Hazel McHaffie

Africa

State of Wonder

It’s hard to catalogue my progress with writing Killing me Gently without betraying its secrets, but safe to say it’s almost writing itself these days. I’m poised on a knife edge, living the tension, peering over the cliff edge, fearing the worst. In a perpetual state of wonder at the way the brain works, unravelling a stream of words and ideas that other brains will understand and react to, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder has inspired me to constantly revisit my own prose and try to make it sing like hers. The story is remarkable enough – reading rather like a PhD student expanding her research into fertility and malaria in the Brazilian jungle to inform a novel – but the way it’s written is the most striking thing for me. Enviably beautiful.

Dr Annick Swenson is an eccentric scientist who, for decades, has been studying one of the remotest tribes in the rain-forest. The pharmaceutical company who sponsor her are naturally keen to get progress reports on the drug she’s meant to be developing, but she not only keeps her work shrouded in mystery, she sets up an elaborate ring of protection against being found herself. A mild-mannered lab researcher, Dr Anders Eckman is sent out to investigate but all that returns is a curt letter from Dr Swenson saying that he has died of a fever, his body taken into the jungle by the Lakashi people and given a Christian burial. And no, she didn’t witness this herself.

Dr Marina Singh – Anders’ colleague and Dr Swenson’s former student – is sent out to retrace his steps and bring back more details for his grieving widow and three young sons. It’s a heart stopping journey into the dark heart of an unknown place, all her possessions being lost on the way, and no assurance of any answers. But what she finds is so much more terrifying than anything she anticipated: naturally occurring drugs that blow her mind, a tribe whose female fertility reaches into the seventies (the mind boggles!), a people immune to malaria, a scientist whose dedication to knowledge takes her way beyond the accepted limits of ethical practice, ancient rituals and old hostilities, and a completely different version of events surrounding her friend and colleague Anders. She is challenged beyond her worst nightmares … battling with a giant anaconda strangling a small deaf boy; resurrecting old medical skills; choosing between one human friend’s wellbeing and that of another; weighing up her chances of happiness against a new set of values; setting humanity against science; deciding just how much of the truth can ever be told.

And Patchett weaves a devilishy intriguing scientific plot (which alone must have taken months of painstaking research), through a maze of profound philosophical notions and disturbing ethical arguments, without missing a beat in the hearts of a cast of fabulously colourful characters, and maintaining a wonderfully fluid linguistic style that carries something of the rhythms of the jungle. At first you feel the steady pulsing of masterly prose, your feet firmly on the ground. You stand uncertainly for a short hiatus listening for the tom-toms, wondering where she will take you, if the story will indeed take you anywhere. Then the drumbeat changes, gathering a momentum and power that builds up tension, twists and turns like a mighty river sweeping through tangled undergrowth in uncharted territory. It winds itself around you feverishly, like the lethal coils of a snake, thrashing this way and that, constricting your breathing, until you reach the unexpected and emotional crescendo of the final scene.

A fascinating book. I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

 

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Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

Shutterstock image

When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

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Giving up the Ghost

Knitting and bookMay, chez nous, is a month of concerted efforts to raise money for several charities close to my heart. I’m hoping to keep the new novel simmering gently, but plans are in hand for assorted foodie events and sales and door-to-door collecting and creating goods to sell, as well. The knitting needles are already clacking ten to the dozen, at the same time as I reduce the size of my tbr pile of books. Happy days!

I won’t bore you with the domestic saga but all you bookworms and thinkers might well be interested in the reading. First up was an autobiography which proved fascinating.

Hilary Mantell has become a household name: the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, a prolific writer, reputedly one of the greatest living literary authors. But she’s arrived at this reputation, this successful place, through much tribulation. Giving up the Ghost: a Memoir is her own story, written back in 2003, not ‘to solicit any special sympathy’, she says, after all, many other people have survived far worse and never committed anything to paper. Rather it was an attempt ‘to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness’; to lay a few ghosts to rest – the ghosts of past relations, past mistakes, the ghosts of her own unborn children. It was never intended to tell her whole story, and it doesn’t.

As a youngster ‘Ilary’ was weighed down by the burdens of her Catholic indoctrination: ‘You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’  Her whole world was distorted through the lens of a perpetual guilt that started within five minutes of each confession. However, she lost her belief in God at the age of 12, a circumstance which had it’s own repercussions, although to the dispassionate observer some of her adult hauntings seem uncannily like the metamorphoses of her childhood superstitions, simply in a different guise.

There was little money and few luxuries when she was growing up but her situation resonated for me: it wasn’t unusual in the post-war years. I too remember looking on with wonder and not a little fear at the early vacuum cleaner – a Hoover Constellation which I was led to believe would gobble me whole if I allowed the nozzle anywhere near my long hair. I too vividly recall the flexes and tubing on appliances more sticky tape than original casing, coaxing each appliance to survive way beyond its sell-by date.

Secondary education for Hilary at a ‘rather posh‘ convent school was perceived through a more cynical eye, nevertheless, tales of humiliating punishments for unknown crimes, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by teachers, make sobering reading in these days where teachers are chary of even comforting a distressed child lest their contact be misinterpreted and reported.

For a long time ‘Protestantism’ carried much baggage in her mind, but it’s clear she harboured a great number of other misapprehensions and misunderstandings too, not all related to religious indoctrination and mystery, and perhaps more a consequence of the prevalent practice of simply not explaining things to children, coupled with her vivid imagination. Once again I identify with all of this. For her as well as for me ‘council housing’ carried sinister undertones. Aged three, Hilary was ‘waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur‘, and she was nine before life disabused her of this notion, at which time she plummeted from ‘hero to zero‘. Neither, she discovered, was she actually destined to form a band of knights errant, nor become a parish priest, nor be gassed if she didn’t attend school.  She listened and overheard the adults but was forced to put her own construction on the meagre facts she gleaned.

Life was further complicated by the irregular arrangements within their household with her mother’s paramour, Jack, living under the same roof with the family. Hilary’s ‘childhood ended‘ (aged 11) in the autumn of 1963 when they moved to a semi-detached house in a different county, leaving her father behind, Jack now posing as her stepfather (although the relationship was not regularised through marriage), ‘the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats’. They now had a lawn, a rockery, an apple tree, new carpets … but another name. Nevertheless, their relocation didn’t stop new neighbours and school children taking a prurient interest in their private living arrangements, which Hilary resented greatly.

Even though her autobiography reveals a curious child with her fair share of scepticism, in many ways she remained a young woman of her time, and looking back she is amazed that she wasn’t more challenging; perhaps nowhere more so than in respect of her health. Even as a pre-teen she was never robust, but as time passed she was plagued with chronic and severe pain in many parts of her anatomy: ‘Miss Neverwell’ as she puts it. For years she was treated as psychiatrically ill, with devastating consequences. By the time she eventually diagnosed her own illness as endometriosis it was already so widespread and invasive that she was robbed of any chance of having children or ever recovering fully. Now she wonders why she didn’t insist doctors paid more attention to her complaints; back then ‘The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived’. But the humiliation and shame of not being believed had a profound effect on her.

In spite of her frequent absences from school, she was clearly a very bright and able student, becoming head girl and entering law school. Once there, though, constant ill-health and an all-consuming passion for a young man changed the course of her life. They married while both still students, living in a hovel and close to the breadline. The marriage fell apart at one stage but some years later they re-married, and today she declares her worst fear is ‘losing my husband’, although curiously in the book she never gives him a name. His work as a geologist took them abroad for years – to Africa and Saudi Arabia – all rich fuel for Hilary’s active imagination and growing portfolio of writings.

Her body image was another ongoing issue for her. Following her diagnosis, a combination of medication and an underactive thyroid made her weight balloon. She went from being frail and skinny to being so large she had to move into ‘loose covers rather than frocks’. This affected not only her own behaviour – ‘When you get fat, you get a new personality’ – but also that of others – ‘When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.’

Like many before her, Mantell was not always the hugely successful writer she is today. Publishers rejected her manuscripts – how sick they must be in hindsight! But perhaps the most surprising thing for me, reading her autobiographical account, is that she is addicted to colons and semi-colons, using them with an extravagance and abandon I have never seen elsewhere; I counted ten within two paragraphs early on in the book! A tutor on a creative writing course would make short shrift of that kind of obsession, but when you’re a writer of Mantell’s stature it seems it can become part of your signature.

On with the next ball of mohair!Charity knitting And the next book.

Knitting and latest book

 

 

 

 

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