Hazel McHaffie

Sarah Waters

Mixed reviews

I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?

And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.

My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.

I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to  complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.

So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!

It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!


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Mixed reviews

I confess I’ve been feeling rather less perky than usual this week. Two causes:
a. our trusty chariot has been written off after 7+ years of valiant service
b. the beautiful cast iron railings at the front of our property
have been crushed to pieces by a vehicle out of control on black ice, and reduced to this.Ruined railingsNow, of course, I’ve told myself (and the shell-shocked driver) many times that these are only ‘things’; nobody was hurt. The floods in Queensland, the murder of Joanna Yeates, the shootings in Arizona – our trials pale into insignificance. And I would defend my healthy perspective to the death! But it still makes me sad to see all that glorious craftsmanship demolished.

So perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious week to get a mixed review of Remember Remember. rememberrememberI don’t usually comment on reviews of my books – smacks too much of trumpet-blowing; but because this one was qualified I feel I can share it, and in so doing give you a little insight into the life of an author.

Now, nobody relishes criticism; and strangely enough authors are no exception. When you’ve laboured for months or years over a book, agonised over every detail, and given birth painfully to each one of the characters, nurturing them through the growing stages to full maturity, it’s hard to have them slaughtered by someone on mere first acquaintance. And the level of personal commitment and involvement means that a negative comment can linger ten times as long as a positive one. Especially because a review involves fairly public exposure with very little opportunity to defend oneself – bit like royalty, huh?! So I’m sneakily using this blog to redress that imbalance somewhat.

OK, this particular critic, who is he? ‘A Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin’ is how Simon Thomas describes himself. Otherwise known as Stuck-in-a-Book, and currently ranking sixth on the Wikio Top UK Literary Blogs list. And he guarantees an honest review. So far so good. Oh, and I should add, he’s been nothing but friendly and charming and encouraging in his personal contact with me during this process. Sounds very much like my kind of person, in fact.

His grandmother had dementia, and he admits he’s drawn to authors who portray any sort of illness or mental state well, when it requires a ‘wandering narrative voice’. That probably explains why he preferred the scatty voice of Doris in the depths of Alzheimer’s to the more steely logic of her daughter, Jessica, struggling to impose order and everydayness on the chaotic world of a carer. But I’ll come to that.

So what did he take exception to? Well, he was rather dismissive of one of my characters – Aaron. He’s a lawyer in love with Jessica, but she gave him up when her mother needed her constant attention. He (Simon, that is, not Aaron) writes:
I did wonder a bit whether Aaron was added at the suggestion of an editor, because he didn’t seem quite to fit with the rest of the novel – does every book need a love interest, really? – but we shan’t squabble over him.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Simon, you entirely missed the point of Aaron. He was never add-on love interest. He represents so much:
– yet another sacrifice made by a dutiful daughter;
– the dispassionate but rigid voice of laws and human rights;
– the gentle empathy of someone who has learned to pace themselves to the tune of dementia
– hope.
Oh no, Aaron was not the suggestion of a dubious editor. He is mine entirely, and he is absolutely intrinsic to the structure and purpose of the book. And I wholeheartedly, unequivocally defend his right to be there.

Jessica’s voice is rather damned with faint praise: ‘perfectly serviceable, but perhaps a little uninspiring’, ‘perfectly good – and perfectly ordinary’. On first reading I felt rather crushed by this. But on reflection, hey, to be regarded as ‘perfectly good’ as a novelist is something. To get a review at all, indeed! I gave myself a mental shake. After all, a few days earlier, on the same blog, this same reviewer said of the highly-acclaimed Sarah Waters who’s up there with the big names:
At her best, Waters can tear a story along – but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited … is she destined to always fall short from her potential?
He talks of her ‘dud 100 pages’, how she ‘drags occasionally’.
Phew! I’m in good company, then.

And then there’s the time line. Now, this blogger is clearly no intellectual slouch, but he admits to being confused by the dates in the second part of Remember Remember. Well, hey. Confusion fits! But I can confide, my editor and I were sorely exercised over the best way to capture the passage of time without bogging the book down with tedious facts. We finally agreed to mark the number of years as chapter headings and drop in occasional historical detail as anchors (obvious ones like WW II), and trust to the reader’s intelligence to follow the clues. I guess you have to care enough to stop and work it out. And Mr Stuckinabook gallops from book to book, so I should be content that he read the book as he did, and not look for more. And I know the chronology is impeccable!

So, against this frankly honest critical context it was particularly gratifying to read his conclusion:
What I will say to anybody who does pick up Remember Remember is: persevere. The first half may feel a little ordinary, but I think McHaffie was just readying herself for the second half. That’s when things get interesting – in terms of structure, narrative events, and especially narrative voice.’
‘What McHaffie cleverly presents is a mind, and thus a prose, that gets gradually more and more coherent – the mirror image of a mind disassembling through dementia.’

He reckons it ‘offers a unique twist to the narrative of dementia.’
Why thank you, kind sir!

And he graciously awards a ‘big gold star’ to Tom Bee, the cover designer – as do I. A commendation I’ve been delighted to pass on on to Tom himself.

So, there you have it. I’m genuinely grateful for the review, and on reflection accept is was actually mild criticism. It feels good to have staunchly defended my friend, Aaron, and therapeutic to have written a response. So, here I am back to my perky self. Helped the day after the review was posted by a big box of scented flowers from a grateful bookclub who studied the very same novel. Bless you, ladies – you can never know how timely your gift was.

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