January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.
The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’
The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.
The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral. And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.
‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …
Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …
My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …
Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’
But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.
It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.
The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).
Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.
To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?
And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.
I’m using this time waiting for the next two manuscripts to metamorphose into books to catch up on reading and to plot my next novel on organ/tissue donation and retention. Lots of thorny issues there.
It’s been a good week for reading this week; I’ve had two whole days travelling. Eighteen uninterrupted hours. In the Quiet Zone of the train – where else? Not so much as a squeak from a mobile phone. If you’re interested in what I’m reading why not join the loyal band of ‘friends’ who exchange reviews and chat about what they’re reading on the goodreads website.
Plotting, now that’s a more sensitive activity and details of what I’m thinking about my new characters remain a secret known only to me at the moment. As Ted Hughes once said, ‘If I talk about anything I’m writing, that’s the end. I can’t write any more … All the steam goes out of it.’ It occurred to me today as the train hurtled northwards and I read about the experiences of families facing organ donation that in the event of a major train crash my ideas might die with me but my organs live on. Hmmm.
I don’t always share the experiences of famous authors but I was gratified to read a quote by Alexander McCall Smith a few weeks ago in The Daily Telegraph. He said that any fiction-writer will tell you that an author doesn’t need to tell his characters what to do or say. Not the view of Mann-Booker winner, John Banville, who I heard scoff at this ‘amateurish’ idea at the Edinburgh Book Festival the year he won the big prize and thought he was unassailable. But it’s my experience. When I just take dictation, that’s when I know the characters are real. They’ve got their birth certificates; they’re telling their own story. I’m not at that stage yet with the next book, but watch this space.