Hazel McHaffie

Thiepval Memorial

HIV/AIDS in fiction – but not mine!

I’m one of those irritating people who can’t function in a clutter, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in my writing life. I need to clear up any unresolved issues and outstanding tasks before I can psyche myself into the creative zone.

This week I’ve been flitting from an intriguing system for finding new readers (yawn, yawn), to consolidating material for the children’s Christmas story (great fun!), preparing for forthcoming author appearances (mmm, lovely communication with real live people), and delving into the ethical dimensions behind ongoing medical questions (round and round and round, we go). Oh, and a little bit of digging into the past in our family and communicating with archivists – related to Remembrance Day and my Uncle Harold who died on the Somme a hundred years ago this year. Thiepval memorialAll in all a very raggy kind of week. And definitely not conducive to serious stints of writing.

So, I’m busy tidying up loose ends to put me in a calmer place. Not exactly headline news, not remotely interesting to anyone else, indeed, so I’ll just share one activity with you that closed – nay, more like permanently deleted – one of the many open files in my brain.

In my stack of ideas for possible future novels I have a wallet labelled ‘HIV/AIDS’, so when I saw a review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home I just had to buy a copy. I read it over a year ago but somehow never got round to writing about it here. This seems like a good moment to rectify that omission.Tell the Wolves I'm Home

It’s a debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, an American writer now living in Devon, who was selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award, and funded by the Arts Council to write it. Lucky woman, huh?

Essentially, it’s a well written tale of love and compassion, secrets and prejudice, forbidden relationships and the legacies left by bittersweet memories.

The narrator is a fourteen year old girl, June Elbus, the younger sister of the slimmer and more beautiful Greta. June is a curious mixture as she hovers on the brink of adulthood: still fantasising about the Middle Ages and wolves, playing like a child in the woods, one minute; showing a maturity beyond her years as she faces death and loss, tortured by her own inappropriate longings, the next.

The girls’ Uncle Finn is a famous artist and he’s painting a picture of the sisters, hoping to complete it before he dies of AIDS. June is obsessed by Finn Weiss, who is also her godfather – in love with him in fact – and his death devastates her. But Finn has made provision for her grief in the shape of his hidden lover, Toby, who materialises unexpectedly at the funeral and becomes very much part of her secret world. Gradually June gets to see the impact Toby had on the uncle she thought she knew.

The Elbus family are riven with tensions arising from Finn’s fame, his illness, Mom’s reaction to it, Toby’s part in it, Greta’s insecurity, the parents’ ambitions, sibling rivalries. Jealousies, conflicts, and divided loyalties drive them to re-examine their lives, their strengths and weaknesses. Greta is not the confident, popular older sister June thought she was. Finn is not the man June thinks he is. The painting is not revered as a masterpiece should be.

In a former life I actually carried out empirical research in the early days of HIV/AIDS, and Brunt’s portrayal of the family’s reaction to the illness rings true for the time. It’s sensitively and sympathetically wrought. So too are the dynamics of the Elbus family. I liked the way the author gradually unravelled the characters and showed us their true selves – cleverly done through the eyes of an adolescent first person narrator. It’s a multi-layered book, successfully weaving and merging many threads until the tale is told. A worthy winner of a prestigious award.

But the time for writing a novel on the subject myself is passed; all my books on the subject can be consigned to a good cause. That potential novel can be crossed off my list. Result? Space on my shelves and in my brain! Wahey!!

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66 letters – lest we forget

I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?

When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)

And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:

It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)

You can lose yourself in another time.

So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.

And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.

If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License

Thiepval Memorial (Used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike License)

A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.

Nevard-panelHis name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.

His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.

 

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