I confess I’ve been haunted by the horrors in the Philippines following Hurricane Haiyan. Somehow it feels indecent and somehow disrespectful to carry on eating meals, arranging flowers, thinking about Christmas, selling books. Luxuries all.
So it seemed a good time to read a book l’ve had in my tbr pile about one man’s experience of loss in such a calamity, and at the same time celebrate Book Week Scotland by sharing one of my best reads of this year. Let not the Waves of the Sea is Simon Stephenson‘s memoir about the death of his brother, Dominic, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, a disaster that claimed the lives and futures of 230,000 people – it’s a number too big to get your head around, isn’t it?
Dominic, an architect, lived and worked in Edinburgh. He was born in the hospital where my children were born. He and his brother grew up not far from where I Iive. He went to the school where my brother-in-law taught. He played in the same park around which my grandchildren cycle today. So it feels very real and close to home.
The book begins with Simon making a pilgrimage to the Thai island, Ko Phi Phi, scene of the tragedy, and instantly we know we’re in the hands of a master story teller. He climbs up a vertiginous path until he reaches a high viewpoint where people below resemble matchstick men and women going about their everyday lives. There he stands in silence for a long time thinking, imagining, grieving. Then he walks back down again, still in silence. ‘You put one foot in front of another, all the way down, but this day is broken before it has ever begun.‘ Symbolic of his life after Dominic.
That fateful day – Boxing Day 2004 – when news of the massive underwater earthquake and tsunami poured out of our televisions is surely indelibly etched on all our minds. But somehow Let not the Waves of the Sea has joined the dots and coloured in the outlines for me. Simon explains in careful detail that it wasn’t a wave as many people say. At the point where Dominic was, the first wall of water roared in at 20 feet high and kept coming for 30 minutes. It was followed by another one bigger than the first. The third one was bigger still. No, not a wave, more like a river, moreover a river ‘boiling with bricks and metal, with glass and timber.’ And this displacement of so many cubic miles of water was caused by the second strongest earthquake ever recorded. It ‘occurred deep below the Indian Ocean. For over a thousand miles, the Indian Plate has moved beneath the Burma Plate, elevating the seabed above by as much as twenty feet‘. He excuses the scientific detail by saying it’s for all those people whose physics teachers were no better than the one who taught him and his brother at school.
There follows the terrible wait. The not knowing. Simon poignantly captures the sheer unbelievability of losing his brother: 27, fit and healthy, with a ‘thousand-watt smile‘, a strong swimmer, having a holiday of a lifetime on an island paradise with his girlfriend. It’s Christmas time – only hours before they’d exchanged greetings over the phone. Dominic and Eileen have just bought their first Edinburgh flat together, and face a lean time starting to pay off the mortgage. The possibility of his death ‘remained unthinkable.’ And yet, in the midst of the denial, the TV ‘spilled its foreign tragedy into our lives’.
Simon hopes against hope, against his mother’s quiet conviction. But during all the uncertainty, there’s the unimaginable horror of desperately seeking to identify – or not – his beloved brother amidst the bodies ‘battered in the chaos, bloated by the water then scorched black by the sun.’ To find something, anything, that belonged to him. And even once a body with Dominic’s surgical scar is found, there’s the agonising wait for DNA confirmation.
Then comes the finality of knowing for certain Dominic is not holed up somewhere waiting for rescue, that the longed-for call or email will never arrive, that they will never again see or hold each other. ‘On what should be Dominic’s twenty-eighth birthday, I am sitting in a small room near the centre of Edinburgh, my head rested upon his coffin‘ and whispering ‘some of the things I wish I had told him in the restaurant three doors down the street whilst I still had the chance.‘ No one is allowed to see the body, sealed in metal within the wooden coffin, and Simon realises he doesn’t want to. As a doctor, he has certified many deaths, but he wants his beloved brother to remain undisturbed.It’s a beautifully written memoir. Simon has had some success professionally as a screenwriter, and he captures mood and sentiment with as much skill as fact. His familiarity with the people and places, his identification with all things Thai, make his natural use of local phrases like ‘when the waters came‘ entirely right. And through his warmly intimate memories we feel the closeness of these two young men, the special love and shared life, the shattering loss.
Even the title is perfectly chosen. It comes from the mystic fable, The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, an extract of which Simon read at the funeral. ‘Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.’ Stories of those years are alive with mischief and energy, sibling secrets and teenage pranks, making the present loss at once more raw and yet somehow softer.
Perhaps his simple account of the first anniversary, as the bereaved stand in the memorial garden on Ko Phi Phi, best captures the feel of this tribute to a lost brother:
‘Last year the water arrived at half past ten in the morning and so this is the time our ceremony begins. Twelve months ago there would have been noise, so much terrible noise, and we remember it now with silence, our collective gaze drawn to the names on the wall and the still sea beyond. Our silence lasts only a minute, but carries for an eternity that will echo down through all the quiet moments of a lifetime.’
For me the book should end at page 253; the remaining 50 pages would be better as an appendix, but that quibble aside, I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly. A poignant and brave memoir; a deeply moving picture of the life and death of a beloved brother; an analysis of family bonds forged and broken; what it means to be left behind. And a salutary insight into the ongoing devastation of major catastrophes.
Priority at the moment has to be the promotion of Over my Dead Body, so research on the next book has been relegated to a back seat. Sad but true. However, that doesn’t stop the ideas simmering.
Remember this row of books about anorexia? Well, so far I’ve read only 7, but already I’ve come to a definite decision: weight loss mustn’t drive my story. Frankly I’m bored out of my skull with it already! Admittedly most of the books have been teen fiction and not really my kind of reading in the first place, but they’ve served a useful function in that they’ve shown me clearly what to rule out of my own writing.
It was Girl under Pressure, an ebook by Michele Corriveau, that clinched it. The only one to date with anything approaching a gripping storyline, which has held my interest, and had no sense of being a cautionary tale. It’s also sufficiently whacky to make me admire the author’s courage in tackling such disturbing themes.
The story begins with the abduction and death of a little girl, Jessie. Not an easy topic but it came as a breath of fresh air after the previous six books, and I was struck by the literary possibilities it offered. The horror for the two main families of discovering Jessie has been snatched offers a potentially powerful hook to create tension and emotional engagement from the outset. I say ‘potentially’ because sadly the author doesn’t fully capitalise on her good idea. The incident is dealt with too quickly and too coldly – a source of considerable frustration for me as a reader; but at least I could appreciate what might have been.
NB. If you’re considering reading this book, I should warn you the rest of this post contains spoilers.
As a child, the main protagonist, Maggie, uses food to bargain with God to stop bad things happening to those she loves – it’s called magical thinking. But then food becomes an obsession. As the years go on, her OCD escalates and she progresses to stealing in an effort to stop the pressure mounting inside her. She can’t think straight until she’s stopped the voices that demand she carries out this act. Once she’s done it, she can calmly go on living her life. Stealing then gives way to a compulsion to seek out strangers for sex.
She gets beaten up and raped more than once by the men she goes with and the reader starts to get a real sense of the power of the OCD that has her in its grip. These horrific experiences aren’t enough to stop her continuing to put herself at risk. Maggie’s husband, Alex, becomes increasingly anxious and bewildered by her behaviour; she either conjures up improbable stories, or simply refuses to talk about what’s happened. Then one day, things come to a head. She meets a man on a park bench and accompanies him to his home for sex. He thinks she’s a child because she is so tiny and looks immature, and when he’s unable to dominate her as he wants/needs, he becomes extremely violent. When she sees his face on TV as a man wanted for questioning in relation to the abduction of little Jessie, the only daughter of her friends, Maggie is appalled. He can’t be guilty; at the time in question he was with her.
In spite of her dread of exposing her own sordid behaviour, and the effect of such a revelation on her beloved husband, Maggie’s conscience drives her to go to the police to clear this man’s name. Alex is utterly appalled when he learns the truth. He leaves her, taking the children with him. But in fact her alibi is false because one of her children had changed the clock in the car. This man hadn’t been with her at the critical time. He had killed Jessie just before he picked up Maggie in the park. So she’d risked and lost everything for a murderer and paedophile.
I found the plotting intriguing and the storyline very different, but it was spoiled for me by the litter of typographical errors and the muddled point of view in places. I wanted to give it a good edit and send it out into the world spruced up.
But, thanks to Corriveau, I’ve been able to turn a negative into a positive and learn a valuable lesson about what not to do in my own writing.
It’s been a funny old week. Muddly and dotty with lots of different balls in the air. All totally eclipsed by the devastation in the Philippines, of course, but life here has to go on, so a quick resume for those who asked me to give glimpses into the life of a writer.
Biggest achievement? Finishing writing the annual Christmas story/play for the grandchildren (which they act out as I narrate). I can’t divulge any details or give you any sneaky peeks lest I incur the wrath of my family who like it to be a complete surprise on the day. But I’ve had a load of fun assembling/ordering the props, and the various costumes it requires are cut out ready for a bonanza whirl with the sewing machine. One bedroom is now strictly off limits to all.
Biggest effort? It’s Book Week Scotland at the end of the month – a week long celebration of reading; and I’ve been invited to put in an appearance (and speak!) at our local library on 28th as part of that. So we’ve done a concentrated blast of publicity for BWS and for Over My Dead Body in our area. The last time I spoke in a public library there were less than ten people there, so any advance on that has to be good.
Most warming? Contact from a lovely man in Northern Ireland, William, who’s been waiting years for a kidney transplant. He’s just read OMDB and now he’s promoting it – with such energy and enthusiasm too. It’s a particular thrill to get endorsements like this from someone who really understands the dilemmas. William’s a bit of a campaigner by all accounts, and hopefully we can work together to raise awareness of the importance of having that ‘after-my-death’ conversation. As you know, I don’t see my role as coming down on one side or the other; just encouraging people to think for themselves. If OMDB does that, it’s fulfilled its aim. Thanks, William, for your encouragement.
Most routine? Sorting and filing a stack of articles about medical ethics for possible future books. Yawn, yawn. Has to be done, though. No fairies in this establishment … or are there? Well … My lips are sealed.
But the biggest preoccupation is undoubtedly Asia and our responsibility to our fellow man. Hard to get those pictures out of your mind, isn’t it? The more we see, the greater the horror. Indescribable.
Poor old Julian Fellowes must be heartily sick of smart alecs telling him about the anachronisms they perceive in his TV drama, Downton Abbey, and my sympathy is definitely with him. You can bet your socks not one of his lay critics could write anything half as good as Britain’s most successful TV screenplay. As a friend of mine in the Scottish Office used to say, for every 100 critics there’s only one person who can really write, and that ratio’s sure to be a whole lot higher when it comes to writing that achieves the success of DA.
I do watch the programme. I find the Dowager Countess’s acid one-liners delicious. I’m interested in how Anna and Bates resolve their differences following her rape below-stairs. I’m speculating with everyone else about what’s happened to Lady Edith’s editor chappie who’s supposedly gone to Germany to try to hasten their marriage plans. I’m enjoying the glimpses into attitudes and prejudices of the time in relation to class and colour, abortion and the death penalty. I’m even vaguely wondering who will eventually melt the heart of the ice widow, Lady Mary.
But for me it’s pure escapism; I’m not looking to obtain a degree in the subject. So the occasional anomaly – a song, a word, a piece of clothing ahead of its time, really doesn’t matter hugely. I can shrug my shoulders and say, so what? Even the veritable army of folk who must surely check things for Fellowes get it wrong sometimes, and the author’s surely big enough to take the criticism. OK, you’re right: I’ve been known to be more sniffy about accuracy elsewhere, and I’m bordering on obsessive about checking the authenticity of my own writing, but I don’t have millions of folk poised waiting to crush me with their cleverness. Maybe it’s the price you pay for fame.
Fellowes has protested that some of the words he uses which sound modern were actually in use long ago. And it’s true that there’s very little new under the sun. I had a real sense of this when we visited the Asklepion (or the health centre) at what used to be Pergamon in the west of Turkey recently. It dates back to the 4th Century BC and the well known physician Galen practised healing there in 2 AD. It’s a marvellously serene place and you can wander around and over it freely without barriers. I even washed my face and hands in the sacred spring that was visited by the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius! (No noticeable difference to report as yet!) Back in its heyday patients put on comedies in the theatre because their doctors realised laughter is a good medicine. The sound of water was used to soothe patients and allow private consultations. Dream chambers gave doctors an opportunity to induce dreams and suggest things to patients as an early form of psychological therapy. Hot and cold mud baths, special diets, herbal remedies, massages … they were all on offer. And we thought these were relatively new discoveries!
So you won’t be surprised to hear that someone has recently unearthed a recipe for doughnuts (actually dow nuts) dating back to 1800. Pause then before you criticise, all you Downton-bashers. Are you quite sure of your facts?
I’ve just returned from a fortnight in Turkey, and have lots of catching up to do, so I’ll simply share a few pictures of an amazing country with you this week. Relax, folks, it’ll only be a tiny fraction of the 1,273 photos we took – just enough to give a flavour of the spectacular geological formations …the awe inspiring architecture …intricate interior decoration …and the ornate Arabic writing …Of the fascinating ancient sites …and incredibly old artefacts …Of the exotic handicrafts and colourful bazaars …Evidence of Turkey’s long history of conflicts is everywhere …The poignant war graves at Gallipoli made me cry …but plenty of things made me smile …A complete break away from everyday life; refreshing in itself. I only hope my grey cells remember a fraction of the information our superb guides imparted. I’ve certainly returned with lots of ideas and props for the children’s annual Christmas story so I must knuckle down and commit them to the computer while the taste of genuine Turkish Delight is still fresh.
Cue weary sigh. Why, on such a beautiful autumnal day?My computer has been throwing serious hissy fits this week, that’s why, and I’ve been alternately bereft and frustrated and stressed, and hugely resentful of the time wasted trying to get it sorted out. Yesterday it died – terminal in both senses. So I’ve been acutely aware of the immense benefits of modern technology I normally take for granted.
Which brings me nicely to a current big debate. Are agents and publishers right to expect their authors to have a significant online presence? Writer Jonathan Frantzen has stirred the self-promotion pot again this week with his claim on Radio 4′s Today programme that agents are refusing to even look at a manuscript from new young scribblers unless they have at least 250 followers on Twitter. Frantzen reckons that they should be concentrating on developing their authorial voice not messing about shouting about themselves. Is he right?
On one level maybe. And I for one would hate to crush creative ability just because someone is seriously allergic to technology. But hey, competition out there is tough. How do you get your book or yourself noticed if you turn your back on all the advantages of 21st century communication?
Personally, being a Luddite at heart, I prefer the line taken by most literary advisers: use the networking which feel most comfortable to you – website, blog, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter – whatever. Tweeting happens to be one avenue I’ve avoided to date but I have every reason to be grateful to others who use it. Why, only last week an organisation who generously reviewed Over My Dead Body, tweeted the comments to over 17,000 followers. Thanks hugely, folks at The Bookbag. I couldn’t have reached that audience.
Another relatively recent development is that many agents and publishers simply say to would-be clients, If you don’t hear back from us within X months you can assume we are not in a position to represent you. Hmm. Off goes your precious manuscript into a great black hole. X months pass. X +1. X + 2. OK, they warned you. But you have no idea why it wasn’t accepted. Of course, it saves them valuable time, but it also denies you the opportunity of learning from the experience. Or framing their scathing comments and hanging them in your loo when you sell your first million copies of the said work.
In days of yore publishers did comment, and plenty of big names have shared their rejection with the world, evidence of serious errors of judgement which can be hugely entertaining for the rest of us. And incidentally engender renewed respect for authors who persevered in spite of the damning criticism.
You’ve probably heard lots of them. If not, click here or here or here for some salutary examples to make you chortle. I’ll share just one quote to put you in the mood. A publisher sending John le Carré’s first novel to a colleague: You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.
As Frank Sinatra famously said: The best revenge is massive success.
Well, the stack of books about eating disorders I ordered by way of research for my next novel (working title: Skin and Bone) is growing steadily. Here’s the first haul awaiting my attention – I’ve managed to read a measly two so far.And here are some of the Kindle titles also waiting for that glorious time when I can lie back with a clear conscious and wallow in one of my favourite pastimes.
But marketing Over My Dead Body takes precedence right now. Much as I should love to have a team of elves scurrying around in the background doing all the work, and agents and demi-agents and assistant demi-agents all cracking whips, the sad truth is they are a mere figment of my fevered imagination. In my rational world, I’m making myself allocate time most days to it. Reviews are pending; I’ve had several invitations to speak at events; word is filtering out; so behind the scenes we are moving in a forwardly direction.
Balance is a constant preoccupation of mine … in my writing, that is. Balance between serious and entertaining; light and dark; truth and fiction. Could this perhaps have influenced my assessment of The Casual Vacancy? Quite possibly.
Yep, I’ve finally got around to reading JK Rowling‘s first adult novel. And yes, I do know it’s old hat, a year old this month, in fact, but the truth is, I felt so ambivalent about reading a book that might cloud my view of an amazing writer. Conscience though, finally got the better of me: it simply wasn’t fair to ‘pigeonhole’ it without reading it.
As you probably know, The Casual Vacancy was an instant bestseller, much hyped by the publisher, purely on the basis of the author’s fame. But once out, it got a fairly hefty slating by the critics. Amazon readers too have been divided in their opinions. To date 482 people have given it either two or one star. But hey, 889 rated it worth 4 or 5 stars! Sigh. What must it be like to get 1600+ people posting reviews on Amazon? We lesser mortals can only dream. But I reckon it’s OK for me to be honest in my opinions about somebody with that size of following.
To begin with it’s a door stopper of a book. (JKR goes in for hefty volumes, doesn’t she?) 503 pages in the hardback version. So free up a hefty chunk of time if you plan to read it. And you’ll need all your wits about you, because It tracks loads of characters, (81 somebody counted!) pretty much all of them dysfunctional, so the Samanthas and Shirleys and Aubreys and Andrews and Howards and Simons and Colins and Gavins and Julias take some sorting out. The author deserves some kind of accolade for juggling this number of balls all at once.
But more than that, she tackles an eye-watering number of difficult and dark topics: (in no particular order) paedophilia, bullying, mental illness, drug addiction, adultery, snobbery, suicide, child abuse, professional malpractice, prostitution, warring families, assorted criminal behaviours, sycophancy, class wars, computer hacking, self harm, rape, domestic violence, child death … That amount of misery and sheer wretchedness is pretty hard to take, especially when it’s all happening in one small fictional town, Pagford, in the Westcountry. So don’t come to this book for a feel-good factor! And certainly not if life is tough for you at the moment and you’re contemplating – be in never so remotely – self-harm. There are no Hogwartian wizards to magic everything right in this one. Tragedy’s the name of the game.
Because of my chosen profession, I’ve seen and heard a fair bit of the seamy side of life, but I must confess I found it hard to like or sympathise with any of these characters. Their language, their lifestyles, their malice, their selfish and cruel behaviours, make this a sordid tale, exasperating at times, infuriating at others. Even Barry Fairbrother who dies in the opening section leaving the casual vacancy on the town council, turns out not to be the saint he was thought to be. And he’s probably the best of the bunch – possibly because his early death spares him the scrutiny other characters get.
The focus is supposed to be on who will fill Barry’s seat, but I couldn’t care less who was on the council for the Pagfordites. A rotten lot through and through. No, for me, the more compelling saga is what will happen to Robbie Weedon, 3-year-old son of a drug-addicted prostitute, and kid brother of teenage rebel Krystal, who lives in a toy-less and chaotic house on a sink estate that’s a bone of contention for the said council. OK, there are those who’ve roundly condemned the author’s limited understanding of child protection, but leaving that aside, as the story unfolded I found myself warming to Krystal, a feisty youngster battling to hold her family together, and seeking a way out of the filth and squalor, in order to give wee Robbie a future. The self-centred, puffed-up, hypocritical adults competing for position and searching for lost youth and stabbing everybody else in the back left me cold, but in spite of her behaviour, I really did want Krystal to succeed against the odds and do Barry Fairweather’s memory proud. And I was rooting for Robbie the innocent pawn in a murky and deviant game. But happily I’m not someone who needs a happy ending and I actually thought the whole Weedon finale was handled well.
JKR has recently announced that she’s returning to children’s books, and I for one am glad to hear it. She’s at her best when she’s dealing with the children/teenagers in this book – their secret fears and aspirations, their insecurities and rebellion. Perhaps that’s why she has captured the hearts of millions. She understands their angst, how they tick. I can only hope they don’t get hold of a copy of The Casual Vacancy and have their image of a favourite author despoiled.