Hazel McHaffie

Man Booker prize

A Biblical tale retold

Famous historical characters like Thomas Cromwell and the wives of Henry VIII lend themselves to becoming the stars of fiction. We already know so much about them and their place in history; we’re curious about their backstory, fascinated by their peccadilloes. Indeed Hilary Mantell is currently writing the fourth in her series of encyclopaedic tomes about Cromwell – her first and second having both won the Man Booker prize. Who dosn’t know about him from history lessons, games, films, plays? And I’ve lost count of the novelists, the film-makers, the dramatists, who’ve recreated the six famous wives of the Tudor king.

But who’s ever heard of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, patriarch in Israel during Old Testament times? Very few, I suspect. Her more famous brother, Joseph – he of multi-coloured coat fame? – yes. The twelve tribes of Israel? – maybe. But Dinah? Her story fills a mere 31 verses in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 34, so hats off to an author who saw the potential here.

Essentially, Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob and his first wife Leah. She has twelve brothers, three stepmothers. They are a rough shepherd tribe living in close proximity in tents, but Jacob has flourished since branching out on his own away from a difficult father-in-law.

One day Dinah goes visiting some Canaanite women, and catches the eye of a chieftain’s son, Shechem, a Hivite. He desires her, takes her and rapes her. But his lust turns to love and he demands that his father gets Dinah for him as his wife.

The chief himself goes to plead his son’s cause, offering extravagant rewards and dowries if Jacob consents to the marriage. Jacob, however, is shocked to hear his virgin daughter has been defiled, and discusses the situation at length with his sons, her brothers. What should they do? The younger men are enraged at this insult and dream up a cunning plot. OK, they will consent to the liaison, they say, but it would be a disgrace and a grave dishonour for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. The bride-price must also include the circumcision of every male in the groom’s family.

The young man is so besotted, and his father so bent on this marriage, that they waste no time in having the deed done, along with every male citizen of their city. Three days later when every man jack of them is still sore and feeling fragile, (and remember, this wasn’t delicate surgery under anaesthetic with four hourly pain relief thereafter!) two of Dinah’s brothers steal into the city and slaughter all the men, loot and plunder their goods, and take all the women and children (including Dinah), everything of value, away. When he hears of their murderous revenge, Jacob is horrified – now he’ll be hated by everyone around him, but the killers insist they absolutely could not allow their sister to be treated like a common prostitute.

In the hands of Anita Diamant, this ‘oldest love story never told‘ comes to vivid life. The title, The Red Tent, is derived from the name given to the exclusively female place where the women go to menstruate and recover from childbirth. Diamant, a Jewish journalist-cum-novelist, has subtly altered certain aspects of the story, and colourfully embellished it, but the result is a beautifully told tale of love and betrayal, of grief and family honour. It challenges the reader to consider the role of women at that time, the meaning of loyalty, the belief systems and complexities for a tribe worshipping a faceless, invisible God of Israel, alongside those who are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that surround gods they can see and touch and stroke and involve in their ceremonies and major life events.

A gripping and full-bodied tale revolving around the community and continuity of women, woven from an almost-throwaway incident in the age-old story of the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Or as one reviewer put it: A remarkable combination of historical research, biblical story, and sheer talent. Indeed. A fantastic read.

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Points of View

My new novel is told through the eyes of three different narrators, and I’ve spent a lot of time and thought juggling with the options as to how best to present them. State the name at the beginning of each point of view? Designate chapters? Make the first paragraph by each person tell its own story? Leave the reader to fathom it out? Or what? In the end I went for the narrator’s name at the top of each chapter, as, for example, Jodi Picoult and Diane Chamberlain do. And as I did in Over my Dead Body.

After all, I don’t want my readers to be confused or struggling, do I?

Nor though, do I wish to underestimate their intelligence. Hmmm.

Moon TigerBut then, this week I’ve been reading Penelope Lively‘s Moon Tiger and I’m gobsmacked. Not only does she not give any such readerly assistance, but she changes POVs within chapters without warning, inserts flashbacks, omits punctuation willy nilly, doesn’t even break up dialogue. Surely this is pushing the boundaries a bit too far? And yet … well, I’m keeping up. OK, I’m having to concentrate, but it soon becomes clear who’s speaking. Sometimes it’s the once beautiful and famous historian, Claudia Hampton, now elderly and dying, lying in bed waiting for the end but thinking of bygone days. Sometimes it’s her young self, travelling, falling in love, working in exotic places, reporting wars and other civilisations. Sometimes it’s her only brother and adored adversary, Gordon. Sometimes it’s her daughter’s father, Jasper, charming but untrustworthy. Sometimes her colourless and conventional daughter, Lisa. Sometimes her one true love, Tom, found and lost in war-torn Egypt. A mad confusing medley you might think, and not the place to flout all the usual literary conventions. It certainly wouldn’t suit a lot of people I know. Probably not most who read my books in fact.

But hey, let’s not get too sniffy. After all, Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987. And Lively herself has been made a Dame for her contribution to literature!

That’s literary fiction for you. Rules? What rules?

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A desirable property?We’re probably all familiar with the kind of language estate agents use to beef up the attributes of a house/flat/hovel in order to sell it.

For ‘bijou/cosy’ read ‘cramped’.

‘Excellent transport links’ translates as ‘there’s a motorway and/or busy railway line right next to it‘.

‘An ideal purchase as your first three-bedroom home‘ is agent-speak for ‘the second bedroom will take a single bed at a squeeze; the third one will only fit a z-bed on the diagonal in a crisis‘. You know the kind of thing.

Manscript of Over My Dead BodyBut did you know there’s also a dictionary of kindly words used by editors who are dropping our precious manuscripts into the nearest bin? Thanks to author of 90 novels, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who claims to have a world-class collection of rejection letters herself, for the following handy guide.

sincere – dull

frank – embarrassing

heartfelt – dull and embarrassing

ambitious – far too long

epigrammatic – short and senseless

gnomic – even shorter, and still senseless

robust – too much sex

cerebral – too little sex

niche interest – incomprehensible to normal people

authoritative – see niche interest

well-observed – autobiographical

lovingly observed – tediously autobiographical

well-written – over-written

richly detailed – horribly over-written

broad-brush – full of careless mistakes

authentically voiced – writer has no grasp of grammar

original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax

energetically original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax, vocabulary, plot, pace, dialogue or character

not what we are looking for – unpublishable

didn’t quite work for us – don’t give up the day job

Maybe after all there’s something to be said for the agents and publishers who simply state: ‘If you don’t hear back from us within six months you should assume your manuscript does not fit with our lists. We wish you success elsewhere.’ You don’t hear anything; you make excuses for the deficiencies of Royal Mail. Ten weeks after the deadline date you finally succumb to a terrible sense of failure. You even picture the said gurus scoffing to colleagues in their superior way about the drivel submitted in the name of literature which they are obliged to lift out of the slush pile and at least cursorily scan. You maybe throw a minor hissy fit. Or go into a spiral of depression and hopelessness. You maybe pack away your pens and paper for ever.

But truth be told, the people who issue these horrible but carefully-honed rejection letters have their own cross to bear. They live in daily dread of a) overlooking a masterpiece or b) utterly crushing the spirit of a writer whom they have never met or c) incurring the wrath of an agent who has the power to unleash the most beautifully crafted diatribe against the editor’s entire empire.

I’ve had a glimpse inside this world. Occasionally a writer lower down the pecking order even than me will request that I look over their precious text and give ‘honest’ feedback. The worse it is the more I personally agonise long and hard over what to say to them. I was so stressed and in dread of one persistent person’s reactions that I spent an hour calming myself in our local cathedral before meeting up with her.

Pen a masterpieceSo next time you get a coded letter from a publisher or agent just visualise the sweet revenge of your brilliant work going on to win the Orange Prize for fiction … the Man Booker … the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, you know from my previous posts that a surprising number of famous bestsellers have been rejected many a time and oft. It could be you. All you have to do to prove it is pen a masterpiece and find a brilliant publicity team. That’s all.

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Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift


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Confessions of a heretic

Yippee! I’ve FINISHED the first full draft of my new novel about body image. Yeaaaaaahhhh!

The title has gone through about nine variants but is now set: Inside of Me. Copies are currently winging their way to my first raft of critics. Even yet – yes, after eight published novels – it takes a lot of courage to allow my baby to fly the nest. Perhaps just one more edit …..? Maybe polish up the language a tad more before …? But as the saying goes, perfection is always one more draft away.

Time then to distract my mind with other things. How about literary versus genre fiction?

What’s your view of literary fiction, I wonder? Are you a fan? Or do you secretly find such writing boring and so-what-ish? Someone once said ‘Literary fiction is just clever marketing’. Give that man a cream bun. A valiant attempt at nailing something rather elusive. What exactly is it? There seem to be few rules to define it.

Mother's Milk My mind has been idly juggling this question during the week because Edward St Aubyn‘s Mother’s Milk came to the top of my tbr pile. It’s categorised as literary fiction? But why? Well, I found five core qualifications:

1. It was shortlisted for a major literary prize – in this case the Man Booker Prize in 2006 (see how far behind I am here?!).

2. The author is openly described as amongst the cream of British novelists in the upper echelons of the book world.

3. He has a masterful way with words; a strong and distinctive style of writing, rich, and finely crafted.

4. Mother’s Milk garnered a wealth of superlative quotes from a range of very selective critics: fantastically well-written, profound, humane, brilliant, blackly comic, exhilarating, wonderfully caustic, elegant … the list goes on.

5. It’s very character-driven and precious little actually happens.

I confess it was only the writing that redeemed this book for me personally. Basically the narrative explores the relationships between Patrick and his wife Mary, their respective mothers, and their two infant sons. Apart from Patrick’s adultery, his mother’s declining health and alleged desire for assisted death, and the will-he-won’t-he help her to die element, nothing of any consequence or interest happens in their lives. I didn’t care about any of the characters. What’s more, the two boys are totally unbelievable: analysing life from the moment of birth, using sophisticated adult thinking and language from infancy, precociously psychoanalysing and mimicking adults. I have never met such a child, nor indeed would I ever want to!

BUT – the book is positively littered with literary pearls, gems that made me seriously envious of St Aubyn’s skill with words. I’ll share a few of them here.

After a traumatic delivery, longing to be back securely in the womb, one of the babies wanted ‘the bandage of his mother’s arms to wrap around him’.

Patrick says of his mother who’s passionate about saving the world: ‘Do you know what my mother told me the other day? A child born in a developed nation will consume two hundred and forty times the resources consumed by a child born in Bangladesh. If we’d had the self restraint to have two hundred and thirty-nine Bangladeshi children, she would have given us a warmer welcome, but this gargantuan Westerner, who is going to take up acres of landfill with his disposable nappies, and will soon be clamouring for a personal computer powerful enough to launch a Mars flight while playing tic-tac-toe with a virtual buddy in Dubrovnik, is not likely to win her approval.’

Patrick walks through the corridor of the nursing home and notes ‘a roaring television masked another kind of silence. The crumpled paper-white residents sat in rows. What could be making death take so long?’

When he tells someone about possibly helping his mother to die she replies, ‘There must be some special Furies for children who kill their parents.’ ‘Yeah’ says Patrick, ‘Wormwood Scrubs.’

He ‘hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions.’

Surely the mark of a writer at the top of his game.

So what about genre writing? Well, what d’you know? Disordered MindsThe next book in my pile was Disordered Minds by Minette Walters. Walters has won several prestigious awards (tick) and an impressive raft of reviews (tick), but she’s pigeonholed by her genre; she isn’t accorded the same kind of accolades as St Aubyn. Nor indeed is she a walking masterclass in well turned metaphors.

HOWEVER I was up to page 270 of her book at the end of the first sitting. Here is a psychological thriller that combines believable well drawn characters with a gripping plot; the kind that turns its own pages. Sheer escapism.

It’s a tale of a missing girl, a dead woman, a miscarriage of justice and two academics intrigued by the case thirty years later.  There are no beautiful sentences to pass on, but boy, I raced through it, really wanting to know if the gang rape of a thirteen year old is linked to the murder of a grandmother and the conviction of her grandson and his subsequent suicide.

So, there you have it: my take on the issue. If I want to delight in exquisite language, maybe up my own game, I’ll choose literary fiction. If I want to be entertained and lose myself in a good read I’m much more likely to go for genre fiction.

And as if to highlight the problem I subsequently came across a review of Steve Toltz ‘s new novel, Quicksand (which purports to be literary), but critic, Jon Day, slated it as ‘too pleased with itself to be properly satisfying.’ Ouch! He illustrates:

‘Nor do you feel Toltz is in total control of his figurative language. On the first page we get a lifeguard who looks like “a magnificent sea-Jesus” and a woman “riddled with breasts”. A shaft of sun is described as a “tumour of searing light”. Who is seeing this? Why a tumour? Someone else “looks like a taxidermy fail”; a room has “the quality of the inside of a wet cheek”; a pair of doctors swoop into a room “like a Mongol armies”. (Both of them?) It gets tiring. Sometimes Toltz is so pleased with one of his metaphors he’ll use it twice … There’s a lyrical absurdity and masculine swagger to the prose …’

Ouch, again. But you can sympathise with his quibble, can’t you? The ‘preposterous similes‘ and over-the-top figures of speech alienate the reader, stop you in your tracks, drawing attention more to the author’s  own (perceived) skill with words rather than what he’s writing about. A cautionary tale indeed which makes me feel marginally less heretical about saying what I’ve said. And further confirms my decision to avoid sophisticated similes and mesmerising metaphors myself.


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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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A readable Booker? Whatever next!

I’m knee-deep in books about organ donation at the moment (including some of questionable literary merit), so a masterclass in good writing seemed an attractive diversion.

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

‘I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’

Intrigued? Yes, indeedy, so was I. Each of these memories gives a glimpse of an event we want to know about.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Anthony Webster, a rather nondescript and timid divorced man in his 60s reflecting back on his life leading up to a shocking revelation. This is triggered by a bequest from the mother of an old college friend whom he met only once 40 years before. So why would she be leaving him money? His memory tracks back over schooldays, student days, affairs, marriage and divorce, retirement. Mistakes. Realisation gradually dawns.

But the book is also about memory – its subjectivity, its selectivity, its malleability. And the ending stops you in your tracks, making you want to go back and read it all again for the cues you missed first time around.

It’s a compact little book – a novella it’s been called – a mere 150 pages with wide spacing. Easily read in one sitting. And that’s been one of the ongoing criticisms of those who object to its selection as the Man Booker winner for 2011.

The judges, led by Dame Stella Rimmington, have also been castigated for putting ‘readibility’ onto their list of criteria. Hello? I’m one of those who are very glad they did. So many Booker winners are impenetrable to us ordinary mortals. Besides, as the judges themselves were at pains to emphasise, it wasn’t readability at the expense of quality writing, but in addition to.

And the quality is certainly there. In spades. Julian Barnes is a formidable writer in such command of language that he manages to convey profound truths through deceptively simple lives and actions. I won’t spoil the experience for those of you who’ve yet to read this book, but here are a couple of examples of Barnes’ mastery of his art.

Old Joe Hunt, the wryly affable history teacher, is challenging a class of pretentious boys as to the origins of the First World War. A new lad gives him a lengthy philosophical exposition ranging over culpability, anarchy, subjectivity and truth. A silence follows this, the other boys wondering if this is an attempt at ridiculing Old Joe; realising it isn’t. Then …

‘Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’

And he isn’t ridiculing anyone either.

Then there’s a wonderful sentence describing the narrator’s feelings when he hears about a lad who ‘auditions‘ girls by sleeping with them in order to decide which one ‘to go out‘ with. He himself has not slept with any girl to date (I should perhaps explain, the context was the prevailing morality of the 60s).

‘This made me feel like a survivor from some antique bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.’

Well worth reading as an example of concise and powerful writing. The unravelling of a mystery is secondary. All grist to my mill.

But in the midst of this reading orgy, I’m trying to make time to enjoy the glories of spring and this unseasonable heatwave.

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Jack is five years old. He lives in a tiny single room measuring 11 feet square with a locked door, Bath, Toilet, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Freezer, Cabinet, Rocker and TV. And Ma.

Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight and the night-time visits of ‘Old Nick.’ For Jack, ‘real’ is their room and each other. Everything else is ‘TV’ or ‘Outside Space’ – fantasy.

But Ma has her reasons for giving Jack these distorted perceptions. She may be  young and traumatised by the horror of being abducted at the age of nineteen and incarcerated in a shed for years, but she proves to be an inspirational teacher, using the rudiments of life to educate him – egg-shells, scraps of cardboard and fabric, the degrees of light coming through the skylight, the spit they leave after cleaning their teeth.

Then a chance advert on TV raises questions in Jack’s mind. How come Ma’s painkiller pills are on TV? The pills are real. TV is unreal. Suddenly his cosy assurance is shattered.

‘How can TV be pictures of real things?

I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls, the couch and the necklaces and the bread and the fillers and the airplanes and all the shes and hes, the boxers and the man with one leg and the puffy-haired woman, they’re floating past Skylight. I wave to them, but there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right …’

Ma’s explanation is memorable: ‘Stories are a different kind of true.

But after spinning her own kind of ‘true’ for five years, she has her work cut out disabusing Jack of all the myths and misunderstandings she’s implanted in his head to prepare him for a reality more harsh, more scary than anything she’s told him so far. Life outside.

RoomThrough Jack’s eyes we see the taken-for-granted world in a whole new light. Scary stuff. But sufficiently convincing for it to come as a surprise to hear a dispassionate perspective: ‘The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state.’ Jack is a ‘malnourished boy, unable to walk.’ (As you can see, I’m trying not to give anything of the storyline away.)

My only complaint was that in places Jack’s speech patterns are unconvincing. The words seem to be jumbled for no good reason other than to convey his youth and confusion. They sit uncomfortably alongside his precocious facility with words elsewhere.

Otherwise I really enjoyed this book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s unique, powerful and moving, and, despite its dark setting, it offers heartwarming homage to the triumph of the love between a quite remarkable mother and son. It fully deserved to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker this year. And you know how rarely I sing the praises of these contenders!

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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Unsung masterpieces

With all the recent hype over the Man Booker prize it seems fitting to pause a moment and pay homage to authors whose work never wins the acclaim it deserves. I’m sure you, like me, have your own favourites – books that you personally love but the critics trash; unsung treasures discovered in a serendipidous way; gems that have changed the course of your thinking.

I’d love to start a campaign to get recognition for superb authors whose publishers don’t have a sufficiently robust marketing department or enough cash to promote their work effectively. But given current time constraints and resources maybe I’ll start small, and blog about it.

Some time ago a friend of mine was getting rid of a stash of books in readiness for moving house. I was only too happy to assist her in the task by squeezing a few of hers between the thousands I already own. Amongst her motley collection I found Niall Williams Four Letters of Love. I’d never even heard of Williams, an Irish writer, but the blurb intrigued me. And it was going begging. Well … what a delight lay in store. The writing is lyrical, evoking the lives, lores and loves of families living on an Irish island. Poetry in prose. To outline the plot would be to miss the whole point of this book, and I hate spoilers. But essentially it’s the story of two young people, Isabel Gore and Nicholas Coughlan, who are destined to love each other.

There is a meaning; there is a sense to everything,’ Nicholas Cougan thinks as, against all odds, he waits for his love to come to him. And somehow in this magical tale of romance and superstition, of profound wisdom and tragedy, one can suspend disbelief: dead people appear and are influencing lives; Irish mothers can smell and feel emotions in strangers; people are merely puppets in the play already written by a divine hand. You have to lose yourself in it to value it to the full. Try it and see.

And then there’s a book which has remained on my top ten list ever since I found it many years ago whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop in Saltash, looking for something to while away a journey from Cornwall to Scotland: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein. The entire country flew by unnoticed. There are three main characters in the story: a nun, a prisoner, and a priest … sounds like a joke waiting for a punchline, doesn’t it? But this is not a humorous book; rather it deals with dark emotion and repressed drives, with lots of moral questions remaining to haunt you. (Well, you know what a sucker I am for an ethical dilemma!) All three characters are very well drawn, and the complex interweaving of their stories is totally gripping, culminating in an astonishing denouement. How come this masterpiece is virtually unknown?

If you haven’t read them, I recommend you do. And as part of this crusade to promote such neglected masterpieces, do you have any you’d like to share? Here’s your chance to strike a blow for your personal style of genius.

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