Hazel McHaffie

Booker Prize

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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Virtual bonanzas and bonuses

Wow! What a treat for these strange restricted times. The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020 in virtual form. No queuing in the squelching mud and drizzle around Charlotte Square, no impatient hanging about between events, no debating the wisdom of a working day taken up travelling to attend a disappointing session. The rain is certainly hammering down as I write, but I’m snug and dry in my study, watching interviews with the great and the good, sipping excellent coffee as I take notes.

And when I say ‘the great and the good’ that includes famous faces and distinguished wordsmiths who have generously entered into the spirit of this year’s answer to lockdown and given so much of their energy and expertise. I’ll just give you a flavour of the ones that appealed most to me.

A regular contributor to the EIBF is Val McDermid. This year she appeared with real-life partner, Jo Sharp, sharing excerpts from their edited book Imagine a Country: Ideas for a Better Future, in which a cohort of Scottish writers imagine what would/could improve our nation. And aren’t we all looking at our lives and our country this year, wondering whether we could bottle the valuable things that the pandemic is teaching us about what it truly valuable, and carry them forward beyond Covid?

A highlight of their session was playwright Jo Clifford giving a dramatic reading from her contribution about respect for everyone, regardless of their orientation or origin or differences – an extra powerful message coming from a trans-woman who has endured more than her fair share of disrespect.

I was hugely impressed too by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who believes all politicians should read fiction, and demonstrated her own love of reading by her well-informed and fluent hosting of an interview with the first black woman writer to win the Booker Prize: Berndardine Evaristo discussing her book: Girl, Woman, Other. A stimulating hour with both.

And then there was veteran Festival speaker, Richard Holloway, formerly Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, who has, through the years, shared his doubts and loss of faith with festival goers. This year he was talking about Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe. He has now returned to the church – without it he felt homeless – and is trying to live by the story that makes us disconcerted and uncomfortable and self-questioning, that in turn makes us seek to be kinder and forgiving and more compassionate in our lives. Well, that’s a laudable aim at least. But he laments the way some people take literally the great religious myths and stories that tell eternal truths: instead they should be read seriously and intelligently, and interpreted in their own context, so that they enrich and liberate the reader. Holloway is now 87, and journalist  Ruth Wishart – one of my favourite interviewers – couldn’t resist asking him if he believed in an afterlife. He promised to do his best to come back and tell her if such a thing existed. Please do, she countered, it’d be an ‘awfy good scoop!’

All three of these events offered much to ponder about the big questions in life, and the things that really matter, which is why they ticked my boxes.

Better still, in the midst of this feast of literary brilliance, I could whip up to Clackmannanshire on a lovely sunny day and savour the tranquillity of the fabulous Cowden Japanese Garden without missing out on the literary bonanza. What a bonus!

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The Story of Lucy Gault

After all the thrills and scares of the psychological thrillers I’ve shared throughout this year, it seems like a good idea this week to give you a real change; something gentler. and more contemplative. Something calm to counter the mad hurly-burly of the festive season. A book moreover that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Story of Lucy Gault was first published in 2002 – the year its author received a knighthood in recognition of his services to literature, no less!  OK, sounds a pretty exalted pedigree to me. I’m listening.

As you know, I do periodically try to read acknowledged literary works, and this one looked promising when I found it squirrelled away in a little independent bookshop in Wigtown – Scotland’s National Book Town.
Slim volume – tick.
Described as ‘gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting‘ – tick.
By William Trevor a multi-award winning novelist – tick.
Set in a specific historical period: provincial Ireland at the times of civil unrest and anti-English violence – tick.

I’ll do my best to give you a flavour without including spoilers, if I can.

It’s 1921, the slow gentle pace of fires lit in the waiting rooms of railway stations, servants knowing their order in the echelons of society, solid rubber car tyres, communication snail-paced, barefoot children and be-shawled women begging in the streets, the smell of poverty oozing from infested buildings, the backdrop to the central drama a country in a state of turmoil and unrest, a people torn apart by violence and rivalry.

‘It is our tragedy in Ireland that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear. Our defeated patriots have gone, our great earls, our Famine emigrants, and now the poor search for work. Exile is part of us.’

Setting fire to properties, poisoning pets, destruction and invasion – all are commonplace, and Lahardane, the Gault’s family home, is not immune. Heloise, its mistress, fears her English ancestry makes them a particular target, but her ex-army husband, Captain Everard, doubts it; the status of the house, the possession of lands, his own military connections, would be more than enough to attract trouble already. One by one, neighbouring families have moved away, and when local youths try to incinerate their house, Everard shoots his gun from an upstairs window to scare them off. He doesn’t intend to wound but nicks the shoulder of one of the youths. The Gaults are now at even greater danger; they have no choice, they must leave Ireland.

Their only child, Lucy Gault, is eight years old. She’s a somewhat solitary child, staying close to the glens and woods above Lahardane, only occasionally rebelling enough to sneak out for a forbidden swim alone in the sea. Eavesdropping on adult conversations, she picks up something of the adults’ tension. She, however, is determined she will not go into exile from her beloved home; rather she will take steps to force her parents into staying.

When the time comes to leave, she is nowhere to be found … then her sodden summer vest is found in the shingle, one sandal in a shrimp pool … her mother is haunted by the local fishermen’s conviction that nobody has ever escaped the sharks in that part of the ocean … In the end the bereft parents give up hope, and set out for Europe, nomads, leaving no forwarding addresses, no record of their destinations – a tiny sad part of the Irish diaspora.

Only those remaining in Lahardane, arrested in time and memory, wait and keep hope against the day the Captain and his wife might return. And in the waiting, keeping faith. Rooms dusted, ornaments left in their accustomed places, summer vases full, beehives nurtured, footsteps on the stairs and cobbled yard – all these are offered as tokens of that hope.

But what of the rebellious Lucy, the lad whose shoulder took that bullet, the faithful retainers, the solicitor doing his best to keep Lahardane functioning? Their stories unravel alongside the abiding sorrow of Captain Gault and his wife. Guilt, remorse, torment, superstition, faith ebb and flow, denying them peace. The advent of war in Europe changes hopes and aspirations, alters perspectives; influenza sweeps through whole populations. And gradually out of a life shaped by calamity comes a mystery: tranquillity, a faithful offering, a gift of mercy, that astonishes all who see it.

The gentle pace, the antiquated style, of this quiet unfolding story perfectly reflects the emergence of that humbling peace and redemption. I closed the book with a sense of reverence. Would that the world held more such quiet heroism and boundless mercy.

‘Written with grace and finesse and charged throughout with a pervasive disquiet’
‘Unusual, beguiling, beautiful’
‘Stark yet tender’
‘Silence, secrets, muteness, tell the loudest stories here’
‘A homage to the gift of redemptive love’ …
All true.

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75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.

 

 

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A glimpse into buried history

Hello …? … Last week a Booker prize winner, this week an Orange Prize winner: When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant … Am I converting? Where will it all end?

But I was intrigued by the blurb about this one.

We all know about the terrible things that happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis; we probably all know about the creation of the State of Israel. But what happened to this displaced people in between? Where did they go when they had no country to point to as home? Who were they at this in-between time when it required a long explanation as to their identity? What did they do?

Well, ‘Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story.’

When I Lived in Modern Times deals with the immediate post WWII period through the eyes of one such displaced person, a Jewish girl who travels to Palestine to find answers to these questions. It’s a novel. About identity. About accommodating the past while establishing a future. About a kaleidoscope of difference coalescing into a single purpose. It combines the personal and political, idealism and realism, passion and analytical coolness, clever storytelling with rigorously researched historical accuracy.

It probes the conflict in the life and heart of young Evelyn Sert, who is first and foremost Jewish, but feels Britain is where she is most at home, least foreign. ‘It was the British whose taste and idioms, language and dress, cooking and habits I knew and understood.’ Even so it’s conviction rather than necessity that compels her to go to the land of her forefathers, the ‘Holy Land’. She is just 20; ‘a work in progress’, ‘a preliminary sketch for a person’. Part of a shadow family – hidden away by Uncle Joe, the man who kept Evelyn and her mother separate from his legitimate wife and his four legitimate daughters and his legitimate place of worship, the synagogue. But at her core Evelyn is a Jew, part of a proud people.

So, here she is, a single Jewish girl at a time when ‘anti-Semitism was a wolf roaming the world‘. Where, in the Holy Land, ‘alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame‘. Where mobs and tribal loyalties not political organisations rule. She’s exploring her history, her people, her roots. As she puts it herself: ‘I was moving through history, I was in it.’ She feels lost in the enormity of expectation and fractured dreams. ‘Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’

In the space of a slim volume Evelyn goes from being a hairdresser’s daughter to ‘dilettante would-be artist‘ to ‘useless immigrant‘ to squirrelled-away girlfriend. She is left with no illusions. This is no utopia. Her fellow citizens of this emerging new race don’t match up to the values of a chosen people: ‘They were sullen or violent or depressed or conniving or lazy or untruthful or greedy. They were a catalogue of the seven deadly sins.

Linda Grant’s evocation of the suspicion, subterfuge and bewilderment prevailing in those times conjures up a kaleidoscope of scenes … arcane hairdressing practices of the 1940s … double standards … communal life in a kibbutz … a bleak landscape where a bomb feels like a ‘cleansing, transforming instrument‘ in the struggle against colonial masters.

Sobering, uncomfortable reading, but a useful glimpse into a time where my own understanding was decidedly hazy.

Oh and just for clarity, no, I have NOT fallen hook, line and sinker for literary writing! I’m just keeping my mind sufficiently open to allow new opinions to creep in occasionally. And making good use of days either imprisoned on trains or when the sun beckons me into the garden.

Now for that massive debut manuscript. I might be gone some time!

 

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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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Literary fiction: profound or sleep-inducing?

An essential part of a writer’s life is reading. Reading voraciously. Reading widely. Reading critically. Reading. Reading. Reading.

OK. No problem there. I love reading. I read every single day. My shelves are permanently stacked with books. And I owe my career to the authors whose books I’ve devoured. But some are indisputably more daunting than others, and so-called literary fiction is one category that I have to approach with determination; as regular visitors to my blog know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. But maybe I should rapidly mend my ways.

Researchers at Stanford University found that fiction helps readers to empathise more with other people, and the deeper the book delves into the characters the more the reader ‘walks in their shoes.’ So it’s official! Just as we always knew. Reading not only broadens the mind but it makes one a more empathetic human being. Well, but hang on a minute … maybe the conclusion rings true, but see here as to whether or not this claim can really be justified from this particular study.

But I digress. I do actually make concerted efforts periodically to try to get a handle on what’s acknowledged by the literati as meritorious writing. And the summer time seemed like a good time to soak up some healthy rays and dig into an acknowledged high quality piece of writing.

The Photograph

So that’s why Penelope Lively‘s work came under my microscope. Now in her eighties, Lively has yards of prestigious awards to her credit, including the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books. An OBE, CBE and DBE track her recognition from 1989 till she was made a Dame in 2012. So she’s indisputably masterclass level, right? Sit at her feet and learn.

What then of her 2003 novel, The Photograph? It opens with the discovery of an envelope buried in a mountain of papers in a cupboard in widower Glyn’s house. Lightly pencilled on it is an instruction in the unmistakable hand of his deceased wife, Kath: DON’T OPEN – DESTROY. Compelled by curiosity however, he ignores the instruction and finds a photograph of Kath holding hands with another man. And not just any other man; a man whom Glyn knows very well. Glyn becomes obsessed by this revelation and one by one he drags others into his relentless and reckless search for the truth about the wife he thought he knew.

Sounds like a fair enough plot, yes? It was attractive enough to make me buy the book anyway.

But as with most literary fiction the pace is very … very … slow. The characters are revealed very … very … slowly with attention to tiny… tiny … details. What’s more the revelation when it comes is hardly earth-shattering; I guessed from early on how Kath died (not revealed until P208 of 236) and what troubled her. So what kept me reading? Sheer obstinacy – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Plus an appreciation of the mastery of the author’s language. Undisputed. A couple of examples will suffice:

No people here; the insect-crawl of cars. Glyn’s house is lost now, digested into the urban mass, a tiny box in a row of similar boxes. And the mass itself, the inscrutable complex muddle, bleeds away at its edges, getting sparser and sparser until it is lapped entirely by space. Or rather, by spaces – squares and triangles and rectangles ad oblongs and distorted versions of such shapes, edged sometimes with dark ridges. Dark spongy masses, long pale lines slicing away into the distance. Here and there a miniature version of the city density, a little concentration of energy at the confluence of lines. And then eventually space gives way – there’s a spillage, seepage, a burgeoning unrest that condenses once more into city format: the enigmatic fusion of now and then, everything happening at once.’

Aged 4, Kath is ‘a local distraction on the fringes of my [her 10-year old sister’s] vision.

And then there’s the resonance with the essential truths about people which Lively recognises:

Behaviour that is engaging in someone of twenty-five becomes less so at forty, let alone at fifty-eight. Where once she was beguiled, she has for many years been exasperated, though exasperated in the tempered, low-key way of long-standing acceptance.’  … ‘He remained in a time-warp of feckless adolescence.

She is fragmented now. The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads.’

‘The world smiles on the physically attractive …’

So, a classic example of literary fiction? A work of literary merit that offers deliberate social commentary or political criticism? Or one which focuses in some profound or moving way on the individual in order to explore some part of the human condition? Yee…esss. Or, if you’re a closet-philistine, a work as dull and pointless as reading the dictionary because nothing exciting happens? Which camp do you fall into, I wonder?

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