Hazel McHaffie

Pandemic bonuses

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, intriguing approaches, novel ways of hooking in readers. And a bonus of this time of pandemic is the wealth of virtual literary opportunities on offer. Sheer luxury!

This weekend saw another MyVLF (a free global literary festival connecting readers with authors), this time all about thrillers, and appropriately dubbed Shiverfest.

What a joy to listen to successful authors talking about inspiration and technique and the whole craft of writing. The buzz it gives me reminds me of how important to my personal mental well being all things related to writing and reading are … perhaps especially during this year when our normal activities have been so severely restricted and the future feels so tentative.

So what better extension of this experience than to turn to an undisputed leader of the thriller pack, queen of crime, Val McDermid, with an analytical eye, to see what nuggets are embedded in the novel that happens to be top of my tbr pile. It’s How the Dead Speak, and instantly I’m intrigued by the unusual technique she’s adopted. One of her most famous characters, Dr Tony Hill, clinical psychologist and erstwhile offender profiler, is by now in prison serving a four year sentence for murder. But he’s using the time to hammer out the first draft of a book about forensic psychology, called Reading Crimes. Progress is slow: he can only manage short bursts in the library of the prison on an ancient and battered laptop equipped with nothing more than the most basic software. What’s unusual is that McDermid inserts a brief extract from Tony’s manuscript at the beginning of each chapter – and there are 63 of them!

Each quote captures an aspect of forensic pathology or crime or profiling or psychological truths or mental illness or violence or the mind of a murderer or reading a crime scene or narcissism or … which is potentially significant in the plot of this particular book. Clever. It at once gives a sense of the dogged determination and pent up ongoing awareness of a psychologist surrounded by criminals with no official outlet for his skills, and reassures us that this author knows far more about her subject than we do. We’re in safe hands.

Tony’s closest professional associate was DCI Carol Jordan, who, in the wake of the murder that put him in prison, has resigned from the police force, and begun to address her PTSD and alcohol addiction. Here she is being tempted to dip a toe back into her former life. The plot line relates to the discovery of over 30 skeletons of young girls buried in the grounds of a defunct convent, evidence of multiple fractures raising suspicions of serious abuse. When a number of bodies of murdered young men are subsequently unearthed elsewhere in the same grounds, the race is on to find the opportunist serial killer responsible, and put right a grave miscarriage of justice.

From an analytical point of view I was intrigued by the potential of these short extracts from Tony’s manuscript; offering insights into both the theoretical underpinnings of crime, and who might have been responsible for so many deaths in or near a convent. In reality, however, for me, the effort of trying to understand the significance and relate it to the plot, in fact detracted from the pace and pull of the story. My analytical spectacles were obscuring the story. But a valuable lesson learned nonetheless. And a useful exercise in the art of writing.

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Sweets or brussels sprouts?

 We … read fiction to learn about what we don’t know and to recognise what we do.
To feel less alone. And we share fiction, in online and physical book clubs, sometimes to find a way to discuss those issues we are struggling with in our everyday lives – and at other times to get as far away from them as possible.

Discuss!

No, this wasn’t really on an exam paper, but in the official journal of the Society of Authors: The Author.

It’s a complete joy to read these productions, every article beautifully written and relevant and helpful, but this particular quote made me pause and reflect on the hundreds and hundreds of books on my shelves and why I a) chose them and b) read/will read them. I’ve given away more of my personal library this year than ever before, partly because the pandemic has meant more time for folk to read books so I’ve shared mine, and partly because many found their way onto the bookcase we put out during lockdown.

It’s terrific news that the nation has turned so wholeheartedly to reading. Apparently online sales of books surged fourfold with an estimated 41% of the population in the UK –  both more in number and almost doubling time spent devouring them. Wahey!! And the notes we received from users of our bookcase showed how vitally important books are to mental health.

I loved the observation made by Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell: every single primary school needs a well-stocked library, where the stories are ‘modern and exciting and relevant to children’s lives, like sweets, not brussels sprouts‘!

For adults, of course, we need a very mixed diet. Sometimes it does us good to have a sour taste left in our mouths; sometimes our teeth need to be set on edge; sometimes we need to persevere to educate our palate. Writing about difficult issues – mental illness or suicide or sexual abuse or body dysphoria or death or whatever – can hardly be described as sugar candy, and I’m all too conscious that many of my own novels are not mugs of decadent hot chocolate for bedtime. Indeed, I select with great care when I send any of them to people with vulnerabilities. But opening up healthy dialogue about subjects currently shrouded in myth and taboo and isolation and misunderstanding, is wholly desirable. And sometimes fiction can reach the parts and the consumers better than more formal texts … provided care is taken. I was much impressed to hear that the Society of Authors has been working in close collaboration with the Samaritans and recently issued a set of guidelines for authors writing about suicide or self harm. Brilliant. It would be so so easy to get it wrong.

So, let’s hope the habit of reading acquired in this difficult year of Covid-19, becomes a bonus that continues way beyond the pandemic.

 

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Sin Eaters

I’m familiar with the genre of biblical fiction, where authors bring the ancient stories to life, embellishing and speculating, sometimes with their own evangelizing agenda. Indeed, books of this ilk occupy space on my own shelves – Francine Rivers, Jill Eileen Smith, Anita Diamant, probably the best known. But I’d never even heard of sin eaters! So The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers intrigued me.

Reminiscent of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, which was sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people of Israel, sin eaters feature in Welsh, English and Scots folklore. Who knew, huh? (Apologies if this is all old hat to you.) In essence they’re beings who, in exchange for food, take on the sins of the dead, leaving the deceased to rest in peace rather than roam restlessly for all eternity.

Immigrants to the Americas took the custom of appointing sin eaters with them into the remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s this wild and isolated part of the world, in the 1850s, that forms the backdrop to The Last Sin Eater.

Told in the voice of 10 year old Cadi Forbes, it’s hauntingly of that time and place. Cadi is weighed down by a crushing guilt about her little sister’s death and all the troubles that have followed it. Her Mama won’t even look at her, and rarely speaks except to scold, and her Papa had ‘such a dark countenance most times that approaching him about anything took more courage than I possessed.’ She feels desperately lonely and undeserving; craving forgiveness. Her beloved grandmother has been her only solace, and when Cadi discovers Granny Forbes dead in her willow chair, gone without a by-your-leave after a long-living of 87 years, Cadi is bereft. There is no one left to lead her out of the wilderness of her pain and misery, to love her back from the edge.

It is an awful thing for a child to understand death in such fullness. I had already had one taste of it. This time it was a long drink of desolation that went down and spread into my very bones … what I knew hurt so deep inside me I thought I’d die of it.’

She’s already steeped in the stories of her Celtic ancestry, but her grandmother’s funeral is the first time she actually experiences the sin eater herself. It’s an eerie walk by torchlight in solemn procession up to the mountain cemetery, four men bearing Granny Forbes’ shrouded body, thick mist curling towards them like dead-white fingers through the dark shadows of trees, when Cadi senses the presence of the sin eater, like a cold breath of wind on the back of her neck. Everyone turns their backs, closes their eyes, while the sin eater consumes the bread and wine and Granny’s sins. Cadi is under strict instructions not to look at this creature – the ‘most dreaded of mankind‘ – who had already ‘taken all manner of terrible things unto himself‘, but she is mesmerised by the deep, tender, sorrowful voice that intones: ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, Gorawen Forbes, dear woman, that ye walk not over fields nor mountains nor along pathways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’ She turns and sneaks a furtive  glance. For the briefest moment their eyes meet.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Along with her friend Fagan Kai, gentle son of a brutal father, Cadi, finds a message of hope and redemption, first through her Granny’s best friend Miz Elda, then an unlikely preacher man on the other side of the river, and a woman who has squirrelled herself away from human contact, Bletsung Macleod. Gradually the identity and history of the sin eater emerges. And when they are forced to flee from Fagan’s father, the two children escape to the mountains, and are taken into the sin eater’s protection – the one place Brogan Kai is too afraid to go.

And so it is that the true gospel message comes to a remote people steeped in superstition and fear. There is no longer a need for a sin eater. This one was the last.

‘Light came into our highland valley that day so long ago, and it’s been shining bright ever since.

The analogies for Christianity are clear; but the story stands alone as an unusual tale of love triumphing over evil.

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Whistle blowing

To err is human, to cover up is unforgivable, and to fail to learn is inexcusable.
Prof Sir Liam Donaldson (former CMO England)

Whistle in the Wind has to be the most disturbing book I’ve read this year – and probably not best tackled when we’re all rather dispirited about the rising Covid numbers, and increasing restrictions on our freedoms. Hey ho! Once started I couldn’t go back.

It tells the story of one NHS senior consultant surgeon’s battle to get his hospital/Trust to take action in the face of a catalogue of failings and dangerous practices in his place of work – abysmal clinical standards, gross imbalances in workload, extremely poor judgements, shirked responsibilities, dysfunctional relationships, financial irregularities. But the ‘guilty parties’ resented Peter Duffy drawing attention to their deficiencies, and mounted a deliberate campaign of victimisation and counter accusations against him.

At the time, the Trust’s website declared that no whistle-blower would lose their job or suffer any detriment if they spoke up to identify genuine patient safety concerns – a claim made by most large organisations nowadays. But the reality was far from the promise. Even more unbelievably, the same Trust had recently had its Midwifery Department found guilty of gross and shocking failings, a fact plastered over the media, but senior management nevertheless still appeared complacent and apathetic. Ranks closed. Honesty and truth were stifled.

Hugely daunted, Mr Duffy nevertheless eventually reported his concerns to the Care Quality Commission whose job it is to oversee safe and effective practice in health and social care settings. Until I read this book, I thought they were indeed the go-to organisation for action and a fair independent hearing. But in his case, they didn’t even attempt to corroborate his account. And furthermore, they specifically state that they will take no part in protecting the individual whistle-blower. Who knew?!

Retaliatory action against Mr Duffy escalated, and included not only malicious, false, fabricated and covert accusations – defamatory emails and letters claiming he was both racist and a bully, and had fraudulently obtained money to which he was not entitled – but also docking a substantial sum of money owed to him, and eventually loss of his job.  Accusations against him were sent to the police as well as senior management. He even received a phonecall warning him that the consultants he had reported were ‘utterly committed to revenge’. He felt ‘thoroughly hated and despised’.

In spite of his senior status and established good reputation, no one in any of the organisations set up to deal with such situations seemed to be paying any attention to his legitimate and proven concerns. There was no feedback, no support, no action.

How this man coped with seeing continuing incidences of neglect, malpractice, avoidable harm or deaths, on top of the personal vendetta against him, I really don’t know. I once blew the whistle in a much more low-key way and suffered from the aftermath of the ensuing hostility and injustice for years. Reading this book stirred the embers of that horror quite stressfully. Finally, even Mr Duffy had no appetite for submitting reports of sub-optimal care which went unheeded; he felt intimidated and frightened by the hostility and retaliation.

By now the toxicity within the hospital  – ongoing rudeness, aggression, hostility, dysfunctional behaviour and relationships, collusion, incompetence, cover up, neglect, dangerous practices – together with his own fear of some act of revenge, led to his health suffering seriously. Sleeplessness and high anxiety levels led to him suffering cardiac arrhythmias, ending up a patient himself.

But his conscience and professionalism would not allow him to turn a blind eye when the lives and dignity of patients were at stake. The General Medical Council‘s position is, after all, unequivocal:
Doctors in particular have a duty to act when they believe patient’s safety is at risk, or that patient’s care or dignity is being compromised. Our guidance sets out our expectation that all doctors will, whatever their role, take appropriate action to raise and act on concerns about patient care, dignity and safety.
He felt the weight of this duty keenly.

Colleagues and friends, however, seeing how he had been treated, were reluctant to expose themselves to the same retribution. Even when his case came to an Employment Tribunal, disclosure was limited. Witnesses were warned off from supporting him; they could neither appear nor have their witness statements seen by the Tribunal. And just four working days before the case was heard, the Trust issued an intimidating letter, telling Mr Duffy he was doomed to lose his case, and they would be pursuing him and his family for costs estimated at £108,000. However, if he would just agree to drop the case immediately in its entirety, remain silent, and agree to a non-disclosure clause, then they would not pursue costs.

To his great credit, he did not give in to these strong-arm tactics. And he was eventually exonerated, but the triumph was something of a pyrrhic victory. Even though this case was deemed an across-the-board failure on the part of the Trust and the clinicians concerned, nothing much has changed, Mr Duffy laments. Systemic failures are still ongoing; lives are still put at risk avoidably; whistle-blowers are still treated as lepers. Furthermore, he and his family have paid a colossal price for his integrity, courage and commitment to patient safety. In a massive understatement, he says he still struggles to believe the tactics adopted to silence him. I recognise that sense of incredulity and bewilderment all too easily.

The NHS, regulators and the law, all repeatedly claim the importance of safeguarding and speaking out to protect others; and they have a clearly stated duty of care to clinicians and patients. They offered this particular whistle-blower neither care nor protection. I can well imagine writing this book was cathartic for its author – at last he could present his case in its entirety. And I thank him sincerely for doing so. It was, in the end, therapeutic for me too – putting me clearly into the camp of ‘committed, responsible, caring individuals’ who summon up the strength to stand up to those who hurt or bully the vulnerable. The fact that it’s not a literary masterpiece, adds to its feeling of authenticity. It’s an unvarnished, from-the-heart, account. I can only admire the persistence and courage behind it, and wish the Duffy family well in the future.

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Chinese Whispers

I’m back to bestselling Scottish author Peter May again, whose books I’ve acquired piecemeal over the past couple of years. Since visiting the Outer Hebrides myself, I’ve reviewed novels from his Enzo Files series, and a couple of standalone tales, before tackling his most famous work: the Lewis trilogy. Time, I thought, to dip into another set.

Chinese Whispers is the last of six thrillers set in China and featuring Beijing detective, Li Yan. And as well as a certain fascination with a culture that’s five thousand years old, there’s an appealing historic context of recent conflicts and tensions alongside the stereotypical picture of poverty, over-population, one-child policy, proliferation of technology, the endless rules, face-masks, innumerable bicycles, we associate with this nation. The names sound authentic and are typically hard to embed in one’s mind even in their English form. The Lins and Lis and Lyangs and Mengs and Wengs and Zhus and Caos and Qins and Wus tend to coalesce confusingly.

But head of the serious crime squad, Chief Li Yan’s name did stick, together with his partner, Margaret Campbell, a pathologist, and mother of his son, Li Jon – appropriately as he’s suddenly become well-known after winning a prestigious award, getting his name and face plastered all over the newspapers. Not a comfortable development for a man who’s snooping around trying to find a killer. Because there’s a maniac at large on his patch – a cool, clever and calculated killer bent on a macabre mission – replicating murders. Not just any murders, but those carried out by Jack the Ripper in the 1800s, a man who was never caught in spite of the small radius within which he operated. This copycat killer in China is taunting the police with his slavish attention to the detail of each killing – horrific mutilation, taking trophies, setting up the death scenes. But how does he know exactly what happened to those girls in another century and another country? Well, a book on the subject has recently been published. Only trouble is, it’s only been available in Chinese for a week. However, the English version has been circulating for 18 months. So … does the killer read/speak English? If so, he’s flaunting the fact. And to add insult to injury he deliberately leaves his DNA in the form of the unsmoked end of a Russian cheroot at each crime scene. So, who is he? And how can he afford to be so brazen?

But then the killer’s modus operandi changes. He sends a letter to warn Li Yan personally of his intentions to kill again. And it happens just as he predicted … including cutting off the victim’s ears. But the girl in question is not the usual prostitute; she’s someone Li Yan knows and respects, a professional colleague. He is overcome with a terrible sense of guilt: somehow this was his fault. Furthermore the killer is implicating him in the crime, ratcheting up the stakes. Horrific ‘gifts’ begin to arrive – half a human kidney, a pair of human ears. And Li’s world – personal as well as professional – begins to unravel. His family are threatened. The pool of suspects is narrowing all the time but we’re kept in suspense to the very last chapter.

Peter May’s reputation is sky-high and his track record for meticulous research is widely acclaimed. And as you can see, I’m a fan. But because he has such a pedigree, I don’t think he would mind if I admitted to a sneaky kick when I noted two minor medical errors and the use of one very non-pc term in Chinese Whispers! There’s hope for us all! And somehow that makes him that wee bit more reachable.

Just two more unread May books left on my shelves – a treat to savour.

 

 

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Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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Image and appearances

It’s 4 years now since I published Inside of Me, but body image and transgender issues keep popping up above the parapet, and hauling me back into that world of tortured self-doubt and secret longing.
– In the last few weeks we’ve had the BMA saying that people should be able to gain legal recognition of their changed gender without the input of a registered doctor, and indeed with no more than a witnessed sworn statement. As things stand, you need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and a report from a registered doctor detailing treatment received, and proof that you’ve lived for at least two years in your chosen gender, and intend living in for the rest of your life.
– But subsequently the government announced that plans to allow transgender people to self-identify as the opposite sex have been shelved; they feel that the current system means that ‘proper checks’ are in place. However the current fee of £140 is to be reduced to £5.
– Then, the transgender community, already incensed by JK Rowling‘s comments about what a woman is, have trained their sights on her yet again, because her latest Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
– And then there’s the mother of a dead transgender 18 year old, campaigning to honour her daughter’s dearest wish: to have children. The youngster changed gender from boy to girl in the teen years, but had sperm frozen at 14. The mother is planning to launch a landmark legal case to preserve the sperm (now due to be destroyed) to enable her to have a grandchild via a donor egg and a surrogate mother.

Just a few of the news items. But of course, each one brought the complicated ethical issues very much back into my mind, and that in turn, led me to a book near the top of my tbr pile – For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy

This truncated quote beautifully sums up the essence of this brave novel.

Peter’s father only ever wants a son: ‘In a family, the man is king. Without you, I die – no king.’ But two daughters come first, before Peter, followed by another girl. With only one chance, Mr Huang is determined to make a real man of this longed-for boy, forcing Peter into male ways from an early age. He teaches him how to shave when he’s 6 years old, tears anything female out of his schoolbooks, approves and rewards brutish male behaviour, makes sure his son doesn’t do ‘women’s work‘ like the dishes. Peter is acutely aware that his sisters get much more lenient treatment.

But Mr Huang is steeped in Chinese traditions about ancestors and what is right. Appearances matter. He has high expectations of his only son, even whilst being unfaithful to his own wife. Peter describes his father’s mistress, the neighbour Mrs Becker,  beautifully. She was …
‘Pale and thin and seemed to quiver at the edges, like she was made of water. She had limp red hair. Her freckles were a handful of sand tossed in her face … light shone through her skin to the blue veins along her forehead … her smile looked unstable.The structure of her face couldn’t sustain the weight’ … and when she betrays Peter – ‘a jittery nobody, the human equivalent of onionskin paper.’
Mr Huang is appalled at a deep level by Peter’s ‘differentness‘, his ‘weaknesses‘. his proclivities. He must at all cost keep them secret, not shame the family, not let down his ancestors. And even when facing his own imminent demise, he reminds Peter he’ll still be watching him ‘from the other side.’

With this threat haunting him, even excursions into the female world carried out behind closed doors are fraught with fear and guilt for the conflicted Peter. When he puts on a wig, pouts his lips, looks in a mirror, ‘I felt my father staring through my eyes, the grotesque image in the mirror, the halfsie freak. The grandfather I hadn’t known, the great-grandfather, all watching as my father strove not to shame them, every day until he died. All of them watching me now.’

In this fragile tale, shot through with melancholy, Kim Fu powerfully captures the young child’s only-partially-understood longing to be other than he was. The ‘nightmare years‘ of adolescence. The ongoing desperate struggle to live up to the expectations of others – gang members, pals, work mates, family. The terrible loneliness of not being understood. The pervasive malevolent forces that would crush people like Peter Huang, learning slowly and painfully the real meaning of being a woman. The terrifying consequences if he names his inner conviction.

He becomes increasingly aware of consequences outside his battles with his own body, too; the larger fight against hatred and prejudice. ‘It’s not just about me and my body. There were marches, vigils, hate crimes, unjust laws, a world that needs education. There were other people like me … there were forces that had crushed us.

I was struck by the essential loneliness or unresolved doubt. Do any of us really understand what goes on in the lives and minds of others? Books like For Today I Am a Boy help us to sidled a little closer, understand a little better.

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Unsung heroism; disturbing challenges

I guess a lot of us have had more time for reflection and introspection during the last six months. I certainly have. So this was exactly the right time for me to read the kind of book that challenges me to think about my own moral compass and motivation and limits.

Under what circumstances would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life, or more importantly, my child’s life, to save a stranger? Would I let my young daughter starve to prove my loyalty to my country? Would I endure terrible deprivation, face imminent execution, to uphold my ideals? Would my faith in God survive seeing men, women and children being massacred needlessly; a whole race systematically eradicated? Could I live a life which meant I must lie to everyone I love, and always be afraid, never feel safe?

My kind of questions, you might think. But actually this was the kind of thinking that prompted Kristin Hannah to write her novel, The Nightingale.

She was researching World War II stories, and became fascinated by the women who had put themselves in harm’s way in order to save Jewish children, or downed airmen, some of whom paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. She simply couldn’t look away, and felt the underlying questions to be as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. As indeed they are.

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol lose their mother to TB when 14 and 4 respectively. Consumed by his own grief, their father abandons them to the care of others. Outspoken Isabelle rebels everywhere she goes, is expelled from several schools, refusing to be either contained or controlled, and aged just 19, joins the resistance movement, initially delivering propaganda, then risking her life over and over again, escorting British and American downed airmen out of France across the Pyrenees to safety. Her code name is The Nightingale. Quieter Vianne marries her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, and after three miscarriages, gives birth to her daughter Sophie. She becomes a schoolteacher, and in the face of an ugly war and occupation of her beloved town in France, finds a courage of her own, rescuing Jewish children even whilst billeting German officers in her home.

We’ve all heard so much about the atrocities committed by the Nazis; much less of the heroism of the women of France. This book sees the 1940s through the prism of one family – totally harrowing, profoundly moving, reducing me to tears. And by homing in on the intensely personal, it seems somehow to shine a spotlight on the enormity of the whole monstrous period in history. It captures poignantly the contrast between the pain and suffering and barbarity, and the bravery and compassion, loyalty and selflessness of these courageous women, so often unseen and unsung.

The war forced people to look deep inside themselves; to examine who they were and what sacrifices they were prepared to make, what would break them. Asking ourselves those same questions 70+ years on is a challenging exercise. Even drinking a delicious cup of real coffee, knowing these women were enduring a vile brew made from acorns, made me feel chastened. Smiling and chatting to people I met out in the street felt like a luxury, when these women could trust no one – not even relatives and friends. Would I have had the courage to do the honourable thing? Or would I have found a way to argue that I had a greater duty to protect my own? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this book is a compelling read, though certainly not a comfortable one. At no stage can we have any confidence that there will be happy endings. Children die, women kill, men betray, families are ripped apart, suspicion is rife, humans behave barbarically. ‘Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.’

The Nightingale is superbly written, and I loved the occasional flashes forward to the present when one of the sisters is returning to Paris for a reunion of her compatriots who worked for the resistance, accompanied by her son who knows nothing of her past. We don’t know which one has survived, so this nicely preserves the tension. Whatever the outcome, these valiant women and those they represent, have my profound admiration and respect.

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Girl, Woman, Other

Did you know that last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday‘? – that day in the literary calendar when there’s a bonanza release of new books in time for Christmas. And this year, because of Covid-19 significantly delaying publication for authors across the board, as many as 600 new titles were released in 24 hours. 600! In one day!! SIX HUNDRED!! What hope is there for mid-or-below-mid-listers to be even noticed, huh? About as much as for a youngster with three C-grades-on-the-basis-of-teacher-assessment getting into Oxbridge, I’d say.

Seemed like a good week to home in on one title that has made the grade, big time: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which I mentioned in my post two weeks ago – co-winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Attwood‘s The Testaments. Evaristo is the first black woman ever to achieve this distinction, and she comes across at interview as a bundle of energy and zeal and determination. Positively effervescing! Given the high profile racial issues have been receiving of late, it could be argued that this book – its subject matter and its author – must surely be falling into fertile soil.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction, which took her six years to complete. It’s written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, without capital letters or full stops for sentences, or proper paragraphs, line breaks being used to control rhythm and beat. Sound confusing? I know, and yet … it’s very readable (says this Booker Philistine with wonder in her voice). Here’s a wee peek inside …

The novel follows twelve characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades, from different backgrounds, having different experiences, making different choices. Each character has her own chapter, but their lives overlap and they are all interconnected in some way. Some of them are close – friends, relatives, lovers – others simply visit the same theatre on the same night. But common threads pervade their stories: oppression, prejudice, discrimination, racism, injustice, sisterhood. Which come in all shapes and sizes. Typically of literary books, there’s no real plot, but the characters challenge the reader to consider British attitudes and practices towards black women through the ages, and more importantly, one’s own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

The primary character and lynch-pin is probably Amma, a black lesbian playwright, now in her 50s, whose new play is being produced at the National Theatre in London. Her vignette starts the book; her after-play party almost concludes it. This part of the story is semi-autobiographical: Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. In between, we meet eleven other characters who range through frustrated teacher, abused partner, sassy teenager, nonagenarian farmer, non-binary person, adopted waif, and so much more besides.

Did it work for me? On one level, yes. I found the unusual writing style surprisingly fit for purpose. The characters come alive through their patois/pidgin, their disjointed paragraphs, their learned experiences over time. I especially enjoyed Carole, a Nigerian girl who rises above her circumstances – poverty, gang rape at 13, schooling in an establishment that specialises in producing teenage mothers and early career criminals – to acquire a degree at Oxford amongst future prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, and goes on to set the world of finance alight. And yet still finds herself overlooked and suspected. Then there’s her indomitable mother Bummi, determined to make a success of life against the odds, setting up her own very professional and superior cleaning services company, gradually accepting her daughter’s steps away from her African heritage, but herself accepted by the young English high society man Carole marries. I couldn’t help but take to the sassy teenage LaTisha, the queen of backchat, spouting her unique brand of philosophical wisdom and researched facts, all the while emoting pure insolence – a special skill of hers according to her teachers. And I really took to Hattie, 93 years old, a great great grandmother, still living alone and running the family’s 800 acre farm, outspoken about modern hifalutin ideas like mobile phones and non binary identity and central heating.

But for me, their brief biographies lacked a certain overall depth, and I’d have liked more development of their individual and collective stories. That in itself is a remarkable reflection. Booker Prize winners usually leave me shrugging my shoulders and saying, So what? This one left me wanting more. I’d call that a success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The jigsaw begins to take shape

You could be forgiven for thinking I’d buried my writing pen for good. Even I was beginning to be suspicious!! Well, news on that front at last.

We’ve all had to make adjustments during this past six months, but exercise has consistently been held up as a ‘good’ for everyone, even designated a legitimate reason to go out of the house during the initial country-wide lockdown. It’s certainly been an important part of my well-being. Over the weeks, my early morning solitary constitutional along mostly deserted routes has become a valuable time for quiet reflection and uninterrupted processing of ideas.

On the steeper uphill sections, when my muscles protest and my cardio-vascular system is under pressure, the activity in my brain is a welcome distraction. On the easy downhill paths the ideas rush along at an exhilarating pace.

Where the ground levels out I occasionally stop to soak up the tranquillity around me and reflect on where my brain is taking me.

There’s been so much to sort and sift and mull over arising out of this weirdly different experience of a worldwide crisis and its effects on us all, and I’ve made a conscious decision to ring-fence this time when I can leave my mind pretty much to its own devices.

I’ve become very aware that I’ve been unusually reluctant to start a new book. Normally I’m raring to go; not this year. I just haven’t been in the right place psychologically. And strangely enough, I’ve accepted that without protest. Time to concentrate of different priorities.

However, of late, the ideas and possibilities for novel number 12 have been increasingly jostling for pre-eminence in my head and begun demanding action. A structure has been gradually emerging that has stood the test of time, with the pieces fitting together rather like a jigsaw puzzle, and this very week a milestone has been reached: that outline has actually been committed to the computer. Wahey! A fairly robust skeleton methinks on which to hang more new details as they emerge. So, it’s been a long time coming but I think perhaps we might now be on a roll … ? Maybe …? Possibly …? Clovid-19 permitting …?

 

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