Hazel McHaffie

Back to work!

OK, festive break over, time to take stock of where I am with my current novel, Killing me Gently. Ahhah … into my mind flashes a very useful book about the art of writing fiction: Novel Writing: Sixteen Steps to Success I bought last year. No harm in revisiting the basics and making sure the foundations of my story are sound. And some plainish variegated knitting will help keep my mind focused and eyes wide open.

Novel Writing is a joy to read; full of sound practical sense. Furthermore, its author, Evan Marshall, is a literary agent with yards of experience and credentials, so it was a bit like having a mini masterclass. I’m soon scribbling lists to check I have all the key elements in place; suppositions, goals, motivations, conflict, surprises … everything that enhances readability, plausibility, appeal and marketability. Character profiles are polished to within an inch of their lives. Appropriate cues and connections and shocking surprises … they’ll need to be strategically placed once the timeline and sequence of events is more secure.  Sigh of relief; that little refresher has provided just the injection of fresh energy I needed to get back into my story.

This one’s a medical thriller about Anya Morgan, a new mum who’s struggling with the overwhelming responsibilities of a demanding offspring, and growing increasingly unsure about the motives and actions of the apparently well-meaning people around her. Who exactly is in control here? And just how safe is her baby, Gypsy? Who can she trust? … husband Leon? … sister Claire? …  professional friend Tiffany? … the hospital staff? Are they in cahoots to undermine her credibility? Can she even rely on her own sanity? The baby keeps deteriorating … Hmmmm. I’m wading in treacle already. But thoroughly back into writerly mode. Thanks, Mr Marshall. Second time around you’re even more helpful than when I first listened to your pearls of wisdom.

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Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas.

Chatsworth is a magnificent house at normal times; converted for Christmas it’s truly spectacular. This year the theme was Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas, with each room devoted to a different story or character – who could resist it?! – so we made the trip from Edinburgh especially to experience it … six and a half hours driving there; five back.

From the cut-out characters which greeted us on the way in, through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases,

to the stunning set pieces, the attention to detail and artistic flair was amazing. And what a setting! Priceless paintings gave way to garlands of baubles and foliage; glorious antiques stood cheek by jowl with fairy-lit Christmas trees.

And there, in the midst of all the fictional depictions of his works, in the real Cavendish family visitors book, Charles Dickens‘ actual signature highlighted!

Shop fronts, darkened alleys and famous quotes captured the authentic Dickens we know and love.

The imposing entrance was devoted to paper sculptures and there was a delicious irony in the midst of so much ‘tinder’ to find a real fire blazing in the hearth. Risk assessment? What risk assessment?!!

Cut out letters hung elegantly from floor to ceiling,

huge scrolling quotations festooned the pillars, really capturing the importance of words to the whole display.

Clad in Victorian dress, guides stood in the shadows, adding to the ambience but ever ready with information.

Oliver Twist’s famous rogue, Fagin, prowling around beneath the towering edifice that formed sleeping quarters for his pack of mini pickpockets, enchanted the children with his ‘conjuring’ tricks, and the adults with his smart repartee.

And, as if the sight of the magnificent dining room set for a wedding banquet for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations were not enough,

the lady herself paced from end to end declaiming the treacherous Meriwether Compeyson and revealing her own sweet revenge with adopted daughter Estelle.

Little Miss Dorrit‘s dimly-lit room included one of the countless huge Christmas trees, this time bedecked in lace baubles, reels of thread and button garlands – Amy’s valiant attempt to bring cheer into the debtors’ prison.

Oh, I could go on and on, but you’ll have got the general idea. Magnifique! Such proportions! Such vision! Such skill! Everything about the experience took my breath away. What an amazing literary inheritance we have. I’m so glad I went.

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Literary drama

Time once again for my annual sortie into the world of play-writing and producing a little drama for my grandchildren – our nineteenth would you believe! The youngsters, as ever, rose to the occasion magnificently, applying themselves to all the activities – from deportment lessons to tasting potions, from sewing bookmarks to deciphering Cockney slang, from picking pockets to exploring archaic texts – with their usual aplomb, and that in spite of half the assembled company still recovering from this really nasty respiratory bug that’s rife just now.

(The stage is a book-filled house and no shots are posed, so what you see is the play as it happens.)

In a nutshell, the story centres on a Johanna Spyri Heidi-lookalike, who is an avid reader.

On this occasion as Heidi loses herself in each book, characters emerge from the shadows and take her into their worlds. Enter The Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist).

… the Black Witch (Hansel and Gretel) and Morgana Pendragon (Merlin).

Titania, Queen of the Fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) works her magic and leads the cast to new adventures,

… exercising a softening effect.

Marmee March (Little Women) lulls everyone into a false sense of security with her homespun wisdom and American notions.

But things then start to really hot up. Enter a fabulously rich and imposing Mr Boldwood (Far from the Madding Crowd) who soon falls prey to the Artful Dogder’s pickpocketing skills.

But even Mr Boldwood can only bow in the face of the whirlwind that is Lady Denny, distinction and breeding oozing from the tip of her bonnet to the toe of her boot.

… who sets about improving the marital stakes for all the young ladies.

It’s left to Little John (Robin Hood) to risk the Lady’s wrath, and rescue The Dodger, making his day with some man-to-man gutsy banter, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of flaming arrows.

We happily spanned centuries, social milieu, and fictional genres, and everyone went away with an armful of precious books, quite a number of them collectors’ items.

And the moral of the tale?
What terrific advantages these young people have over children from all those earlier periods; not to be taken for granted or squandered. Not least their literary inheritance: books and stories which can open up times and experiences and worlds in wonderful ways.
Treasures indeed.

PS. If you’re a fully paid up member of the anachronism police please don’t bother listing the errors; we already know we took untold liberties. This was a private members only production; the rules of engagement are fully understood.

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Body image

OK, I know, I know! That second helping of roast potatoes, those too-tempting chocolates, that one party too far … they’ve all left their legacy. The break from gym/exercise class/running regime, late nights, extra caffeine, missed beauty routines … they’ve played havoc with your muscle tone, your skin, your hair, your energy levels, too. The mirror is definitely not on your friend.  But rest assured, you’re not alone; plenty of folk have issues with their body image at this time of year – witness much bemoaning and bewailing on social media!

It’s cold outside, you’re on holiday, it’s the perfect time to snuggle down for some wall to wall viewing. Toes toasty warm in Great Aunt Marjorie’s hand-knitted socks, refreshment at the ready, lights dimmed … and we’re off. You get the picture.

Body image issues + DVD watching = cue for today’s blog post. A good moment to talk about a film I bought ages ago, all about real body image and identity crises: The Danish Girl.

Based on the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, at the beginning of the 20th century, who became transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe, it’s a beautiful portrayal of unconditional love and one person’s fight to become the woman she believed herself to be.

A stellar cast were involved in the creation of this masterpiece.

Tom Hooper – director of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables – saw the potential and had the vision and understanding in the first place.
Gerda Wegener is played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander with great sympathy, integrity and poignancy, and we understand much of the complexity of the subject through her eyes.
And small wonder that Hooper immediately thought of Eddie Redmayne for Einar’s role; he wonderfully captures the inner conflict and outward battles faced by a transgender person, at a time long before society recognised the whole concept of ambivalent identities. Redmayne is utterly convincing as both Lili and Einar, but then we’re rather used to him inhabiting the characters he takes on to an incredible degree (think Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything).
Both principal actors are completely believable in their roles bringing a quite breathtaking authenticity and emotional intelligence to their performances.
Couple that with Copenhagen as the perfect location, capturing the rather austere ultra-conservative, repressed society of the time and place, and you have a winning combination.

But what of the real story behind the film? The original and real Einar Wegener was a landscape artist married to another painter, Gerda Gottlieb, who specialised in portraits. They lived a bohemian lifestyle in Denmark at the turn of the twentieth century. When Gerda asked her husband to stand in as a model dressed in women’s attire, Einar’s love of all things feminine became apparent. Gerda’s portraits of this striking new model were noticed and professional success followed, but their marriage came under increasing strain. Lili began going out in public as a woman, sometimes with Gerda, sometimes alone. She meticulously studied the nuances of female behaviour until she was gesture perfect, and socially totally convincing. But her dream was to be perfect anatomically as well, so she eventually underwent a series of pioneering gender-reassignment surgeries, culminating in the transplant of a uterus into her body in 1931. But this last one proved to be a step too far, and she died from a lethal postoperative infection, commonplace in that era.

Knowing what we know today, it grates to hear doctors in the film talking of ‘insanity’ and ‘aberrant behaviour’, and it’s rather terrifying to watch the draconian efforts made to correct this ‘madness’ – zapping both brain and genitalia. But the brutal beating Lili gets when she minces along in a questionable outfit is alas not unknown even today. Gentler terms such as ‘confused’ or ‘different’ perhaps sit more easily with us nowadays in this context, but this film underlines the reality: Lili herself is not confused; she knows only too well that ‘This is not my body.’ And her whispered plea: ‘I don’t know what to do‘, is heart-breakingly poignant. It’s a salutary reminder that for those who find themselves in the wrong body the struggles are both huge and complicated.

Inside of Me coverI’ve had to face a fair few of my own demons this year, what with undignified hospital procedures, mutilating operations, uncertain prognoses. And of course, I’ve read about and listened to many, many people for whom this whole area is fraught with angst whilst researching the subject of body image and identity crises for my book, Inside of Me, a couple of years ago. And I’d say, The Danish Girl captures the reality as well as any novel, any story, I’ve encountered to date. Hats off to David Ebershoff (writer), Hooper, Redmayne and Vikander – all brilliant. Their descriptions of how and why they made this film were as impressive as the end product, and they’ve more than achieved their aim: to bring this difficult subject and courageous story to the attention of the public, sensitively and respectfully.

I loved it.

 

 

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Christmas blessings

Since it’s just four days to Christmas I’m quite sure you don’t want to be reading about ethical dilemmas or medical conundrums or even writerly angst, so I shall simply send a seasonal greeting.

It would be all too easy to simply write ‘Happy Christmas, everyone!‘ but I know that sadly this will not be a joyous time for many people. So …

 

If you are currently facing devastating loss or grief,
may you be given the strength and courage to go on.

If you are caught in a spiral of stress and anxiety,
may you find a way through which guides you to a safer, more peaceful place.

If life is currently good and you have all you need,
may these blessings continue, valued and treasured.

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a super-abundance of health and wealth,
may you have the wisdom, compassion and generosity to share wisely.

If you are in a position of power,
may you have the humility and insight
to use it to influence others and effect change for the greater good.

 

 

‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’

 

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Triumph over adversity

At this time of year the plight of children for whom it’s not a magical season tugs at the heartstrings in a particularly poignant way. The starving, the abused, the institutionalised, the unloved, the unwanted, the severely disabled  … you know the haunting images as well as I do. But I wonder how often we think of those who work behind the scenes to rescue these waifs.

Imagine day after day after day, being shut in a room with eight children all with severe emotional, educational and social problems, several still incontinent, and just one unqualified helper (an uneducated migrant worker).

I can’t. I’d be completely out of my depth.

Not Torey Hayden; that’s her workplace. Children ‘whose entire lives [a]re chaotic tragedies‘ are her forte. But even she is somewhat fazed when she’s asked to add to the mix a six-year-old girl who has recently abducted a neighbour’s four-year-old, tied him to a tree, and deliberately burned him. The courts have decreed this seriously troubled little girl – SIX YEARS OLD – must go to the state hospital. But there’s no space available at the moment … no room at the inn. Hmmm. She must be placed somewhere

Miss Hayden’s class, known colloquially as the ‘garbage class‘, it is then. The dumping ground for young ‘human refuse‘, the severely disturbed, the emotionally fragile, the most educationally disabled, those from chaotic and disrupted homes, the all-round challenging. Last stop before the institution.

Torey’s take on these little people caught up in cycles of violence, poverty, addiction, abuse, neglect and apathy is

‘ … for some children, even love will never be enough. But belief in the human soul escapes all reason and flies beyond the frail fingers of our knowledge ….’

‘Some of these children live with such haunted nightmares in their heads that every move is fraught with unknown terror. Some live with such violence and perversity that it cannot be captured in words. Some live without the dignity accorded to animals. Some live without love. Some live without hope. Yet they endure.’

One Child is not written to evoke pity for the child, or praise for the teacher, or to ruffle the peace of mind of those who chose not to know. Rather it’s a song to the human soul, because this little girl – the closest thing to an unteachable child her previous teacher had ever encountered – is at heart a survivor.

It was never going to be plain sailing. Sheila is filthy and infested; she’s been abandoned by her mother, blamed by her father; she makes a dramatic debut gouging out the eyes of the class goldfish with a pencil and flinging them on the floor to suffocate; she absolutely refuses to do any paperwork even though she’s well above average intelligence, destroying every piece of paper put before her; she completely wrecks a neighbouring classroom when Torey goes away to a conference for two days. But gradually, gradually, inch by inch, she learns a better way of being, how to relate to other people, how to curb her emotions. And this exceptionally perceptive woman rescues her from a frightening future.

Of course I have no means of verifying the veracity of this author’s account – and I confess I took David Pelzer’s books about his childhood abuse at face value, though they were subsequently called into question. I cringed at Hayden’s use of words like ‘retarded’ and ‘crazy’ too. Nevertheless I found it beneficial to think myself into the mind of this little girl and her teacher, and to watch good triumph over tragedy.

I’ve long had a problem with certain awards and honours going to celebrity figures like sportsmen and actors. Low profile people like Torey Hayden who labour day after day to make a difference to unknown families, unseen and unsung – now they really do deserve our respect and admiration.

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Understanding alternative lives

In my former life as a university researcher, I had the amazing privilege of delving deep into the lives of people grappling with major problems and dilemmas related to their medical care, understanding their responses, exploring their opinions. I sat for hours and hours (the record being five and a quarter at one sitting!) with parents who had faced the terrible ordeal of losing beloved babies. I spent days in a hospice devoted to the care of patients with full blown AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis, watching helplessly as young men wasted away and died agonising deaths. I’ve sat in wards and clinics variously with infertile couples, prostitutes, terrified new mothers. Not only has my life been enriched by all these encounters, but I like to hope I’ve become more insightful and empathetic as a result.

And I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy into my current work. With each new novel my eyes, ears and antennae are tuned to anything that will give me deeper awareness and understanding. Along the way I’ve met and listened to the experience and opinions and inner thinking of organ donors and recipients; people who’ve changed gender; families traumatised by illness, death and dementia; patients themselves suffering slow degenerative illnesses; campaigners struggling to achieve justice and equality for the disadvantaged and neglected. Humbling and revealing.

At the moment I’m trying to get inside the skin of families and individuals who struggle behind closed doors, where relationships are fraught. A surprisingly large number of books on my shelves take me inside those facades, and three in particular have made painful reading recently, opening my eyes to the horrors some children endure and sometimes transcend.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott reveals the seventeen years of horrific abuse one girl suffered at the hands of her depraved stepfather. She spent her entire childhood in fear and dread, controlled by threat and violence. Even when she did eventually find the courage to report him, even when he was locked up, he still managed to wreak fearful retribution on her via his relatives. Writing about her life, she was obliged to use pseudonyms to avoid worse. And her mother – her biological MOTHER! – was complicit in all this.

Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin tells the story of a young girl who also endured appalling abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – at the hands of her sadistic and depraved father. Again, a significant family member in a position of trust. Again the biological mother knew and turned a blind eye. In Jenny’s case the child grew up in a filthy flat forced to witness her mother being beaten and raped on a daily basis, her young sisters being sexually abused, her whole family being humiliated and ostracised. And yet a strong resilient woman emerged from this chaos, determined to foster love and trust and decency in her own children (one of whom is the singer actress Martine McCutcheon).

I Choose to Live (mentioned last week) is an amazingly frank account of Belgian Sabine Dardenne’s life during her kidnap ordeal. Her abuser was not a parent, he was a stranger, but she endured the agonies of feeling she had been abandoned by her family, and her relationships afterwards were significantly altered by the experiences, distortions and reactions everyone suffered.

To an extent we’ve all been exposed to the fact of child abuse.  Most recently, simply hearing about the case of little Poppi Worthington, almost certainly sexually abused to death at the tender age of 13 months by her father, made the blood run cold. Evil of such magnitude, masquerading in an everyday disguise, is as hard to comprehend as that which leads dictators to massacre thousands in acts of ethnic cleansing. The images haunt our screens and thoughts – especially where the authorities can’t or don’t exact any form of justice. The chilling reality of these intimate tragedies is captured in these three books, revealed bravely by three women who endured such relentless nightmares. I felt hugely sad and sobered, despairing at times, simply listening to them.

Bullies can only operate when other people are too frightened, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what is being done to them.‘ Jane Elliott

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our table. WH Auden

Will I have the courage and fortitude to see my own current novel to its end? Not that the subject matter is anything like as horrific as that described in these books, but any child suffering has the capacity to cut to the heart. Time will tell.

 

 

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Experience and empathy

They say no experience is wasted on a writer, and there’s certainly an element of truth in this. But as a writer, it’s important to recognise that reaction to events and happenings varies hugely, a universal response should not be assumed (goodness, I sound positively Jane Austen-y!!).

I’ve been very conscious of that reality this year. Let me explain.

In June I was told I had cancer.  Hmmm.I needed immediate treatment. OK.
The tumour was removed within twenty-four hours of diagnosis. Wow! Impressive or what?
The Director in charge of the whole department rang himself to give me the results and talk me through the proposed action and answer my questions. Hello?! I’m even more impressed. What did I do to deserve this?
I was given a number to ring any time. Is this really the cash-strapped, people-poor NHS?
A wonderfully warm, secure and seamless blanket of care, kindness and support, was thrown around me by a dedicated and highly skilled multidisciplinary team of professionals. There are no words to do justice to the fantastic, way-beyond-the-call-of-duty service I received.

A couple of times I did protest mildly that my circumstances didn’t warrant such a massive response; I was fine with this. My protestations were politely but firmly quashed. I was assured my circumstances – and I – did justify all this expertise and compassion. Why? Because apparently the majority of people are shocked and traumatised by this particular diagnosis. They need kid-glove treatment. So the team routinely start from that base line.

Why then am I different? It’s not an act. It’s not bravery. Not even a consequence of my faith. Nor does it stem from naivety. Two of my brothers have had cancer and been through much worse times than me; bearing the scars and after-effects still today years later. Two of my sisters-in-law sadly could not be saved and I watched their terminal decline with enormous sadness. Over the years many dear friends with cancer have suffered, died, some shockingly young, leaving children behind. And in my professional life as a health care professional I’ve seen up close and personal, enormous grief, loss and pain attached to experience of this disease.

OK, I may be calm about this diagnosis for myself, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have been far more traumatised if it had related to my children or grandchildren – young, with their lives ahead of them. I’ve had a brilliant innings, beyond the biblical allotted span. Even if this thing has already done its insidious evil work and will eventually beat me, I can’t complain. So I’ve been somewhat bemused by all the messages of concern and comfort and reassurance sent to me during and since my two surgeries.  However, they tell me a lot about the fear this illness engenders even today when medical advances have changed the prognoses in many types of malignancy dramatically. Now that I’m back on my feet readjusting to life, I get exclamations – almost accusations! – of doubt as to the genuineness of my energy and normality. Some well-meaning people want to force me backwards into a ‘fragile invalid’ box. Clearly I don’t conform to their conceptions of a cancer patient.

Linda Gillard, who is herself an author, and who’s been a terrific support to me in that context, has made me think again, though. She had treatment for breast cancer five years ago which has left her with chronic pain and disability. It has radically affected her writing career as well as her quality of life. Indeed her whole experience has been in a different league from mine. Sharing her thoughts on social media recently, she described her reality.

I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than 3 weeks. 5 years on, I still haven’t made my peace with what happened, I still feel traumatised, I still don’t have my life back because cancer left me disabled with chronic pain which apparently will never go away.

This post isn’t meant to be a self-pitying whinge, it’s a plea for greater understanding of PTSD. For some people who survive cancer, that survival comes at a terrible cost and the nightmare – mainly fear of recurrence – persists long after eyelashes and pubic hair have grown back. In my case the fear was/is not of death, but of further chemotherapy (and for those who sailed through chemotherapy, well, I’m very happy for you, but you probably didn’t have breast cancer chemo, which I’m reliably informed is The Worst.)

But it was the best of times, the worst of times… I’ve never known such compassion, from my inspiring surgeon (“If you’re going to get breast cancer, this is the kind to have”), to my oncologist who seemed as dismayed as I was that my neuropathic pain wouldn’t go away, to the magnificent nurses in the Macmillan suite who – almost apologeticaly – pumped cherry-coloured poison into my veins and checked on me every few minutes to see how I was coping. (Thank you, Norma! You will have forgotten me, but I will never forget you or your professional kindness.)

Her eloquent and courageous confidences have given others permission to share their abiding worries and traumas. Which all helps me to recognise that I am the one who is most out of sync here. And it’s reinforced the importance of reading, reading, reading; listening, listening, listening some more, in order to gain real empathy with those who are challenged by the issues I explore in my books.

I was reminded in some small way of Sabine Dardenne, a twelve year old Belgian girl who was kidnapped by a psychopath and subjected to the most appalling and degrading abuse. When she was discovered after eighty days incarcerated in a filthy ‘hell hole’, everyone expected her to be severely traumatised and in need of sensitive psychiatric help. Instead all she wanted was to get back to normality.

The general view was that I was ill. I was probably in shock, but I wasn’t ill. When talking about me, people would say, ‘She’s got her feet on the ground,’ and that’s probably true. You can’t rewrite history, and I know I can never wipe out what happened, but the best medicine is just to get on with your life and sort it out yourself. At the time, no one understood that …
In fact, my parents and my sisters were the ones who needed a psychiatrist, not me: all of them ended up having years of therapy, so they were the last people I could confide in.

Sabine is one truly remarkable girl whose story (told with help from translators in I Choose to Live) makes humbling and impressive reading. I am certainly not in her league but I do understand where she’s coming from.

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Acknowledgements

By the time you’ve written ‘THE END’, gone through dozens of edits, and proof read the final draft of your precious novel till you’re cross eyed, the very idea of writing another word can seem like a labour too far. But hey, what about all those folk who helped to bring this baby to birth?

Some writers content themselves with a dutiful list of agents, publishers, editors (all exemplary of course ) who’ve seen the value of the story and steered it through choppy waters to publication. Most thank friends and family (all stalwarts of course). The page can be simply ‘Thank you …’ followed by a list of names, or it can extend to several pages and include Great Aunt Gertrude who provided scotch broth on cold school days and became an unwitting template for Aunt Sally in the current magnum opus. Hey, been there, done that, myself; I’m not knocking it. I’m fascinated too by those that tell us people actually paid substantial sums of money (to charity of course) in exchange for immortality in the said book.

But best of all are the ones that manage to inject a sense of fun into this potentially dry catalogue. And I love the self-deprecating ones and those that manage to twist a fact to put an unusual slant on it. So I thought I’d share a few of my favourites with you this week.

This is indeed a work of fiction, and more so than usual. Almost nothing in the previous 340-odd pages is based on reality. Research, hardly a priority, was rarely called upon. Accuracy was not deemed crucial. There was no federal camp at Frostburg, no uranium lawsuit (yet), no dead judge to inspire me, and no acquaintance in prison scheming to get out, at least not to my knowledge.
Inevitably, though, even the laziest of writers need some foundation for their creations, and I was occasionally at a loss. As always, I relied on others. Thanks to …

John Grisham (The Racketeer)

This book took an embarrassingly long time to write, also my short-term memory isn’t what it was – apparently this is what happens when you’re perimenopausal (not menopausal, I should stress; that’s still decades away, and by the time it happens I’ll be grand again and back winning Mastermind) – so there’s a very good chance that someone may have given me invaluable help at an early stage in the book and that I’ve now completely forgotten. If you are that person, I am truly sorry.

Marian Keyes (This Charming Man)

Last year I lost two friends, each of great spirit and heart. Whenever Alex Cooper (lead in story) goes to the ballet – as she does herewith Natalie Moody – she will be watching the dancers at American Ballet Theatre and honoring Howard Gilan, an extraordinary man whose spirit lives on in all those – man and beast – whom he embraced.
And my young protegee, Maxine Pfeffer, who lost her valiant struggle with cancer, will always be Coop’s paralegal, Max. Thinking of her will forever bring a smile to my face.
Some of my Vassar classmates asked me to create a character in memory of one of our dear friends, the actress Marilyn Swartz Seven, who also died too young. She is here as a woman of mystery – a role I hope she would have enjoyed performing.

Linda Fairstein (Cold Hit)

In these dog days when lawyers rule the universe, I have to persist with these disclaimers, which happen to be perfectly true. With one exception nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world … so with luck I shall not be spending the rest of my life in the law courts or worse, though nowadays you can never be sure. But I can tell you this. As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.


John Le Carré (The Constant Gardener)

I hope that my patients and colleagues will forgive me for writing this book.

Henry Marsh (Do No Harm)

 

Oh and, strictly speaking a preface but to leave you smiling:

[This} is the only book of mine which I tried to produce without sitting down at the typewriter and getting a crick in the back.
Not that I ever thought of dictating it to a stenographer. How anyone can compose a story by word of mouth, face to face with a bored looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet many authors think nothing of saying “Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote No comma Lord Jasper Murgatroyd comma close quote said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last man on earth close quote period Quote Well comma, I’m not the last man on earth comma so the point does not arise comma close quote replied Lord Jasper comma twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on”
If I started to do that sort of ting I should be feeling all the time the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, “Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feeble-minded touting for customers on every side comma has a fathead like this Wodehouse succeeded in remaining at large all these years mark of interrogation”
But I did get one of those machines where you talk into a mouthpiece and have your observations recorded on wax, and I started Thank You, Jeeves, on it. And after the first few paragraphs I thought I would turn back and play the stuff over to hear how it sounded.
It sounded too awful for human consumption.

You can’t think out plots like mine without getting a suspicion from time to time that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain’s two hemispheres and the broad band of transversely running fibres known as the corpus collosum.

P G Wodehouse (Thank you, Jeeves)

Thanks, guys. I am resolved to take a leaf out of your books and make my own next acknowledgements more appealing in future.

 

 

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Maggie O’Farrell: audacious risk taker

Well, there are days when I can do no more than stand in awe of someone’s skill and brilliance; and today’s one of those days. I’ve just finished reading This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell. Not only does she employ lyrical language and wonderful laugh-out-loud humour, but she takes amazing and audacious risks with the technical underpinnings, and she combines them both with a perceptive and moving tale of love and redemption. No wonder this 2016 novel was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.

The cover blurb sets the scene:

A reclusive former film star living in the wilds of Ireland, Claudette Wells thinks nothing of firing a gun if strangers get too close to her house. Why is she so fiercely protective of her privacy, and what made her disappear at the height of her cinematic fame?
Her husband Daniel, reeling from a discovery about a woman he last saw twenty years ago, is about to make an exit of his own. It is a journey that will send him off-course, far from home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?
This Must be the Place crosses continents and time zones, creating a portrait of an extraordinary marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart.

I loved the quirky and unusual characters and the delightful way they and their foibles are revealed to us.

Daniel (the first person narrator) is a lecturer in linguistics:

… within the extremely narrow field of academic linguistics, I retain an aura of the maverick. Not much of an accolade but there you are. If you’ve ever listened to a radio programme about neologisms or grammatical shifts or the way teenagers usurp and appropriate terms for their own, often subversive use, it will probably have been me who was wheeled in to say that change is good, elasticity is to be embraced.
I once said this in passing to my mother-in-law and she held me for a moment in her imperious, mascaraed gaze and said, in her flawless Parisian English, ‘ Ah, but no, I would not have heard you because I always switch off the radio if I hear an American. I simply cannot listen to that accent.’

He describes his wife Claudette in different ways throughout the book. Our first introduction is uncompromising. Daniel is standing watching someone whom he assumes to be an innocent birdwatcher when she appears out of nowhere with a gun and fires it twice:

My wife, I should tell you, is crazy. Not in a requiring-medication-and wards-and-men-in-white-coats sense – although I sometimes wonder if there may have been times in her past – but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way. She doesn’t think like other people. She believes that to pull a gun on someone lurking, in all likelihood entirely innocently, at our perimeter fence is not only permissible but indeed the right thing to do.

Later we learn she is beautiful, ‘flawless‘, ‘100% biodegradable‘ – no plastic surgery. But she dresses to downplay her dramatic good looks in large sunglasses, big hats and bohemian oddities: a ‘mad lady‘ in ‘insane clothes‘. She is constantly restless, endlessly reinventing her surroundings, and yet Daniel calls her his ‘unavoidable constant‘.

She is, in fact, an acclaimed actress and film-maker who simply vanished from sight one day, and hid herself away in a remote derelict cottage in Donegal, Ireland. But her fame is intriguingly captured by a chapter which takes the form of an auction catalogue of memorabilia from her life coming under the hammer, together with photographs of Claudette in her heyday wearing or carrying or accompanying the said items.

The assorted children are also larger than life and imperfect people, captured with sensitivity and sympathy.

Claudette’s son, Ari, has a severe speech impediment when we first meet him; he becomes a suave young man, a father, caring, intelligent, kind, as we see him dipping in and out of Daniel’s story, although his speech problems continue to resurrect themselves when he comes under stress:

Ari is one stylish boy. I’m not sure quite how this happened: his mother scrubs up well, as we know, but most of the time she dresses like a maniac. The house looks like a garage sale crossed with the bottom of a birdcage and I struggle along sartorially. Somehow, from this messy brew, this tall elegant child emerged, looking like a model for avant-garde tailoring. I sometimes wonder if it’s his Scandinavian genes coming through: that pared-down aesthetic of his, the clean lines of him.

Daniel’s boy, Niall, is a strange lad, tortured by severe eczema, requiring heavy pastes, bandages, diversionary techniques for coping with the unbearable itch. He is devoted to his sister, Phoebe, and very protective of his father. Phoebe herself is somehow ephemeral, childish and rather shadowy until she is inexplicably shot dead in her teens whilst innocently browsing the drug store for lip gloss. Her red-gold hair, milk-white skin, wide-spaced eyes, angled nose are echoed in her younger sister Marithe who is ‘equal parts pixie, angel and sylph‘, a constant reminder of what they have lost.

The baby, Calvin, is at the stage of separation anxiety when we meet him, beautifully captured by a scene where the family are travelling the dirt track from their house in Ireland to the road, and his mother needs to hop out of the rickety car to undo and re-latch no less than twelve gates along the route:

I stop the car. My wife snaps off her seatbelt, shoves open her door, steps out and slams the door, exiting the small rhombus of the rain-glazed passenger window. A moment later, she reappears in the panorama of the windscreen; she is waking away from the car. This triggers some pre-verbal synapse in the baby: his neurology tells him that the sight of his mother’s retreating back is bad news, that she may never return, that he will be left here to perish, that the company of his somewhat scatty and only occasionally present father is not sufficient to secure his survival (he has a point). He lets out a howl of despair, a signal to the mothership: abort mission, request immediate return.

Even Daniel’s aged father, who plays a fairly peripheral part in the actual story, is portrayed vividly with a few deft touches. Daniel’s sisters have been urging him to visit before the old man shuffles off this mortal coil or he will live to regret it, but his response is:

… the man walks two miles every day, eats enough pulled pork to repopulate New York State of pigs, and he certainly doesn’t sound infirm if you get him on the phone: never does he find himself at a loss when pointing out my shortcomings and misjudgements. Plus, with regard to his much-vaunted potential death, if you ask me, the man never had a pulse in the first place.

And a neighbour is summarised beautifully in one pithy paragraph:

Donal is an ill-scented homonculus who farms the land further down the valley. He – and his wife, I’d imagine – has what you might call a problem with anger management. Somewhat trigger-happy, Donal. He shoots everything on sight: squirrels, rabbits, foxes, hill-walkers (just kidding).

But perhaps more than that, O’Farrell’s originality comes through in the unique writing techniques she employs. She explains at the end of the book why this one is structurally adventurous. Whilst writing the novel she was watching builders demolish the back of her house, remove supporting walls, and the experience gave her ideas for her writing:

The day I watched them insert steel joists inside the walls, inch by meticulous inch, then remove those metal props, I thought you can do anything, you can float a room in mid-air, you can have a chapter that is an auction catalogue, you can write an account of the torture of eczema with accompanying footnotes, you can dismantle the back wall of a house, as long as you put in an endoskeleton of support. You can take risks, you can rip up the rulebook: you just need to make sure you’ve factored in the necessary engineering.

I must warn that it requires concentration to stay abreast of all the different threads in this book – the changing time frames, roles, perspectives, tenses, countries – you need all your wits about you. I was fortunate in being able to read the whole book over a few days. Had I been dipping in and out over a longer time I fear I’d have got hopelessly lost. I suspect one would appreciate her skill even more on a second read when so much more would be understood. As it is, secondary characters with their own stories sometimes bewilder until a familiar face in a different time comes into view and the picture clarifies. You just need to hold on tight and wait; all will become clear. Even after I’d got the hang of what she was doing, even as far along as P418, when an elderly woman, Rosalind, newly released from a long marriage and grappling with betrayal and childlessness, appears on the monochromic saltplanes of the Bolivian Altiplano, I was thinking, Now what? Who’s she? And then, mercifully, the main protagonist in a different guise slid into the seat of the truck beside her. Ahhh, so that’s where this fits. No wonder the author herself needed a behemoth of a pin-board looming above her desk ‘like an ocean liner‘, and colour coding taken to extreme lengths to hold the skeleton of the plot together!

But overall the unravelling story of Daniel and Claudette’s love is told with emotional sophistication and subtle humanity.

For me it was a real feast of a book.

PS. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many colons and semicolons in it. I just had to include some in this review in homage!!

 

 

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