Hazel McHaffie

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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Modern medical challenges: What do you think?

I’ve just had another filing morning – yawn, yawn. (For new visitors to my blog, that means tucking an accumulation of snippets and ideas into files on different medical ethical topics which might or might not become novels one day.) So I thought I’d share some of the news items with you and throw out a few thoughts for you to ponder or not as you feel so inclined. I’ve supplied links for extra information if you’re interested. No pressure.

Gender issues

An 8 month old Canadian baby has been issued with a health card that doesn’t specify the child’s gender. Single parent Kori Doty is a non-binary transgender person who wants baby Searyl to decide for *themself how *they wish to be recognised.
(*parent’s chosen pronouns)

Over here, the number of children under 10 being referred to gender identity clinics has quadrupled  in the past five years – figures showed that of the 2,016 referrals for children between the ages of 3 and 18, no less than 165 were under 10. (stats from the Gender Identity Development Service – the NHS’s only such facility)

Two young British men (Hayden Cross and Scott Parker – one 21, one 23) have gone public about putting their gender reassignment on hold until they’ve given birth. Both were born female, both have been living as men for a number of years.

And now there’s talk of transgender women receiving donated wombs. It’s a complicated enough process in biologically female patients, with significant risks to mother and fetus during pregnancy. But those who are born male have other issues to contend with such as an inadequate pelvis for giving birth naturally.

A hotter topic seems to be the growing number of transgender people who are seeking reversals, quoting crippling levels of depression and suicidal thoughts, but this development is being kept very quiet according to Prof Miroslav Djordjevic who runs a clinic in Belgrade. Some specialists fear that money plays a part in this with patients accepted for reassignment as long as they can supply the requisite cheque without adequate psychological evaluation and counselling.

Q. What do you feel about
the move to have non-gender specific loos and forms and facilities?
– a lower age limit for reassignment?
– young people who’ve started to transition wanting to call a halt to have babies while they still can?
those subsequently wanting to reverse the process?
transgender women having a womb transplant and giving birth?

Genes and inheritance

The Chief Medical Officer has advocated DNA gene sequencing for every cancer patient in Britain to prevent misdiagnosis, needless hospital visits and ineffective chemotherapy. Testing can correctly identify not just the actual illness but also specific mutations which play a significant role in the success of treatments. On the face of it it’s a big ask: more than 350,000 people are diagnosed with cancer annually and at the moment each DNA test costs around £600. But centralising the testing would reduce the individual costs and personalising the drugs used should speed up treatment and save the NHS a lot of money.

Charlotte Raven was unaware that there was Huntington’s Disease in her family until her father – newly officially diagnosed himself – told her when she was 36 and already had one child. Now aged 48, she’s had symptoms for 7 years and estimates she has at best 10 years to live. She has two children both of whom have a 50% chance of inheriting the illness.

Q. What do you feel about
– the proposal to gene sequence every cancer patient?
the potential discrimination in favour of cancer patients when other disciplines are seriously strapped for cash?
– having the definitive test for a crippling inherited disease yourself?
– the optimal age to tell a child they have a 50% chance of inheriting a degenerative condition?

Fertility

According to research led by a Hebrew university which tracked over 40,000 men, since 1970s sperm counts have fallen by almost 60%. These findings have been likened to the canary in the coalmine – indicative of changes in society and the environment that are damaging health far beyond fertility. Just what should we be doing about chemical pollution, stress, obesity, tight underpants?

A British-born Sikh couple, Sandeep and Reena Mander, whose parents came to this country from Punjab, have launched legal action against the adoption service in their county, Berkshire, after being refused permission to adopt a white child because of their ‘cultural heritage’. The council have only white babies on their register. This professional couple are in their early thirties and have already undergone 6 years of fertility treatment (privately financed to the tune of c£150,000) unsuccessfully. And they have the backing of their local MP – the prime minister, no less! They have now been cleared to adopt in the USA – another extremely expensive procedure.

The senior council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – without balloting its members – has voted by a majority to decriminalise abortion at any stage of a pregnancy on the grounds that it has a responsibility to protect women’s health by ensuring access to key services. It isn’t, however, advocating changing the current 24-week cut off period for abortions; rather it seeks to have the restrictions governed by professional regulations not the criminal law.

Scotland has introduced two new changes this month:  women from Northern Ireland can now get free abortions here, and women are allowed to take the abortion bill at home instead of having to be admitted to a clinical setting. i

Q. What do you feel about
– the implications of falling fertility? Should society be being more proactive in your view?  If so, how?
– i
nfertile couples incurring massive expense trying to have a baby?
adoption agencies discriminating in terms of ethnicity, faith, geography, etc?
the availability and legality of abortion?
– the risks to women of inducing abortions at home?
– medical tourism?

Not to mention all sorts of stories and news and stats on NHS resources, performance targets, shortage of health care professionals … never any shortage of material to fire the grey cells and indignation, and get the creative juices flowing. What if …? Supposing …? Imagine if …

 

PS. I’ve done my best to check various sources but please do post a comment if you have more information that runs counter to the brief synopsis I’ve offered.

 

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The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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Thrillers – lessons learned

OK, with a pile of thrillers of various kinds now read and analysed, I’m a bit closer to refining my own choices for the current novel. What have I decided so far?

Main narrative thread
The issue must be one I personally care about. And I need to be clear who I’m trying to appeal to. A tale of individuals seeking personal justice or dealing with their own family dramas holds my interest more than stories about money laundering or righting organisational wrongs.

Main protagonist(s)
The lead doesn’t have to be likeable but the reader must care about his/her fate so the character needs to be carefully drawn and handled, with a plausible and intriguing backstory.
His/her motivation must be worthy so readers will root for him/her.
He/she must be up against tremendous odds.

Secondary characters
Too many tangential stories and secondary characters run the risk of losing narrative tension and interest. (Or am I a wimp when it comes to holding umpteen names and storylines in my head?)

Style
Short sentences and staccato prose can help build tension but lose impact if used too often. Sentence structure, length and complexity need to be varied.
Grammatically incomplete sentences also need to be used with caution; they can hold up the pace of a story.

Action
The psychology of the characters must be authentic and plausible. (See writers like Jonathan Kellerman who’s a psychologist himself and uses a psychologist to help solve crimes, or Linda Fairstein who was a prosecutor focusing on crimes of violence against women and children and really understands police procedure.)

Accuracy
If the story includes historical reality or geographical locations, the facts must be spot on accurate.

So, with that foundation, I’m now concentrating on fleshing out the profiles of my own characters.

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Why do we do it?

Writing’s a strange occupation. Like no other.

I’ve been catching up on the literary magazines, prompting various ruminations-from-the-recovery-couch this week which I thought I’d share with you, but, please, don’t read this as a disgruntled gripe. It’s a calm reflective autumnal sharing from one who’s in the privileged position of not seeking fame, not needing to pay the bills from royalties, not under outside pressure to produce the goods. I’m a compulsive writer, I thrive on simple feedback from satisfied readers, sharing an evening with a group of avid readers over wine and one of my novels, debating serious issues with those challenged by one of my opinion pieces. However, I am acutely mindful of others trying to carve a career in the perilous world of words; I care about the impact of anomalies and injustices on them. So here goes – a few reflections on the occupation of writing fiction.

There are no real goal posts, precious few rules, and even those committed to textbooks/how-to-books are rather unofficial and fluid and subject to modification, changing depending on the hands wielding the red pen or waving the chequebook. An indefinable mysterious ‘something’ separates out the brilliant from the excellent, the good from the mediocre. Style? Brio? Panache? Whatever. Every single new effort launches itself into this unknown abyss in hope, but with no guarantees – not even for the well established household-name author. And with thousands upon thousands of books being published every year the chances of standing out in a crowd are diminishingly rare.

And yet, despite this reality, the world and his live-in-lover and long-lost great-uncle’s mother-in-law seem to think they can be authoritative about a piece of work that someone else has slaved over for years. With no qualifications, no pedigree, no authority whatever, they think nothing of assigning one or two stars, printing a scathing review, and generally rubbishing a carefully-constructed work of fiction, merely on the grounds that it doesn’t appeal to them. And the author is usually frowned on if he/she goes on the defensive.

We writers all have our peccadillos and habits, and outside scrutiny can help to eliminate the most annoying ones. For example, editors will helpfully point out words that an author is rather too fond of, and I’ve done the same thing myself for serious scribblers who’ve asked me to critique their raw work. But should I have done so? Ben Blatt, an American journalist, has subjected a wide range of published fiction to some seriously ruthless data-crunching and he reckons that this is common; every writer uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often.
A few illustrations from published works:
Jane Austencivility
Zadie Smithevil eye
Dan Brownfull circle
Donna Tartttoo good to be true
It’s a bit like a fingerprint. Hmmm, I might need to re-think this one.

I confess I sigh heavily when I see celebrity after celebrity adding ‘writer’ to their list of occupations. Yeah, right! Knowing as I do the skill, hard slog and endless work that goes into even a modest-sized work of fiction, and cringing as I do at the ungrammatical prose of many a famous name at interview, I seriously doubt the authenticity of many of these claims. And I fear it simply feeds into a common perception that ‘anyone’ can write a book. I still have to grit my teeth when ordinary average people tell me they would be writers too if they weren’t busy saving the planet in some other more worthy and important way.

And yet celebrities command top positions with their publishers, landing lucrative contracts, often ousting the real best-selling writers, bagging the front seats in bookshop displays, the key position on the TV couch. How frustrating for master craftsmen to be overtaken by far less competent and deserving competition, to see their own publicity/marketing budgets (hello? do they still exist for ordinary mortals?) diverted to feather the downy nests of the rich and famous. Plenty of well-known established authors have gone public about this injustice/disloyalty, even jumping ship to continue in other more faithful publishing vessels.

Then there’s the whole business of valuing books – and those who create them. Readers want to pay the lowest price possible (mea culpa!). Ninety-nine pence for a work that should cost £8.99? – that’ll do nicely thank you. Absolutely nothing goes to the author who has no salary, no security, no say. Will you come and speak at my bookgroup/ library/evening salon/literary festival? Of course! And after the event … payment? Hello? Nothing/a bunch of flowers/a bottle of wine/a hasty meal/not even expenses. Commonplace.

And yet. And yet. And yet. We continue to write. Because we must. Because we are compelled to do so by some internal driving force. Because there is nothing to beat the exhilaration of stepping into the shoes and minds of protagonists of our own creation, realising our imaginings, hearing readers talk about our characters as if they are real people in their lives – a reward (in my opinion and circumstances) worth so much more than mere pounds and pence.

I love what I do! And as long as other people enjoy my writing, I’m more than happy to share the product of those months of isolation and hard work.

 

 

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Second time around

I am lost in admiration. What a terrific skill it is for a story to begin in a writer’s imagination and finish vividly in the reader’s, and for someone to be just as riveted by it even on a subsequent reading when the end is known.

It’s extremely rare for me to read a book a second time; there are just far too many new ones out there, but one indulgence of my convalescence post-surgery has been lots of extra sitting-down-time. So, I made a conscious decision this week to revisit one of my favourites: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein, which I mentioned in my last post, and see how I felt about it now. It’s probably about 15 years since I bought it and although I remembered the final twist in the tale, I certainly couldn’t recall the detail. I’m in a different place myself today, much more analytical/critical, much more intrigued by the structure of a story, the skill of the writing – would I love it as much today as I did then?

In brief so as not to spoil the joy for anyone else:
Two young women – one a nun in a Latin American country and the other a prisoner in a London penitentiary – are linked in some inexplicable and potentially deadly way. One has given her life in service to God, the other is serving a life sentence for killing a child. Now the nun is nearing death but the cause of her illness is baffling both the medics and the nuns. Intrigued by certain peculiarities in her behaviour and drawn to this fragile and clearly troubled young religious fading away in front of him, a Jesuit priest is determined to do what he can to discover what links these two women and halt this spiral towards an untimely death. As he’s drawn deeper into the horror of their stories he’s forced to face his own demons and choices.

And yes, it was every bit as mesmerising, every bit as impressive, as I remembered. The three main characters are beautifully wrought, their back-stories are cleverly unravelled; you get drawn in by each of them, caring about what happens to them all. Then there’s exactly the right amount of suspense and revelation to keep you on the edge of your seat. And it’s very neatly balanced, with sharp contrasts: life in a closed religious order / in a prison; warm parenting / pathological; devotion to God / craving for human closeness; right / wrong; selfish ambition / self sacrificing love. In a couple of places the author’s research is perhaps a little two obvious, and the detail in the sex scenes doesn’t sit comfortably in the context, but her understanding of the various settings is rich and authentic, and with a deftness of touch she has created evocative settings and secondary characters that come alive on the page.

I am blown away for the second time. And I take this opportunity to salute all authors who have the skill to tell a gripping and challenging tale of this order … including Linda Castillo whose blood-chilling thriller, Sworn to Silence, I picked up next. Castillo’s new to me but I was left awed by her ability to capture very different worlds too. The nuances of life in the gentle peace-loving Amish community and what makes an Amish father refuse to travel in a police car but instead trundle for hours in a horse and buggy to identify his murdered daughter, on the one hand. The psychology of a sociopath who tortures and kills innocent young women without compunction, and who, though he has teenage daughters of his own, can slit the throats and eviserate the bodies and carve his trademark numerals into the skin of other parents’ living daughters, at the other end of the spectrum.

How can someone imagine all this, capture it, convey it so brilliantly? What trauma have they endured doing so?

The poet and novelist, Ben Okri, gave a speech at the 2017 Society of Authors’ Awards in London and put it like this:
‘…writing well, writing really well, so that it is still fresh and alive in a hundred years, is harder than being the prime minister, the president or almost any other job on earth. And why is it so hard? Because it is a damn mystery how it is done. Intelligence doesn’t do it. cleverness doesn’t do it, the right college or university or writing school won’t do it. It is a mystery how it is done, and a miracle when it is done.
Here’s to the art and the craft, the mystery and the miracle.’

Amen.

 

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What’s in a name?

Today’s post emerges from two people who share a name and whose actions have impinged upon my life as a writer.

The first is Marcel Proust, said to be one of the greatest French authors of the 20th Century. OK, he died in 1922, when my mother was 2 years old – so why is he affecting me in 2017?

Well, one of my pet hates is people who endlessly trumpet their own success or brilliance. It happens sometimes on social media, but at least then you usually know who the guilty party is and can assess/dismiss their accolades for what they’re worth. It’s a different matter when they do it incognito. Over the years, various people – reporters, other authors – have exposed writers for faking reviews of their own books and there’s widespread condemnation for such practices.

So it’s something of a paradox that big money is being made out of fraud that predates electronic communication and computers. But so it is. Letters Proust wrote to his editor have recently come to light which show that he employed his legendary literary skill to write superlative reviews of his own novels – really over-the-top, immodest attributions, I mean; comparing himself favourably to Charles Dickens – which were then published under other names or anonymously. And what’s more, his publisher was complicit in this practice.

The letters were discovered in a rare early copy of one of his books – whoops! But those same letters are now themselves going under the hammer at the end of this month and are expected to realise a handsome sum – and I’m talking hundreds of thousands of pounds here! Of course, it’s only because Proust’s work is so highly respected that there’s such a stooshie but still …

What a weirdly convoluted world we live in. I may be (I am!) too backward in coming forward where my own books are concerned, but my conscience is more at ease with that than it ever could be with indecent or unsavoury or unethical promotion.

The second Marcel is actually Marcelle: Marcelle Bernstein. Heard of her? Probably not  – although she’s a woman of distinction with several awards under her belt. And I’m sure she has never stooped to boost her own profile by anything so ill-judged as Proust. I mention her for quite a different reason. I loved her book Sacred and Profane when I read it years ago, but until this week I’d never got around to reading anything else she’s written. When Body and Soul came to the top of my tbr pile, of course, the shared name struck me as an interesting coincidence.

The author, Bernstein, herself has actually lived in a Carmellite convent as part of her research for a documentary about the life of the religious, and she can write about the inner turmoils as well as the outer deprivations with some authority and understanding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sacred and Profane and Body and Soul are set in nunneries.

I’ve reviewed Sacred and Profane (1995) elsewhere so I’ll limit my comments to Body and Soul (1991) which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I confess I was disappointed this time around. Sister Gabriel (Anna in the outside world) is in her early thirties and struggling with her vows after 13 years in a closed contemplative order in Wales. Her inner anguish is exposed to greater scrutiny when her brother Simon commits suicide leaving behind a pregnant wife, two small boys, a stack of debts, and a failing woollen mill. Anna is given a rather begrudging dispensation to go out into the outside world to help her distraught sister-in-law, and suddenly she’s aware of how much isolation and seclusion from temptation have been protecting her from her own wants and needs. ‘The habit had been a medieval chrysalis, protecting her from the twentieth century. It had given her a version of herself she could no longer accept: too passive, too patient, negative.’

Once outside, this rather stern, solitary, sheltered woman falls prey to many a worldly emotion and lure. For me, I must confess, the plot was too thin, I didn’t care enough about the characters, and worse, Anna’s fall from grace simply didn’t ring true. Would a shy inhibited puritan with so many sexual hangups and taboos really submit so easily to the gropings of assorted men she’d just met? Would she abandon so many of her customary ingrained habits and adopt hitherto shunned and despised practices? I think not. So for me, this book was perfectly readable, but not believable or memorable.

Why then do I mention it? Because it reinforces the fact that reading is subjective, that an author will probably not please all the people all the time, that research only takes a novelist so far, and that one can never rest on one’s laurels in this business. Even a book loved decades ago might not appeal where the same reader is today. All important lessons for me as a writer and my own most severe critic.

 

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Living the dream

What a week I’ve had! OK, I may be confined to barracks post-surgery, strictly forbidden (by authoritative medical personnel no less) from all housework or exertion of any kind, having to keep my leg elevated day and night … but, bored? Not a bit! Frustrated? Nope. Secretly sorry for myself? Certainly not! I’m capitalising on the situation and achieving far more than I ever anticipated. And buzzing! Has to be good for the soul.

OK, I knew it was coming. Before surgery I accumulated the usual materials for sedentary occupations like knitting, reading, writing, DVDs, etc etc. What I hadn’t bargained on was a complete takeover bid!

It started as soon as I began to actually write the annual Christmas story/play I compose and direct for my grandchildren. As part of my research I began dipping in and out of my all-time favourite books … soon lost in memories and other lives, somewhere in my head my own quite distinctive characters from different strata of society and various times in history who form the core of the play.

Then it was time to start actually committing ideas to the computer.

I began tentatively, feeling my way gently, setting the scene, getting to know the principals, but suddenly one after another they assumed accents and speech patterns and habits of their own. And away we went! Enormous fun. All without the constraints of my other kind of writing (this story is for a very select and exclusive readership indeed; not a single literary critic or publisher’s delicate sensibilities to be factored in).

On the day of the play itself, the youngsters will bring their own personalities to the characters as they assume their roles, but afterwards, once it’s in book form, I want these people to live on the page. Their mannerisms, their language, their reactions, must convey so much. It’s proved both a welcome challenge and a runaway delight!

Then there’s the side effect of recuperation. Lots more thinking-time. Without all the usual time-consuming domestic responsibilities there’s more leisure to watch TV and read papers, and it’s astonishing how many programmes and articles impinge on my own fields of interest. Factual as well as fiction, they make me reflect, which has to be good for my mental state.

So, for example, there’s the news this week of a patient who’s been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, who has now had his vagus nerve stimulated to some effect, putting him into a minimally conscious state. Progress, you might think. Clever stuff. Could this be the start of new hope for many? But hey! Is it really better to be aware you can’t move or do anything spontaneously? Would I want such a thing for my husband/son/brother in his thirties? Does this influence my thinking on assisted dying?

Then there are the up-coming court cases. Victims of the contaminated blood scandal from the 1970s/80s have finally won a ruling allowing them to launch a High Court action. Imagine! Forty years of waiting! And they’re a long way from a resolution or compensation even now. Something in the region of two and a half thousand2,5000! – have already died. Whose fault is/was it? What are the pros and cons of a legal system that grinds so slowly? How could we deal more effectively with such a catastrophe in the future?

And what about the families devastated by the consequences of giving Sodium Vaproate to pregnant women. That too goes back decades and it’s left to the families to fight on for justice. My brain is throwing up questions and doubts right left and centre. Not necessarily for a book; just challenges about the morality of what’s done in the name of medicine.

Ahhh, back again comes that old chestnut, abortion. Irish girls have been coming to England and Scotland to have pregnancies terminated for decades. (I remember being troubled by the questions way back in 1960s when I was in clinical practice and saw it first hand.) This week it was announced that Ireland is to hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. Are the issues any different today? Could this have been resolved more appropriately? Should religion influence laws? Is a referendum the best way forward? And what about all the other forms of medical tourism …?

Inside of Me coverThe BBC2 programme aired a couple of days ago, Being Transgender, was billed as dealing with ‘one of the hot topics of the moment’. Well, that was my thinking when I published Inside of Me last year. But even though I’d immersed myself in the topic of gender and identity for a couple of years, I was still fascinated by these personal experiences, still wondering about the issues, but be warned, the footage of reassignment surgery in this case is pretty shocking.

So all in all the days are flying by faster than I feared they would. My mind is in overdrive. And I’m hoping to be ahead of the game when I return to normal functioning … God willing.

 

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On the receiving end

Hmmm. And I thought I was clued in to other people’s viewpoints and pretty empathetic. After all, I’ve spend years actively listening and trying to understand how they tick, in my professional as well as personal life. Shame on me. But … hey ho, I guess one is never too old to learn.

It’s fifty plus years since I began my working days in the NHS, and here I am in 2017 still following medical advances and thinking about modern challenges all these decades later. But lately I’ve been seeing things from a very different perspective; my eyes have been opened to a different kind of reality.

In June I was diagnosed with a malignant tumour. It was surgically removed within 24 hours, but last week I was back in hospital again for second-stage surgery. My care throughout has been exemplary – efficiency, kindness, courtesy, skill, compassion, they all seem to be drip-fed at all levels.  Goodness, I even had a reply from the Medical Director thanking me for my letter of appreciation! Way beyond the call of duty.

But one practice in particular has struck me forcibly. in ‘my day’ the medical team told patients what was in their best interests; today recipients of care are consulted and encouraged to share the decision making. My dentist takes this approach and, knowing nothing whatever about dentistry, I confess I struggle with the responsibility sometimes. I want to say, ‘I don’t know – you tell me!’ When it comes to my physical health I’m a lot more confident; my background and knowledge stand me in good stead. But I do wonder if all this choice and shared decision-making isn’t rather bewildering for the average ordinary Joe Bloggs. How do they know what’s best? Have they ever thought about mortality/morbidity statistics, or quality of life issues, or palliative versus aggressive care?

My novels are designed to help people get inside the skin of those faced with extremely difficult challenges, to increase empathy and understanding, to help formulate sound reasoning. But maybe there’s a case for exploring the more mundane and less dramatic/harrowing situations which people are facing every day. It has taken my own brush with cancer to open my eyes to the impact of this common reality. Just shows you.

Report card reads: Could do better.

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Storytelling the world over

We all love a story, don’t we? One reason why I turned to fiction – to share the excitement of medical ethical challenges.

We’ve just returned from a visit to Western Canada (Calgary to Vancouver) and every day I was reminded of the importance of storytelling.

The country is celebrating 150 years this year and remembering its roots, its pioneers, its history. Everywhere we went we heard fascinating stories.

City areas, rivers, even mountains, are named after people who have left their mark in this world – including this brave young lad who spent his last days raising funds for cancer research. He is lastingly remembered; what boy wouldn’t be thrilled with the Terry Fox mountain.

And before white Europeans discovered this beautiful land, the First Nations told their own stories. We could picture the families, the communities, gathering to listen to the legends and folklore which continue today in the totem/story poles and in the inherited tales from descendants who still work in the areas their forebears claimed with such diligence and vision.

And some of our own relatives sought their fortune during the great goldrush. Their stories also seem more real here.

The scenery is stunning too, and it’s been therapeutic to trek in the pure air of the Rocky Mountains, explore forests and rivers, watch bears, cranes and marmots in the wild, and generally forget all the humdrum responsibilities of everyday life. I’ll share a few photos with you by way of light relief and please note, they’re the real thing; no airbrushing, despite the seemingly improbable colours.

Oh, and the wildlife wasn’t to be sniffed at either!

A fabulous part of the world.

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