Hazel McHaffie

Festival frenzy

While the Book Festival‘s on I thought I’d give you little dips into the performances and events as I see them, take you into those famous venues with me. And to avoid confusion and overload I’ll post more often than my usual once a week.

So today? Come with me into the Writers’ Retreat, the tent in the far corner of the Square. The two women authors are competing with loud traffic noise and wind whipping the canvas, so I’m listening hard. I have to smile. It’s Sunday afternoon and the shared topics are faith and family; exactly right for the characters in both books.

First up is Jenn Ashworth. She herself grew up in a Mormon household but left in her late teens and officially resigned several years ago, so in her decidedly skimpy diaphanous skirt she’s making quite a statement already. In The Friday Gospels she’s used her own experience as well as that gleaned from talking to other past and present LDS members, to capture the voices of five members of the dysfunctional Leeke family on a single day. The Leekes are anticipating the imminent arrival home of Gary, who’s just completed his two year stint as a missionary in Utah. His mum has been proudly boasting of his numerous conversions (in reality he hasn’t made any; well, just how many non-Mormons are there in Utah?) and is hugely excited about his triumphal homecoming. His father is only hanging on till Gary can assume the role of man of the house so he can escape his wife’s constant expectations and demands. His sister Jennie can’t wait to confide her burning problem in him. But Gary brings his own baggage home.

This is Jenn Ashworth’s first attempt at creating voices other than white young middle class; she admits it was a personal challenge to find five. But she’s attempted something possibly more valuable. We’re probably all familiar with rather remote-from-us tales of rigid, exclusive and polygamous American LDS families with hordes of children. The Friday Gospels presents a view of this cult which is closer to normal everyday British life, a closer-to-home couple with just three children, dealing with the consequences of the pressures from standards and practices imposed by their religion.

Next up is Peggy Riley. She’s an American, now living in the UK, and she has created a fanatical polygamous sect for her debut novel, Amity and Sorrow (what a glorious title, huh?), based on research into the many such religious radical societies found in the US. Sorrow (15 and the eldest) and Amity (12 and never outside the confines of the cult) are sisters, their wrists bound together, as they sit in the back of their mother, Amaranth’s car, fleeing from a fire. They’re running away from Zechariah, his other 49 wives and their collective children. Peggy Riley gives us a lovely description of the power within these pyramidal families, with the man at the top – the oracle, the figurehead, the preacher, and all the life-givers, the women at the bottom looking up at him instead of at each other, constantly measuring themselves against the yardsticks of others. Fleeing this closed community and facing a completely alien culture takes huge courage. These girls know absolutely nothing of the outside world, of being alone. This faith, this family was their norm. One of the girls is desperate to get away but the other one, Sorrow, identifies with the oracle, the preacher. She aspires to be like him, an ambition destined for heartache. But within that closed community, she’s an adolescent surrounded by men who are related to her; other men are sent away to preserve the power of the pyramid. I think we can guess what they were running from although the author only spoke of ‘inappropriate’ things with a twist in her smile.

Researching their topics, living with their characters, both these writers found that such faith was more complicated, more dangerous and more beautiful than they’d previously thought. There was something almost ‘out of control’ about a sense of being connected to the divine.

Both seem to revel in their very flawed characters. As Jenn Ashworth says, we are all flawed; flaws are the most human part of her characters. Now there’s a thought straight out of a Sunday sermon!

A jolly good start to the EIBF for me.

Sorry folks, forgot my camera today.

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