Hazel McHaffie

Orange Prize

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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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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