Monday, 16 May 2022

ROSE DORAN DREAMS by Berlie Doherty.....a Q&A session hosted by Adèle Geras

"I decided to rename it because Rose Doran had changed, or my understanding of her had changed."

Berlie Doherty
writes novels, plays, stories, poetry and opera libretti and is translated into over twenty languages. She has written over 60 books,, mostly for children and young adults, Several of her novels have been dramatised for radio, television and the stage. She has won many awards including the Carnegie Medal twice (Dear Nobody and Granny was a Buffer Girl), and the Writers’ Guild award twice (Dear Nobody and Daughter of the Sea), received a Boston Globe-Horn Honor, and was nominated for the Astrid Lindgren award. For adults she has written many radio plays and short stories, and one other novel for adults, requiem.

The Vinegar Jar was first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1994. Berlie has now reissued it, transformed into Rose Doran Dreams. Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and I sent Berlie some questions after we'd all read her they are, followed by a short review by me. Find out more from her website. 
Celia:  Did you feel tempted to update the novel in any way?

Berlie: No, I wanted to keep it in the period of late wartime – post war childhood.

Celia: What did you feel happy about from the original novel?

Berlie: All the ’stories’, traditional and invented. I hardly changed a word of any of those, though I did sometimes change the order to point up what was going on in Rose’s real world.

Celia: Was there anything you were itching to change?

Berlie: Gordon’s perception of Rose. I wanted to explain his sexual coldness towards her. I wanted to build up the sense that he adored her but couldn’t touch her. I found Gordon a very interesting character to develop.

And I wanted to change the ending. Interestingly, I wrote different endings for the English edition and the American edition of The Vinegar Jar - and I still wasn’t happy!

Linda: How did it feel to go back to your early work with a view to reshaping it? What made you decide to revise (and rename) rather than simply reissuing the book?

Berlie: It was a strange thing to do. I’ve never read one of my own books from beginning to end before, after the editing process. It’s so long since I wrote The Vinegar Jar that it really felt as if somebody else had written it. I was very sad when Hamish Hamilton took it out of print. It became an e-book, no cover, no publicity, and lay there like a lump of dead wood that was ready to become kindling. I’ve just thought of that and it’s quite a nice pun! Anyway, I decided to revisit it for something to do in lockdown. I felt quite a lot of it, especially in the first half, was underwritten and needed enhancing both in style and in content. Even down to the use of punctuation, it was as basic as that. A friend told me she had no idea what was going on, so I knew I had to put that right. It was a challenge.

When I re-read it I felt I liked the book but that it could be a lot better. Revising it became a major project, I loved doing it, and it really absorbed me.

I decided to rename it because Rose Doran had changed, or my understanding of her had changed. In The Vinegar Jar her stories and imaginings trap her and almost stifle her. She’s looking out on the world that she can’t escape into. In Rose Doran Dreams her stories and imaginings give her freedom and emotional release. Her imagination powers her.

Linda: I like the way you let us fully understand how Rose's longings and frustrations lead to her fantasy with Paedric, but also you allow us to see how strange her behaviour seems to Gordon and Edmund. Was this difficult to pull off?

Berlie: This was one of the things I hadn’t achieved in The Vinegar Jar. Things just happen and aren’t explained. As soon as I thought about Rose Doran being in some sort of psychological breakdown I began to understand her and could find ways of justifying her psychic relationship with Paedric. Also I was able to ask myself questions about her relationship with Gordon and Edmund, the effect on them of her alienation, and their helplessness in trying to make sense of it.

Linda: I felt that Rose was often unkind to Edmund, yet he remains devoted to her and apparently endlessly patient, despite the limitations to his own life. What do you see as his future (if you do?)

Berlie: In The Vinegar Jar he mentions a girlfriend, but the reader hears little about her, as if perhaps he’s just making her up for Rose’s benefit. But in Rose Doran Dreams she’s really there, and we meet her. Like Rose, I would want his future to be with Molly.

Adèle: Rose Doran Dreams moves from being an almost D H Lawrence-like realist story, to containing elements of fairytale and fantasy. How do you think each “strand of thought” (if I can call it that!) enhanced the other?

Berlie: I don’t think one would have worked completely without the other. Rose’s imagination is a kind of psychosis, and I hope she shocks the reader as much as she shocks Gordon with her erotic story of the shivering mountain. It’s as if she can’t help it, and she slips from reality into fantasy without being aware of it or of its effect on others. But as for the realism, although she was a child who loves stories (and who doesn’t!) I needed to show her as being rooted in earth, and not just a dreamy child with her head in the clouds.

Adèle: Some of the ‘realist’ story had such a strong feeling of being true that I wondered whether there was any autobiography in the mix. Can you tell us?

Berlie: Not to my knowledge!

Adèle: I thought parts of the novel were Angela Carteresque. Is she an influence on your work? Can you name other writers who might have had an effect on this book?

Berlie: I can’t actually, though I’m very honoured that you’ve made that connection. The fact is that I love fairy stories, and yes, magic realism, though I didn’t know that term when I wrote TVJ. I do love Angela Carter/Isabel Allende/ Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie/Joanne Harris …

But also D H Lawrence (that reference interested me, Adele! Barry Hines/Arthur Miller/ Shelagh Delaney … It’s strange isn’t it, you don’t know when you’re writing something how much, or if at all, you’re affected by your reading.

Adèle: Can you see RDD as a film or play? If so, where would you film it?

Berlie: Yes, a film. It is visual. Or a radio play, for the same reason. And if a film, Edale (where I live). It’s not Edale, many of the geographic features don’t apply to Edale but the railway runs through it (and is an important character in the book) and the caverns and hills of Castleton (the Mam Tor story) lie just beyond it.

Short review:

Berlie is an enormously prolific and successful writer whose prose has two distinct qualities which are blended together perfectly in this latest book. On the one hand, she's a sharp, clear realist writer, bringing historical periods to life in a plain and direct way that speaks straight to the reader. Then there's the lyrical, poetic style which comes to the fore quite often in Rose Doran Dreams. The fairy tale atmosphere of this novel provides an excellent background for what are literally flights of fancy. The writer Angela Carter would have enjoyed reading this book.

Anyone who's read reviews by me knows that I don't like giving away the plot of a novel, and in this case the narrative moves through different iterations of love, and obsession. It centres on children, and our eponymous heroine experiences young love, then an unusual marriage and then a relationship which stretches her emotions (and those of the reader) to the limit. You will end up in a glorious tangle of true and imagined and it's part of the pleasure of the story that you'll be going over it in your head long after you've finished reading it, sorting out what you think has happened or is happening. It's a very visual book...I think it would make a terrific movie.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Guest review by Sally Nicholls: RISK, ODDS AGAINST and more - the novels of Dick Francis

"It's a long time since I've been so thoroughly swallowed by a novel ..."
Sally Nicholls
is the author of nineteen books for big children, little children and teenagers. Her novels have been shortlisted for (and won!) numerous awards, including the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, the Costa Book Award, the Guardian Children's Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal. Her work includes Ways to Live Forever, Things a Bright Girl Can Do and The Button Book. She lives in Liverpool with her husband and two children.

In the corner of my mother’s bookcase, looking rather incongruous next to field guides to birds and plants and illustrated hardbacks on British history, sit a small collection of red-jacketed paperback thrillers. My mother is not a natural thriller-reader. She likes autobiographies, books about religion, fiction about good people being decent to each other. But the thrillers, all by the same author, have sat on her shelves my entire life, surviving innumerable clear outs. Their red spines are as familiar to me as the battered Shirley Hughes books I read to my children.

Home for half term, looking for something to read, I pick one off the shelf.

Risk by Dick Francis.

Six hours later, I put down the book, somewhat stunned. What just happened? It’s a long time since I’ve been so thoroughly swallowed by a novel. I feel breathless, as though, like the jockey hero of Risk, I’ve been chloroformed, kidnapped, bundled off in a Red Cross ambulance minutes after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on a rank outsider. Captive to the yellowing pages, I am addicted. I want more.

I go on social media to rave about my new discovery, and am greeted with delight. One person tells me Dick Francis is the reason she became a writer. Several talk about finding him in the unbookish houses they grew up in. They all agree how readable he is. ‘I read one when I was pregnant,’ someone else says. ‘I was sort of alarmed by how addictive it was. Felt like snorting cocaine. I wondered if I read another if I would be forever condemned to reading nothing but his books.’

I am not at all surprised by this. Writers are snobs about bad writing, but they respect anyone who does a job well. Dick Francis is what George Orwell called a ‘good bad writer’. His books are mid-twentieth-century thrillers in the American vein; they are by no stretch of the imagination literature. But they are very, very good at what they do. He has the sort of simple style it is incredibly hard to emulate. He is emotionally sound, and quietly humorous. He is the only three-time winner of the Edgar, and one of only two writers to win both the Edgar and the Golden Dagger for the same novel, Whip Hand. (The other was John Le Carre for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.)

Over the next few weeks, I read seven more Dick Francis thrillers in quick succession: Odds Against, Whip Hand, Come to Grief, In the Frame, Nerve, Reflex and Straight. These are all recommendations by friends on social media, and any would make a good starting point to his work, though it should be noted that Odds Against, Whip Hand and Come to Grief are a mini-series about Sid Halley, Francis’ most popular hero. You may prefer to read them in order, though you don’t really have to.

The books are very similar. Francis’ heroes are all basically the same person; practical, intelligent men of about thirty, physically resilient, emotionally reticent, frequently wounded (literally and metaphorically) and splendidly moral. When Philip Nore takes a bribe to lose a horse race in Reflex I am genuinely shocked, though he quickly comes to his senses. They all also have broadly the same plot. The men, who are generally jockeys, stumble upon evil and are compelled to do something about it. They use their wits to investigate, despite the clearly increasing danger. At some point, about two-thirds of the way through, they are set upon by rent-a-thugs and attacked or kidnapped. They are hurt. (As an ex-jockey himself, Francis wrote with great authority about pain, though never gratuitously). Their loved ones beg them to rest, but they struggle on, breaking their chains, outsmarting their enemies, and, in one memorable finale, winning a major horse-race for the sheer joy of forcing the villain to congratulate them on live television.

These wounded heroes are part of Francis’ appeal. They may be steely-eyed under pressure, but they come with well-realised neuroses and insecurities. They don’t just walk away from their wounds, they carry them with them for the remainder of the book, and sometimes into the next one. When one ends up trapped in his car after a car crash, we get a meticulous description of how he is cut out. Francis (or apparently usually his wife) does his research. Another joy of the books lies in the details of the worlds he writes about, be they horse racing, painting, photography or the rare gem trade. I’ve never been to a horse race in my life. But his knowledge makes me interested. He cares, so so do I.

The emotional honesty is perhaps why Francis has so many female fans. He writes women well; be they spinster headmistresses who outmanoeuvre thugs, or junior editors with an eye for genius. There aren’t many seventies thriller-writers who would give Sid a cheerful, untidy PhD student as a love interest. And never once are the women ‘fridged’, raped or hurt. If a villain wants to get to a Francis hero, he does the decent thing and bops him on the head, ties him up, shoves him into his car, and duffs him up in a deserved stable yard somewhere. There is romance, but no on-stage sex and no swearing, apparently because Francis didn’t want to upset the Queen Mother, who was a fan.

Rumours abound that Francis’ wife actually wrote the books. He left school at sixteen, she was a publishers’ reader with a university degree. I’m not so sure. The books are extremely competently written, but they are also intensely male. Francis himself said “I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.” Their son described them as ‘Siamese twins joined at the pencil.’ Some sort of collaboration seems most likely.

For me as a writer, something good always comes from falling nose-first into a book or a series. I’m certain I wouldn’t have written Things a Bright Girl Can Do and A Chase in Time (at least not in quite the same way) if I hadn’t fallen so hard for Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I’m not sure what will come out of all these racing thrillers, but I’m certain something will. I’m looking forward to finding out what.

Dick Francis' novels are published by Penguin.

Sally Nicholls' Things a Bright Girl Can Do is included in this round-up of suffragette fiction for younger readers and adults.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Guest review by Linda Sargent: 12 BIRDS TO SAVE YOUR LIFE - NATURE'S LESSONS IN HAPPINESS by Charlie Corbett


"Rediscovering his connection to the natural world through reacquainting himself with birds, their habitats and song."

Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher’s reader (David Fickling Books since 2002). She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website. She is currently working, along with Joe Brady and Leo Marcell, on Tosh's Island, a middle grade graphic novel based on her childhood.

The line, “Grief finds its good way home” from Elizabeth Jennings' poem Into the Hour, is especially apt for this book, I think. The cliché of coming to terms with loss has always felt inadequate and often inappropriate to me, but “finding its good way home”, yes, that’s more like it. And this diary/essay form account that Charlie Corbett uses to chart the ten years following the death of his mother does feel so much like this kind of journey and one that most people are likely to recognise. Charlie’s mother was in her mid sixties when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which the author says at first, although a shock to the family, they all imagined it would be dealt with, sorted out and their mother would continue to be their centre, as he describes, “the glue that held our family together”. That this would no longer be the case seemed unimaginable and when she died there was inevitable fracture and despair, one which sent the author into dark times and which he admits never fully disappear. For him this “way home” involved rediscovering his connection to the natural world through reacquainting himself with birds, their habitats and song.

Although he chooses twelve birds to focus on, during the chapters he also includes many others, presenting a full picture of his relationship with nature as a whole and a reminder of things that he knew were important to him, but that he’d forgotten or neglected to remember over time. As well as the perhaps more obvious candidates like the skylark, the robin and the wren, there are other less predictable birds such as the magpie and the seemingly ordinary house sparrow (sadly like so many not so ordinary and common these days). And although every chapter begins with one bird, it soon broadens out into reflection and reminiscence, as he recalls earlier associations and memories of family life and the way in which he, his father and his siblings have to begin to live with their new reality. At the end of every chapter he gives a brief and nicely personal factual guide to his chosen bird and finally he includes what he calls a Gazetteer – A year in the life of birds, detailing what to look and listen for where and when. It is, as he says, a very personal account and is not meant to instruct, but rather to invite the reader to join him on his journey and in doing so to maybe find it easier to approach loss and grief in their life and find solace in the natural world which is fundamental to us all.

12 Birds to Save your Life is published by Penguin.

More reviews by Linda Sargent:

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin   

The Buried Giant  by Kazuo Ishiguro 

Linda wheeling away into Blenheim Park

Monday, 25 April 2022

Special guest post: an interview with Graeme Fife about NO COMMON ASSASSIN, his novel of the French Revolution


"The story of Charlotte Corday transfixed me: her audacity, naivete, determination, innocence as well as the bare facts of what she did."
Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.' 

Writers Review:  You published The Terror: the Shadow of the Guillotine almost twenty years ago, in 2003: " The most authoritative treatment we are likely to have for many years (William Doyle, The Independent)", for which you must have undertaken formidable amounts of research, much of it in French. What led to your decision to write a novel set during this period? Did that impetus come later?

Graeme Fife: That’s a review I never saw. Wow.

I had been fascinated by the revolution for a long time and had, before the novel, written two radio plays, a short theatre piece, an opera libretto and documentary woven out of translated speeches from the period based on that grim time in human affairs and the story of Charlotte Corday in particular transfixed me: her audacity, naivete, determination, innocence as well as the bare facts of what she did. An opponent of the excesses of the Terror in the crowd watching as the tumbril bearing her to the scaffold rumbled past, through the streets of Paris said: ‘I don’t agree with what she did but she is teaching us how to die.’ A grim legacy. Knowing how she finished her life, I wanted to explore what brought her to that fate. It's nowhere that I have found.

WR: Did your fascination with Charlotte Corday come from the research you did for The Terror? Were you able to read original documents written by or about her?

Graeme: The starting point was the curious incident of the frogs in the night – the estate men beating the marshes to keep the batrachian chorus quiet whilst the wife of the master was in labour. I’ve heard that marsh jazz in Mali and it’s bewitching but very loud. It’s such a bizarre story but was the triggering of the novel, without question, one of those gifts out of fact which stir the fiction.

Although I did extensive – and exhausting – research for the Terror book, in texts mostly in French and in the national archive in Paris, I read only small gobbets of Corday’s own utterances, as recorded from the trial and other incidents in her life before she ever went to Paris; the sources, largely secondary, have plenty of her reported words in French. The title itself is a slight twist on something she said to the Prosecutor in court, an angry expostulation that she had actually known full well how to wield the blade as if this was her very trade and she it was who gave me the title during a long walk which I’d dedicated to finding what to call the novel. Indeed, I felt so close to her that at one point, having to break off work on the novel to work on something else, I imagined her sitting alone in a room in the convent, hands folded in her lap waiting for the soft tap on the heavy oaken door which would announce my entry and request to resume our conversation. She was always most gracious and I wept when she wept.

WR: Was it clear from the beginning that your main viewpoint would be Charlotte's? Did you ever consider telling the story a different way? And did the decision to alternate between the past and the present of the story come before you started to write? What did you see as the advantages of that?

Graeme: My writing of the novel was dogged, from the start, by a severe impediment, that of writing history for which sticking to the facts rules out invention. For a long time I could not even contemplate writing something that I knew had not happened, a fatal misgiving. It was a dear friend, a considerable writer herself, who rescued me and said that I must find another pair of eyes through which to observe this lone country girl on her way to Paris bent on such a murderous exploit. I resisted the notion for a long time, because I knew of none, but I respect this friend's judgement so eventually, and to the redemption, I believe of the novel, acceded and invented the secret policeman, Paisac, whose name comes from a list of people who went to what they called ‘the sword of justice’. What a find, my saviour, another individual to whom I grew close, all thanks to the advice and encouragement of someone who knows how these things work and must work. Fiction. Making things up, using the imagination. Story not history, albeit in Greek they are the same thing. The truth behind the fact.

For example, I wasn’t thinking specifically about the infamous tricoteuses at any point but I don’t discount my powers of insight and instinct. The women plying the needles in the Convention - and at the foot of the scaffold? probably not; a Dickens invention in one of his books I find unreadable, A Tale of Two Cities, it’s tosh, though I am a big fan of the books in general. It struck me, however, that at a time when the revolutionary armies, composed largely of untrained volunteers, were marching out to guard the frontiers against professional royalist forces, many of them without shoes or boots, those women were doing something overtly patriotic: they were knitting socks and comforters for the fighting men and boys. I’ve not read that anywhere but I know it’s true, just know.

As for switching time zones, that did seem the obvious approach and I hardly questioned it; perhaps a failure of my roots in historical writing, but I think, hope, it works here. The alternative – which I employed in an earlier version of the book, is to make the whole story chronological and, because I deem that earlier version a failure, I feel no compunction about ditching the method.

WR:  As someone who'd written such a major historical account, did you find it more liberating or more daunting to turn to fiction?

Graeme:  A question that cuts to the very stump: oh, liberating and daunting in equal measure. Allowing myself to go anywhere I found so many avenues denied by the relentless onward drive of the imagined account or even by my own incompetence. There are those awful moments of sheer dismay at the amount of work that such and such a challenge is going to require. Before I agreed to The Terror, I asked a dear friend who knows me well and teaches French history at an American university whether she approved of my undertaking such a task and she asked me whether I wanted to ‘wade through all that blood’ again. A pertinent and necessary jolt. Knowing, even approximately, what Charlotte Corday was going to demand of me, I undertook to ‘find her’ so to speak with excitement and determination, both of which, in my view, she deserves.

WR:  Charlotte's Normandy upbringing and her education in the convent are portrayed in detail in your novel. Is this all based on reality or were there areas about which little is known?

Graeme: Tricky. By and large, I simply don’t know except that it does ring true and I think I have a good ear. I have spent quite a lot of time in a monastery so that certain aspects of the religious life are familiar and I have studied devotion and the nursing of the dedicated soul, to put it that way, a lot so I suppose that speaking of her time in the convent came more or less naturally to me. One thing does stand out: her take on guilt which may be surprising. She was known as a very forthright, no-nonsense speaker with the temperament of an angel [sic], a deeply caring young woman – her teaching of the little girls brings that out and I guess that passage, Miss and the littl’uns, springs from some remembered exchange, I cannot bring it specifically to mind, but, I repeat, I got to know her so well and she taught me much.

WR:  I'm impressed by your depictions of rural Normandy, the convent and its surroundings and the city scenes in Paris. I believe you have travelled widely in France, but nevertheless was it difficult to create 18th Century immediacy? For me this is one of the strengths of your novel and something I particularly enjoyed.

Graeme: From wide reading, personal observation and good luck, I think. I have done a lot of translation and the process of shifting from one language to another is not dissimilar to that of pillaging the imagination. For example, and here an extract from a longer piece on the subject:

‘The sanguinary work of the guillotine was a horror, justified by spurious legality, which transfixed the populace at large. The Abbé Siéyès, an early proponent of the reform promised by the revolution, an end to royal rapacity and corruption, asked what he had done during the revolution, replied: J’ai survécu which could (should?) be rendered, literally, and in the finite, ‘I survived’. However, the words have greater force, I suggest, by ‘I stayed alive’, a stronger sense of actuality, rooting the experience of not going to the scaffold in the day-to-day choking tensions of the time, the anxiety, waiting for the knock on the door at night, the grim routine sight of the tumbrils laden with victims rumbling through the city streets…’

I think, too, that if you dwell long enough on a subject in the context of its historical time, the atmosphere, smells, sounds of that epoch do float up in vibrant reality. The incident of Charlotte needing to get to a toilet before she can no longer contain the peristalsis - the outdoor privy, the dry grass to clean herself, the mephitic odours, the squalor…well, we’ve all been there, one way and another, and the incident simply offered, much as the physical and insistent urge hits us. The difference, for me, is that when so seemingly irrelevant a happening occurred, I greeted it as true, not one jot made up, a happening that, like the pebble in the pond, has many ripples of attached circumstance, all valuable.

WR:  Similarly I was struck by the detail you gave of the enbalming of Marat! How did you learn so much about the equipment and procedures?

Graeme: I researched the process and talked to a surgeon. The aromatic herbs to stifle the foul smells seemed obvious and I do have a copy of Culpeper.

WR:  Your admiration for Charlotte and her determination is clear. Now that you've writtenNo Common Assassin,has the Charlotte of your imagination become a slightly different person from the historical figure? (We asked the same question of Patrick Gale about his new novel Mother's Boy,about Charles Causley (another CC, as it happens!))

Graeme: I hope she remains the same in essence, that I have not projected too much onto her, something about which I would be embarrassed if not shamed. She deserves her own story and I hope this is, in part, anyway, her story, hers alone and that is her fictional self, set with sympathy and comprehension alongside what we may read of her historically. I believe there is not much difference in the two portraits. I had no desire to do her the disgrace of making her up, after all. I still admire her, find her deluded, am not shy of considering how difficult she must have been as a quarrelsome daughter, always ready to confront and question authority, any authority, a strong proponent of the revolution per se and utterly dumbfounded by the mad course it took in the hands of its idiot, sanguinary leaders. Of the men (of Republican Rome) and the woman – the biblical Judith – who inspired her with their nominally heroic actions of extreme personal risk, I know from my reading and musing upon self-sacrifice, the trappings of honour, heroism, patriotism, none of which entices me at all.

WR:  You must, I imagine, have entertained a what if? idea - what if Charlotte hadn't assassinated Jean-Paul Marat? How might events have unfolded differently?

Graeme: I haven’t speculated much on what might have been. I don’t think the murder changed anything significant. It did supply the slippery David with excuse for yet another unctuous, lionising portrait – here a study of the murdered man / martyr as a sort of Adonis, slain, in his bath. Who needs it? The arm of the corpse coming adrift is authentic; the manner of its detachment and its rescue in the road by the artiste himself is imagined.

WR:  Are you planning to write more historical fiction, set in this or any other period?

Graeme: Writing the Charlotte novel unlocked much and I can’t entirely explain just how but in its wake, I managed, finally, to complete a novel based on a true incident set in imperial Vienna during and after the First World War, moving to America, after the horror of Kristallnacht, a breath-taking escape from Occupied Europe, Memory’s Ransom, to be published by Conrad Press. My dear friend Rudolf, a German, met its protagonist, Felix, in the 1950s and told me the bare bones of the story over 20 years ago, assuming that I was the obvious person to tell it in larger form. Had he but known what anguish he had sown. I was simply not up to the job, technically inept, and it took years – of research, in the first instance, and endless contemplation, agonising and frustration but always a tenacity, too, no great help in some circumstances: it acts like a scourge to punish not shouldering this responsibility to tell the story – before I finally arrived at what I know is right, insofar as I can make it so, a cast of imagined characters, an imagined setting, a reconstructed pattern of events beginning with the Archduke Ferdinand lying ‘in a treason of blood’ on a road in Sarajevo, summer 1914 and concluding with another true incident – as related to me – a climactic and seemingly incredible end on a wave-lashed beach in Portugal some forty years later; a huge sweep of history given the full force and colour of imagination. With Charlotte’s help, again? Of course. But another novel?  There is another written, but not of historical fiction. 


Monday, 18 April 2022

Guest review by Alison MacLeod: THE FLAMES by Sophie Haydock


"Haydock explores both the exhilaration and the pain of life lived outside society’s norms..."

Photograph: Kate MacLeod
Alison MacLeod has written four novels and two story collections, including Unexploded, which was Man-Booker longlisted, and Tenderness. A Book of 2021 for The Spectator and The New York Times, Tenderness is the story of the creation and unexpected aftermath of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Alison is Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester, where she lectured for 30 years in literature and creative writing. Find out more from her website. 

A painting – like a song, film or dream – is notoriously difficult to convey in words. On the page, it can easily elude the translation across forms. How can a writer evoke the live force of a painting, as we first experience it, across time, on a canvas or in a frame? In this accomplished first novel, Sophie Haydock plunges us into the heat and complexity of Egon Schiele’s art, and offers a remarkable sense of what Schiele’s sister, in Haydock’s story, calls ‘the magic in his fingertips’.

The Flames is the story of a rare and provocative talent cut short by illness; Schiele was just 28 in 1918 when he died of ‘Spanish flu’. But, more than this, it’s a tantalising story of life itself – of life seized and spent by each of its main characters. Haydock explores both the exhilaration and the pain of life lived outside society’s norms.

We are taken to Austria in the early years of the twentieth century. Here, Haydock reveals Egon Schiele, boy and man, largely through the stories and shifting perspectives of his four principal models: his younger sister Gertrude; his ‘muse’, Wally Neuzil (or Vally, as she is here); his wife Edith; and his sister-in-law Adele. Through their eyes, in an inspired story-collage, we discover Schiele’s childhood and his early compulsion to draw. We witness the harrowing descent of his stationmaster father, raging and ill with syphilis, and the poignant aftermath of his death for the Schiele family. Liberation for Egon comes with art school and the influence of his mentor, Gustav Klimt.

A fifth young woman, Eva, will meet the elderly, down-and-out Adele in flash-forward scenes set in 1968, when Eva looks back on the stories of all four women with the appraising eyes of modernity. She is perhaps a stand-in for Haydock herself as she comes face to face with the four women on the walls of a major Viennese exhibition, where she tries to unravel the enigma of each model. It’s a tribute to Haydock’s talent and the depth of her writing that her model-by-model approach never feels exercise-like or schematic. On the contrary, her rendering of the model-as-muse scenario is vivid and intriguingly ambivalent.

Who or what is a muse? A sought-after commodity? A powerhouse of energy transmitted to canvas? An object offered up for the male gaze? Haydock triumphs in nuanced, visceral evocations of the experience of modelling – possibly the best I’ve ever read. She reveals the weary spines, contorted limbs, cold hands, bared thighs and exposed breasts. She evokes, with precision and force, the queasy mixture of sacrifice and self-possession; objectification and intimacy.

The story of Egon’s sister, Gerti Schiele, is compelling. Haydock’s imagining of the incestuous element between sister and brother is restrained, layered and impressively unsensational. Indeed, her handling of it is so skilful I felt she might have dared slightly more in the development of this storyline. Instead, as Egon outgrows his sister, the characterisation of Gertie is flattened somewhat into minor displays of jealousy, and I wondered if something stranger or darker in this material was perhaps short-circuited.

The story of Vally is delivered with subtlety and grit, and she’s a beguilingly memorable character. In her story, too, the dark seams of controversial events – namely, a stint in jail for Schiele and unsavoury accusations – might have been mined a little more, to take us closer to Schiele’s flaws or contradictions. This said, the story of Egon and Vally is tender, fresh and involving – and was my personal favourite.

Throughout The Flames, the period detail is lovingly rendered, a quality that shines above all in the stories of Adele and Edith Harms. I thoroughly enjoyed the window on Secessionist Vienna, with its rigid etiquette, illicit outlets, and battles between commerce and art. At times perhaps, the sisterly relationship between Adele and Edith veers a touch unsteadily between bourgeois predictability and high drama but, in Edith’s story, something radical ultimately emerges. Under the day-to-day pressures of married life, Egon Schiele’s boundless charm and sensitivity give way. He becomes more objectionable to the reader, but more powerful as a character, with sharper, darker contours. We watch uncomfortably as he instructs Edith, his new wife, to masturbate as she poses naked for him. On another canvas, disturbingly, he immortalises her as a stiff, puppet-like figure.

Story by story, woman by woman, The Flames is kindled by mystery, desire, and Haydock’s own resonant prose. It’s an absorbing encounter with Schiele’s struggle, art and intimates, and it reminds us that his work still has the power to startle today, with its uncanny modernity and unselfconscious sexuality. In this auspicious debut, Sophie Haydock brings a striking sense of Schiele’s life and talent, blazing, to the page.

The Flames is published by Transworld.

Alison MacLeod's Tenderness is reviewed here by Jane Rogers.

Monday, 11 April 2022

Independent Bookshop feature No.15. Alexis Thompson of The Woodstock Bookshop: THE GAELIC GARDEN OF THE DEAD by MacGillivray


"This will haunt you, if allowed to do so ..."

Alexis Thompson is a writer and bookseller based in Oxford. He has led poetry walks in London on the Modernists for the International Times and New River Press, curated and read in London and Edinburgh and was writer-in-residence with The Parlour Collective. He recently completed an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford and has had fiction and poetry published in MONK and the New River Press. In 2020 he was the editor of Blackwell's Poetry #1. He is currently finishing a debut novel, titled A Pit of Clay.

As of 2022 he is manager of The Woodstock Bookshop, noted for its yearly poetry festival under its previous owner Rachel Phipps. The Woodstock Poetry Festival is set to return in November 2023 for the first time since 2019.

'I open with a mouth of burning coal', writes poet MacGillivray in this astonishing third collection. Here we have the Gaelic alphabet of trees which, for those of you who don't know, assigns all the letters of the Highland alphabet to specific trees and this gives Book I of The Gaelic Garden of the Dead its unique structure.

But The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is a trilogy; Books II and III deal with a sigil sequence and sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots, consecutively (a discussion of the sonnets was featured on BBC Radio 3 The Verb: listen here) and the whole collection unfolds in your hands like an arboreal haunting; a lament to the loss of an ancient language - particularly relevant now, as Scottish Gaelic is predicted to become extinct by 2031 - and the beleaguered fate of a great queen. Although this sounds far-stretching, in MacGillivray's hands, the interwoven historical with the poetic potency of the book is both striking and what a reader might seek out as tonic from the observational, minimalism of most mainstream contemporary poetry.

'Love’s eyes are colourless:/ a motive for moving through underworlds' asserts MacGillivray, summoning Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot and deeply embedded folkloric Scottish roots: there are psalms for lightning; salt, snow and sleep coronachs (the third part of a funeral lament); and references to old Gaelic customs: 'Walking to the heartland of the Gaelic alphabet/ where spirit multitudes sleep rough/ among the bales of slaughtered wheat,' I drank my lover’s blood', a reference to the Gaelic tradition of drinking a little of the blood of a loved one who has been killed in battle. Here we have not only an arboreal meditation on the nature of these trees (ranging from Ailm 'A' for pine, to Quert for 'Q' which is apple - here described under the 'School of the Moon': a traditional name for the teaching of cattle rustling, done at night.)

As with her other collections, the experience is not only of potent poetics but is educative, while never feeling didactic. In reading the book, one feels enhanced as if by secret or lost knowledge into this Gaelic otherworld. Book II, A Crisis of Dream, operates as a visual gateway of pattern-poem sigils between Book I and Book III.

The reader is then confronted by In My End is My Beginning, a line better known from Eliot’s Four Quartets, having been borrowed from Mary Stuart. Book III presents a 'descent' of thirty five sonnets - one for each step Mary descended on her way to execution, which are then 'chewed up' (here a nod to the cut-up technique of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) for the fifteen minutes Mary's mouth was said to have moved, after her decapitation. The result is deeply moving: the sonnets were composed in situ in many of the sites Mary lived in and at Fotheringhay, on the anniversary morning of her execution. Replete with rich imagery summoned from Mary's own poetry (we learn she was a part of Ronsard's poetic circle 'The Pleiades'), MacGillivray's response and elaboration to Mary’s death and writing evidently comes from a place of deep research and profound sympathy for Mary’s plight, not merely as a historical figure, but as a human being:

I dreamed of a sawdust chandelier
whose crystals were drops of driftwood dredged
from all the world’s shipwrecks: god’s figurehead,
and it swung, as I dreamt, ever closer to my fear,
softly releasing sweet incense into the clear,
black night air, as that great barge carries the dead,
but instead of my death, it passaged my dread
and the water it ploughed comprised of one tear.

This formal descent of sonnets is then wildly torn up: 'my bled out, love flushed, young, wild skeleton!' for the counterpart to The Descent; The Blade and in both sequences, Mary emerges as an impassioned poet which reflects something of her true personality.

This is an ambitious and electric collection - a far cry from the usual - and will haunt you, if allowed to do so.

For fans of Barry McSweeney, William Burroughs and Sorley Maclean.

The Gaelic Garden of the Dead is published by Bloodaxe Books.  

Monday, 4 April 2022

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim

"If that advert had been a real and current one I would have applied immediately!"

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars, followed in 2019. Both titles are now available in paperback.

The month of April in England comes in for both praise and disfavour. Robert Browning yearned for it while abroad, though where are the green shoots of the elms these days? T. S. Eliot had it the cruellest month, and looking at the frosted magnolias near my house I do have a certain sympathy for that point of view. But in truth, who could not love the Spring, with its birdsong and all those brave early flowers? We can always sow more seed if we’ve been caught out by a late frost. Some plants, like my winter lettuces, and those courageous tulips can stand up to all that April can throw at our gardens.

However, it is not an English April that Elizabeth von Arnim wishes to eulogise in her novel. On the contrary, her character, Mrs Wilkins, shopping on a wet London day, wishes to escape it. She had not suffered a long, Covid-19 winter, as have we, but she was not altogether happy, and sheltering from the sooty London rain she read this advertisement in The Times.

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z,Box 1,000, The Times

To be honest, if that advert had been a real and current one I would have applied immediately!

The novel was written in 1922, when servants were more common. At the same time, the idea of a married woman, travelling unaccompanied by her husband, to a place so far from home, to have a month’s holiday without him, well! That would have been somewhat unusual in 1922. Would Mrs Wilkins have dared to book the castle if a slight acquaintance had not agreed, along with two other women, to share the castle and its costs? Good for them say I! And so it turned out to be, in various, unsuspected ways.

This is a very funny book, but also poignant, sympathetic and at times thought provoking. It is also a wonderful way of making a virtual escape from the pandemic and drifting up to the castle gardens, overlooking the sea. There, we can lie back in the past, in our sun loungers with a glass of wine, and enjoy the fragrances, and the slow passing of time demonstrated by flowers going over, only to make room for different buds to appear.

"All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring."

I guess the author was very keen on gardens. She evokes the parade of flowering plants so beautifully I could almost smell their delicious aromas. The very names made me wish I were there. Judas tree, peach trees, freesias, irises, roses (oh the petals!) tamarisk, daphnes, lilies, fig trees, plums, olives and as she puts it, modest weigela. I can feel that wonderful warm breeze on my skin with the plum blossom falling, this very moment.

Of course a fine description of plants and place doesn’t make a novel. The author causes her characters to work hard in the plot, and she paints each one with care and humour. Nothing earth-shattering happens. The days pass, jockeying for position occurs. Each woman has their own way of managing their lives, some perhaps better than others. Stray men come and go, food is served and wine drunk. Manners are mostly preserved. As the month of April comes to a close I found myself wishing they could stay longer, so that I could stay too. This is a novel I will shelve, and take down during a particularly nasty storm on a February weekend. Ah!…balm for the soul!

There is a film, which I have not seen, but was well reviewed. I shall seek it out. I wonder if the scent of flowers is evoked successfully on film? It certainly is within these fine pages.

The Enchanted April is published by Alma Classics Evergreen (the edition shown) and also by Penguin Modern Classics.

Cynthia Jefferies' The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne is published by Allison and Busby.