and in letters home to his wife. Yet the only person who really seems to understand his passion is the camp commandant.
Only six months married before James was summoned to fight for his country, Rose is bored by her husband’s letters, barely able to bring herself to open them, let alone reply. Alone in a tiny cottage on the tip of the Ashdown Forest not far from where she grew up, she spends her time roaming with her dog and patrolling as an ARP warden to safeguard the blackout. She’s wondered about her loneliness for some time: at first she thought it was missing James but now it seems an existential condition. And she’s found a way to soothe it in her secret meetings with Toby, on sick leave from the war.
Then James’s elder sister, Enid, is bombed out of her London flat and, with nowhere else to go, she foists herself upon Rose. With her own guilty secret, Enid isn’t the best of houseguests, while Rose is far from the perfect host. The women have more in common than they think, but their different loyalties to James prevents them becoming friends.
Tom Berry is a forester in northern Canada. He’s a decent chap, drawn to the wilderness, trying to do right by his family and his employees. But he doesn’t really do feelings, and feelings are what he needs to guide him when his grown-up son, Curtis, is stuck in despair about some woman. Instead of listening, the ever-practical Tom sets to work on repairing a leaking tap.
At nineteen, Tom wasn’t ready for fatherhood. Four years on, he wasn’t ready for his unstable wife to leave him with young Curtis and his four-month-old sister, Erin. But he thinks he’s done okay, raising them to be independent, teaching them the countryside survival skills he values. It irks him that Curtis has never been much of a hunter, that teenage Erin now prefers to keep to her room. But he accepts that his kids are reaching the age when they’ll no longer needed him, when he’ll be free to retreat to the cabin in the forest he’s always dreamt of; perhaps, if he’s lucky, his part-time girlfriend, Carolina, will join him there.
When Charli Mills posted her flash fiction prompt at the end of last week to write a 99-word story that includes a vice, I thought it would be easy. Isn’t a vice just another notch along a continuum that leads from quirky through the compulsory character flaws to the evil villains we love to hate? But I’ve struggled. I didn’t have a character waiting in the wings of my to-be-reviewed and to-be-read piles I could pounce on or, at least, not one I could persuade to perform.
Kicking off with a conversation about marijuana, I expected Charli’s post to ignite a galaxy of ideas. Yet we know, even if vicariously, it’s a drug that tends to lull the senses. Even though I have a dope-smoking narrator in my possibly-second novel, Underneath, it’s a minor transgression relative to what else he gets up to, put there to give him something to do with his hands while he’s waiting for his girlfriend to come back to bed. And although there’s a drug dealer in Lisa McInerney’s audacious debut, and I’ve mentioned crack in the heading of my review, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate (all these different names for drugs do confuse me) but there is purely for the alliteration. Fact is, I’m not terribly interested in mood-altering substances, whether legal or otherwise, and it took me a little longer than I might have expected to lose myself in Tim Winton’s magnificent Eyrie because it kicks off with the hangover from hell.
When invited to lead a controversial project reintroducing the grey wolf as a natural predator into the English countryside, Rachel Caine initially declines. She is happy keeping her native Cumbria at a distance, happy heading up the team monitoring wolves in the true wilderness of Nez Perce, Idaho. But, when her mother dies and a drunken night with one of her colleagues takes the relationship too far, she decides to accept the Earl of Annerdale’s offer. The new job, while geographically on a smaller scale, heralds new challenges for Rachel as she grapples with the manners and politics of the country set while confronting the memories of a difficult mother-daughter relationship evoked by the landscape that formed her. The Wolf Border explores the territory bounded by country-house fiction, the natural world, capitalist politics and impending motherhood with some of the finest writing on human and elemental wilderness, for example in an Idaho winter (p68):
When his parents die in a house fire, Jonathan Maguire decides to give up his studies at Newcastle University and move back to London to live with his brother. Six years older but with the mind of an eight-year-old, Roger has little understanding of the workings of the social world, but is an expert on the community of insects he breeds in glass-fronted cages in a garden shed. Despite their age difference, the boys were extremely close as children and Jonathan is determined to do the right thing by his brother, but his loyalty comes at a cost. Not only does he give up his degree, but it means separation from his girlfriend, Harriet, a talented flautist much admired by young men. Their marriage, just before Harriet returns to university after the summer break, does little to assuage Jonathan’s suspiciousness and jealousy, especially when she is the only woman in a classical quartet that includes his nemesis, Brendan Harcourt, who has never attempted to hide his attraction to Harriet. With Harriet’s support, and the occasional fiery confrontation, Jonathan seems to be learning to manage his emotions, when Roger reveals witnessing an illicit kiss after a performance by the quartet.
Jay Mize thought he’d be at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture, when he moved with his wife, Sandy, and six-year-old son, Jacob, to a stretch of river-bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills. But a summer of drought followed by incessant rain has ruined him. After his father’s suicide, Jay becomes obsessed with doomsday scenarios. In order to protect their son from his increasing negativity, Sandy moves out (p168):
I cannot believe that I’m arguing with you about the end of the world. I cannot live this way, thinking like this. Every day that you harp on this gloom and doom is another day you miss the blessed life you have here, right now, this instant.
When Jay discovers a corpse on his flooded fields, his sanity gradually leaches away. Watched by a vengeful woodsman and the playboy deputy sheriff, Danny Shoals, Jay is heading towards an apocalypse partly of his own making.
While I take great pleasure in my ability to harvest fruit and veg from my garden, I don’t get particularly excited about cooking it. As I couldn’t let it go to waste, I’ve been rustling up some strange concoctions of beetroot, courgettes and beans lately and rushing to put them on the table before it gets too cool to dine in the garden. Cordon Bleu it’s not! I’m hoping my response to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction prompt won’t also come out as a dog’s dinner.
Looking for inspiration for my 99-word food story, I turn to the novels on my physical and virtual bookshelves. Consistent with my miserablist inclinations, there’s a dominant theme of the problems that food or its lack can bring. In Shelley Harris’ novel, Jubilee, a boy’s divided loyalties to his white friends and Asian family is played out in his response to the food his mother plans to cook for a street party in 1970s Britain. (You can click on the link to find the quote.) One of the enduring images in Alison Moore’s debut, The Lighthouse, is the way in which, on a catered walking holiday along the Rhine, the main character consistently fails to get the food he has paid for. Although Lewis, the central character in her second novel, He Wants, is forced to endure fewer physical privations, his food is unsatisfying because it’s not what he actually wants.
I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again: I love the webbiness of the World Wide Web. I love writing posts that link to other posts, both mine and other people’s, even as I worry that those phrases picked out in blue might impede the reading process. Even when I’m not forging links across the Internet, I enjoy rooting for commonalities, such as those between the novels of those writers featured in my debut novelists Q&A’s or plucking from my bookshelves novels on a specific theme, such as water or transgenerational trauma. (You can see how it gets obsessive and it’s little wonder my posts take so long to write.) Yet I’m much more cagey bringing different spheres of my own life into the blog. Yes, I’ll prattle on about gardening and make oblique references to the pleasure I get from singing in a choir. But until I started my series on fictional psychologists and psychotherapists, I kept my professional background entirely separate from my identity as a writer and, even now, the more structured and formalised are the alternative universes I occupy, the less comfortable I feel about providing a portal to them here.
The latest flash fiction challenge from Charli Mills sent me cruising my geographically-arranged bookshelves for novels on the theme of water. Waiting for the Rain by Zimbabwean Charles Mungoshi was my obvious starting point since, as usual at this time of year, my garden is particularly thirsty. I try to conserve water by harvesting rain from the drainpipes and pounding my plot with a watering can as the sun goes down behind the trees. But, with my tendency to precrastinate over arduous tasks, I can often make extra work for myself by transplanting seedlings in the heat of the day, then bemoaning their failure to thrive. Yet, through this, through the dirt under my fingernails, I feel a connection to those subsistence farmers whose very survival is dependent on the rain. Of course, there’s an over romanticism bordering on the delusional in this assumed affinity between my pampered life and theirs.
The Westerners’ illusions about the poor is one of the themes of Ann Patchett’s novel, State of Wonder, about secret research in the muddy waters of the Brazilian jungle. It’s not too much of a boat ride from the Amazon basin to the West Indies, the setting for Jean Rhys’s reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s mad-woman-in-the-attic, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Depending on how far they’ve drifted off course, we might also encounter Grace Winter on those waters, fighting for survival in Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, The Lifeboat. From there, we could sail through the Panama Canal into the Pacific ocean, where, in Yan Martel’s debut, The Life of Pi, a young man shares his lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
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.
Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry: how the British love to talk about the weather. With climate change in the offing, we’ve even more to chew over: floods, drought, winters that drag on for ever or seem never to arrive. How could a Britisher not be inspired by this week’s prompt from Charli Mills for her flash fiction challenge? Climate change in fiction: bring it on!
I’ve already turned up the heat on Annecdotal, with my previous post on the novel, Instructions for a Heatwave. I’d been going to save it for a sultry summer’s day – should we get one this year – but Charli’s prompt makes it equally topical as we come to the end of a showery April. What I recall of the summer of 1976 is how unprepared we were for the heat here in Britain. How we must’ve sweated in our heavy nylon clothes as we endeavoured to keep up our cold-climate routines. Just as Gretta in Maggie Farrell’s novel continues to bake her own bread in inflated temperatures, I have a vivid memory of how, the heat already unbearable, my ironing just had to be done.
We seem equally unprepared for the floods that now beset our shores with alarming regularity. I’m not sure exactly when I read The Flood by Maggie Gee – but given that it was published in 2004, it can’t be that long ago – but, since then, events that seemed exaggerated in the novel have been played out again and again on the evening news: stinking streets; stranded cattle; ordinary people going about their business by boat. The privileged are determined to continue as normal in Maggie Gee’s apocalyptic London: the infrastructure may be crumbling, people may be homeless and the rain interminable, but President Bliss directs his energies into wooing celebrities at an evening “do”.
Approaching a big town or city by train is like entering a stately home through the back door. The tracks skirt scrapyards and dustbins, edge past tumbledown housing with washing flapping on the line. On a train journey in Britain, you might also notice a patch of open ground that resembles neither a demolition site or school playing field. It looks as if several gardens have been detached from their houses and brought together, except that here, instead of lawns and shrubberies, you’ll see rackety sheds and beanpoles, and row upon row of that green stuff you’ve plucked from supermarket shelves.
Allotments have been part of the British landscape for around 200 years. The Allotments Act of 1925 gave local authorities a statutory responsibility to protect the land on which the urban poor might grow their own food. In the middle of the last century, they tended to be the preserve of the flat-capped working-class male; he would grow the carrots and spuds and her indoors would cook them. Later, families and foodies contributed to an allotment revival.
Like the community of writers, allotment holders are highly supportive bunch: when I started mine, the old hands couldn’t resist stopping by to tell us what we were doing wrong. Now I do my growing in my own garden, but I still rely on the lessons – and repeat the same mistakes, according to my husband – that I learned back then. And, because writing is like gardening, I’ve written allotments into a couple of my short stories. Plastic, just published by The Treacle Well, pays homage to the allotment tradition while raising concerns about the threat of pollution to the soil on which we all depend. Albarello di Sarzana is a lighter read celebrating the communal side of allotments and the wonder of growing one’s food. In Stealing the Show from Nature, a gardening project on a much larger scale provides the backdrop to a rough patch in a marriage.
It won’t be long before I’m sowing seeds in the greenhouse again. In the meantime, it’s great to celebrate last year’s garden harvest along with this writerly one. Please share your thoughts below.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin my story of how I helped bring an Indian elephant into the English countryside and learnt something about storytelling in the process.
Once upon a time Chamu told me about a guided walk she was planning in the Peak District. The aim was to use story to promote diversity within the national park and the walk would be integrated with the local celebrations for birthday of the Hindu god, Ganesh. Well, I thought, what could be better than walking and storytelling? I jumped at the chance to help out.
Although I knew a little about the elephant-headed god from my travels in India many moons ago, these weren’t exactly stories I’d heard my mother’s knee. What if others were more familiar with the story than I was? Would I be able to engage people? What if I forgot my lines?
Of course, I needn’t have worried. Thanks to Chamu’s support and a lovely group of tolerant walkers, I had a fabulous time telling my two stories, as you’ll see from the pictures below, and from others on the Hindu Samaj website.
The experience got me thinking about the differences between story writing and storytelling. Although I often read my fiction aloud to check for stumbling blocks, telling a story without a script to an audience is another matter altogether.
As a reader and as a writer, I treat adverbs with suspicion and every adjective has to earn its keep. Yet the oral form has a baroque feel to it, bustling with verbal curlicues, never using one word when half a dozen will do. Repetition, cliches, It came to pass and In due course – I welcomed them as joyfully as I attempt to edit out each just and quite from the written
form. It wasn’t the presence of two delightful children that made me spout such archaic and nursery-style phrases; they seemed appropriate for the story to flow.
Relaxing into the role, I began to tell the story physically: modulating my voice;
exaggerating my facial expressions; making judicious use of pauses. I don’t have an extroverted bone in my body, but I couldn’t help falling into the rhythms and performing.
This will be no surprise to those familiar with reading bedtime stories, but to me it
was a revelation, and I’m looking forward to doing it again at the end of August next year, only better. (If you watch the video below, you'll see there's lots of room for improvement.) If you'd like to come, the details will be on the Ranger walks calendar.
If you've been paying attention, you might have noticed I've delivered all the posts I promised for October (gold stars all round). For next month I hope to bring you the fourth instalment in my series on fictional psychologists and psychotherapists; a look at internal obstacles to achieving one's personal and fictional goals inspired by my Q&A with Anthea Nicholson, as well as my recent post on character motivation; and why I'm raving about a small book of psychoanalytic case studies. I've also got posts in the pipeline on writers' routines; writing in the first person plural; old-age stereotypes; leaving home; another look at rhythm and my love affair with allotments. Hopefully there's something you'll want to come back for.
If you're still wondering how the elephant god got his head, you can read a précis of the story here:
The video picks up the story halfway through, when Shiva has chopped off the head of Parvati's darling boy and is sending out his bodyguards to find a replacement.
Or go here for a musical version of the story.
SHORT STORY COLLECTION COMING NOVEMBER 23rd
BOOK BLOGGERS CAN REQUEST A REVIEW COPY HERE
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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