Before I got started on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books I thought they might be too cosy and cream bun-ish for me. But then enough people sang their praises to prompt me to try them, and they turned out to be much sharper and darker than I’d anticipated.
Yes, there are dresses and dinners, but also: sex, sexuality, secrets, infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, unrequited love, requited love, grief, unwanted pregnancies, children who long for lost or absent parents, marriages of all kinds, the tension between duty and desire, and the long friendships of cousins. All that plus a portrait of an extended family as a microcosm of social change before, during and after the Second World War.
So now I have just one Cazalet book left, All Change. It’s always rather melancholy to approach the end of a series. After the first four Cazalet books I read Slipstream, EJH’s autobiography, and that’s what I wanted to blog about. Any writer’s autobiography is of potential interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing, and this one offered up numerous insights that caught my eye.
Comfort reading… but not
Slipstream is comfort reading, of a kind – up to a point. It’s the story of a woman who survived acute maternal guilt and numerous difficult though interesting lovers to become what she wanted to be – a writer. There are lots of other writers in its pages, too, in various roles and relationships, including Kingsley Amis (to whom EJH was married for many years) and Martin Amis, her stepson – she gave him Pride and Prejudice and declined to tell him how it ended, so he had to read it for himself; he encouraged her to follow through on her idea for the Cazalet books. Here’s some of what Slipstream has to say about intuition, art, war, love, learning, the work and rewards of writing, age and truth.
On intuition, art, the war years and learning
‘Premonitions bring with them a sense of powerlessness and guilt – what can be the point of even half knowing something about which one seems able to do nothing?’
‘To sit for a painter was even better than being asked to turn pages of music for a pianist: it was being a kind of associate member of the arts, and I could think of nothing more desirable than that.’
‘The war hung over our heads, but we hardly referred to it. Glass fell reluctantly from the roof of the school studio, and was kicked aside by earnest, sandalled feet… We were selfish, preoccupied and, I think now, we simply didn’t understand what was going on, as we never considered it long enough to find out. Behind it all was the feeling that we’d be dragged into it eventually so we had a kind of greedy desperation to get every drop out of every second of the time we had left to pursue our own ends.’
‘Walking home, it was clear how very little I knew and how little I understood of anything I’d thought I knew. Even learning to type wouldn’t help me with his feelings, which meant that either education, as I’d thought of it, wasn’t education at all, or it was merely a preliminary, at its best, for something that was going to last for the rest of my life.’
On the preoccupation with love and wanting to write
‘Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love – intimacy, affection, being first in each other’s lives – I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don’t write this to imply I was unusual; most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think.’
‘Furthermore I was lazy with my writing; I’d not yet learned the kind of discipline necessary for serious work.’
‘There is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and this isn’t always obvious in the salad days of a writer’s creative life, and sometimes never.’
‘I knew by now that a number of people regarded me as beautiful. But much in the way that rich people don’t want to be loved simply because they are rich, I didn’t want to be loved simply for my appearance…. I simply felt I was making a hash of it, and underlying that foggy conclusion lay the dread that I wasn’t anything else. I still had the desire to write, but depression leaks energy – like pain – and all that summer I couldn’t write.’
On the strange feeling of finishing a book and the knowledge of love
‘The feeling after completing a novel is for me like no other. It’s as though with the last sentence, I have released a great weight that falls away, leaving me so empty and light that I can float out of myself and look down at the pattern of the work I’ve made. I can see all at once what I have been pursuing in fragments for so long. It’s a timeless moment, a kind of ecstasy – a state of unconditional love – that has nothing whatever to do with merit or criticism. Of course it goes, dissolves into melancholy and a sense of loss. Parting with people one has been living with for so long and know so intimately is poignant; they are more lost to you than anyone you meet in life. They remain crystallized exactly where you left them. Altogether, it’s an occasion that makes one feel very strange for some time afterwards.’
‘I began to understand that love is neither a conditional business nor an ever-fixed mark by arrangement. People always know somewhere inside themselves if they are not loved. No gestures, talk, conciliation, pronouncements can prevail over that deep instinctual knowledge.’
‘This trip was a farcical failure… I was supposed to give a reading at Brentano’s bookshop at seven pm. When I arrived there was no audience.’
(of Doris Lessing) ‘We went shopping together, and I wanted a rather expensive jacket, and she said, “Go on. You’ve just finished your book, you can have a treat.”‘
On age, happiness and truth
‘…it’s often difficult to feel your age. Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure what this entailed, in many ways I didn’t feel my age. Like one’s appearance or handwriting, one retains an earlier impression of oneself and takes it for granted, no longer sees what one is.’
‘Nearly everyone I’d known who’d had cancer had died of it in the end. It was extraordinary how all my values shifted – as though I’d shaken a kaleidoscope and all the little segments, though still there, had made an unrecognisable pattern. Unhappy, lonely or a failure I might have been, but even those ingredients of my life now seemed precious – even desirable.’
‘On the ninth morning, I had to go into town to buy food, and suddenly – walking down the street to my house – I lightened completely as though, without warning, I’d emerged from a heavy fog into clear sunlight. I felt extraordinarily, irrationally happy.’
‘Liars destroy the currency of all words: there was no single fragment of truth I could hang on to.’
‘I’ve slowly learned some significant things – perhaps most of all the virtue, the extreme importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be continually searched for and treasured when any piece of it is found.’
This is what I’ve been reading so far this year… The 60s novels are research for the book I’m writing at the moment – The Millstone (about single motherhood – the queues in doctor’s waiting rooms haven’t changed…) and Girls in their Married Bliss (woman friends, dodgy/awful men, funny and heartbreaking) – my first time reading Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien, appetite whetters both.
I’d already read the Vadim and Robert Evans autobiographies, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda and The Kid Stays in the Picture; they’re in there for 60s research too. And for the Bob Evans line, ‘fool me once – more fool me, fool me twice – more fool you’, which I love but which is weirdly, tongue-twisterishly hard to get right. And for the scene in Vadim’s memoir where his three ex-wives, Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, plus his ex-lover Catherine Deneuve, all end up by coincidence gathered round looking down at him on set in Paris when he’s floored by a broken shoulder.
Back in February I chaired an event with Jem Lester (Shtum) and Monica Wood (One in a Million Boy) at Dulwich Books – the proof copies of their novels are in the pile. Shtum is a gutsy, gutty, honest and tender portrayal of a single dad’s relationship with his non-verbal autistic son. The red spine is Monica Wood’s heartwarming and quirky One in a Million Boy, about a deadbeat(ish) dad, a superb old lady and a lost boy.
This is Paradise by Will Eaves (who is also a poet) is a finely observed study of a family falling apart and coming (more or less) together. I love a teen boarding-school story, and Friendly Fire is Patrick Gale’s, illustrated by his husband Aidan Hicks (fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English and Antonia White’s Frost in May – enjoy). Ali Shaw’s The Trees is a magical account of a quest through a world changed overnight; Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault is an unnerving tale of literary obsession which grips like a thriller and convinces like the truth.
My proof of Maggie O’Farrell’s time-and-space-hopping love story This Must Be The Place, which features a film star heroine turned recluse, would be in the picture, but I lent it to a friend so it’s represented by the invitation to the launch do on top of the pile. Many memorable scenes, including an agonising one with a father and son waiting out a crisis in a dermatology clinic that I will forever think of in association with eczema. Also: brilliant 90s wedding.
Right now, I’m reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes. It’s a big, brilliant, sometimes devastating and ultimately uplifting social history of autism. Much of it is shocking – here’s a glimpse of the chapter on ‘The Invention of Toxic Parenting’ (the theory that autism was caused by bad parents).
It’s making me very grateful to be the parent of an autistic child here and now… I defy anyone to come to the end of the chapter on ‘What Sister Viktorine knew’ without a lump in the throat.
This beautiful volume is an anthology of tributes and personal responses to the work of Alan Garner, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, with contributions from writers, artists, historians, scientists and storytellers including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, to name but a few. It’s full of illuminating things – read on for quotes that got me turning over page corners – and is exactly the right kind of book to dip into when you can’t sleep, or need taking out of yourself.
I got my copy of First Light at an event at Oxford Literary Festival (it was super-Oxfordy – held in the beautiful Divinity Hall). The event was chaired by Erica Wagner, who compiled and edited the book, in conversation with two of the contributors, Richard Ovenden and Neel Mukherjee. Alan Garner was sitting in the front row next to Rowan Williams – no pressure!
Find out more about The Blackden Trust – the educational charity set up by Alan and Griselda Garner that First Light will help fund
Margaret Atwood on the perils of the Full Moon Mall
‘“You have been trying on our skins,’ growled the raccoon, ‘and turn about is fair play. So now I will try on yours.”’
Bob Cywinski on the parallel between science and fiction
‘Both author and physicist seek to create an internally consistent model universe that can be poked and prodded with questions of “what if?”, and if our literary and scientific model universes respond in a way that is externally consistent with our observations of the real universe, we claim success.’
[I once gave a presentation on how to write a novel to a couple of software developers who made a similar point: it was, as a process, not all that different to what they did.]
Helen Dunmore on The Owl Service
‘Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress” was common currency, Alan Garner explored in The Owl Service the way that intense, tragic events affect generations because they go on recurring in flashback, unresolved and invincible… The past must become truly the past, and it can only do so if there is a redemptive alteration of destructive patterns.’
[A true and also practical point, this. I remember being told that every cell in the human body regenerates every seven years or so. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an encouraging thought. Exposure to certain toxins can indelibly rewrite your genetic code, but – as far as I understand it – even that is a revision of potential and predisposition: it isn’t fate.]
Stephen Fry on being trusted
‘I believe that the first feeling that overwhelmed me was one of being trusted. At no stage did the writer of this story explain to me what I was supposed to feel, or what was the meaning of the story I was reading.’
Neil Gaiman on books that change you
‘There are moments without which we literally would not exist, we would not be ourselves: we would be other people, who would look the same, but with a different inner landscape, with different dreams and hopes and, most importantly, different ways of looking at the world… Reading Elidor was one of those moments for me.’
‘The freight of fantasy is the freight of the unrevealed. When it is at its most powerful, it shows us the world we know through another’s eyes, in a way that we can never unsee.’
Elizabeth Garner on being born alongside a book
‘The first evidence of my existence is not the usual photograph of mother and baby, cocooned in a hospital bed. Instead it is a series of numbers in the margins of a manuscript. My mother’s contraction times, set beside the emerging words of my father’s novel The Stone Book. I was on the page before I was in the world. But that’s just the start of the story.’
Joseph Garner on Othering
‘The internal conflict of Othering comes from the fear of being severed from our roots. Thus to come through the experience of Othering with a new sense of self, we have to go back to our roots and find a way to make peace, and to reconnect our new selves.’
Andrew Hodges on Alan Garner and Alan Turing
‘The meeting of the two Alans arose in 1951, simply as fellow amateur runners, rare in those days, spotting each other on the road… they found a meeting point in equal distances and speed over the Cheshire lanes.’
Bel Mooney on contradiction
‘He knows that Death is the electric current that animates all things.’
Neel Mukherjee on roots, anchoring and land
‘Here is something that I would come to recognise retrospectively as one of the great lessons of writing: there is nothing more universal than the particular, that the local is the world.’
Philip Pullman on Alan Garner on craftsmanship
‘There are traditions in every craft, by which the knowledge gained by our forebears is passed on – knowledge not just of how to hold a plane or sharpen a saw, but of how to evaluate the work and give it the attention it deserves. Garner’s grandfather, for example, a whitesmith, passed on that kind of wisdom to the young Alan.
He uttered two precepts. They are absolutes. The first was: “Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying, ‘What fool made this codge?’”
The second was worse: “If the other feller can do it, let him.” That is: seek until you find that within you that is your unique quality, and, having found it, pursue it to the exclusion of all else and without thought of cost.¹’
[¹Alan Garner, ‘Aback of Beyond’, in The Voice That Thunders. Daunting and rigorous, yes, but as good and fundamental advice for a writer as any you’ll find.]
Ali Smith on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Alderley Edge
‘The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story.’
2015 was my year of reading Patrick Gale. I read a few more of his novels as prep for interviewing him at North Cornwall Book Festival (lucky me): Little Bits of Baby, Rough Music and A Perfectly Good Man. I also looked back over his 2015 bestseller A Place Called Winter and was knocked out by it a second time, having first read a proof copy last year (yup – lucky me again).
This was also the year I caught Ferrante fever – I read the first of the Neapolitan novels and know I’m in for a treat with the rest. Like Ferrante’s legions of other fans, I was drawn in and hooked fast by her brilliant depiction of the novel’s central female friendship, in all its ambiguous tenderness and competitiveness.
It’s been a year for going along to literary events and coming back with books. I stocked up at North Cornwall Book Festival, which has dominated my reading in recent months – the tent may be down, the sand long since shaken out of our suitcases, but NCBF lives on… It was great to see Jenny Balfour Paul, Patricia Duncker and M J Carter speaking about their books, and an even more lasting pleasure to read them (Deeper than Indigo, Sophie and the Sibyl and The Strangler Vine, which I’m reading at the moment. All brilliant.)
Another star of the festival was Neel Mukherjee, whose novel The Lives of Others I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Here’s what I read in 2014.)
Back in June, I spent a gloriously sunny evening in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books in Abingdon, listening to Laura Barnett talk about her twisty-turny, three-layered what-if narrative The Versions of Us. I also went along to see honorary Abingdon author Rebecca Wait (The Followers – a vivid and terrifying account of life as a teen inside a cult) at a panel event at Blackwell’s Oxford discussing whether novels can teach empathy.
In April, I went to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I missed out on Lee Child’s event but spotted him looking conspicuously tall and charismatic outside Jaffe and Neale. I saw Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive – advice and insights on recovering from depression) in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love – a memoir about her brother, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after a car accident, and the impact this had on the family: an unsparingly honest book that is as warm and tender as it is painful). I also saw Hannah Beckerman, Clare Mackintosh and Rowan Coleman speaking about mothers in fiction – and Richard and Judy!
This was the year I discovered Molesworth, which I have been dipping into from time to time over the festive season. Whether you’re looking for eternal verities or merely hunting for something to cheer you up before you go back to work, you may find what you seek in the comprehensively misspelled collected works of this 1950s schoolboy… Turn to Gerald Scarfe’s illustrations of types of teacher and parent, or the sketch of a manager, and you’ll see what I mean.
Also, if you’re in need of amusement and haven’t yet discovered Nina Stibbe, it’s time to get your hands on Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. (You will never see turkey mince in the same way again.) I am very much looking forward to seeing Love, Nina on the telly (Nick Hornby has adapted it – Helena Bonham-Carter is in it). I’ll also be looking out for Patrick Gale’s two-part TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt in 2016. (And when is Poldark back on? Really really soon I hope. January is loooooong.)
I’ve read proof copies of two novels that are due out in 2016 (lucky me again): Sarah Duguid’s debut Look At Me, a sharp and suspenseful tale of sibling rivalry, and Monica Wood’s big-hearted One in a Million Boy. This is about an elderly woman trying to survive her way into the record books, a jobbing musician trying to compensate for his failings as a father, and the charming and unusual boy of the title, whose sudden disappearance draws together those he has left behind. Two to look out for!
So what will I be reading in 2016? Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is waiting, along with Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, and I’d like to read more Penelope Fitzgerald – this year I read Offshore and as I’m working my way through in chronological order it’ll be Human Voices next.
Also, I’ve lined up the autobiographies of Bob Evans and Roger Vadim (research – I’ve read both before), along with Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Also on my wishlist: Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault.
I expect (and hope) I’ll discover many more new books and new authors. There are always surprises in the book store…
A big thank you to all the readers of this blog – here’s to happy reading and good times in 2016!
What I read in 2015… the list
So here’s that rather long list of what I read in 2015, in approximately reverse order.
One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood
Deeper than Indigo by Jenny Balfour Paul
Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker
Look at Me by Sarah Duguid
Rough Music, A Perfectly Good Man, Little Bits of Baby by Patrick Gale
The Kindness by Polly Samson
The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (‘I know I’m damaged. As I’ve walked through fire, bits of me have burnt off – but I accept that.’)
Diana by R F Delderfield (not for the first time!)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. (‘Lila no. To go out with her on Sunday became a permanent point of tension. If someone looked at her she returned the look’)
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. (‘All those brave people who seem to do things solo actually have people in the background who love them or at least like them’)
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
The Followers by Rebecca Wait
How to be Both by Ali Smith
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (along with er 478,884 others, or thereabouts)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Runaway Wife by Rowan Coleman
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Eloise by Judy Finnigan
Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley
The Story of You by Katy Regan
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore
The Butterfly Box by Santa Montefiore
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Her by Harriet Lane (a wonderfully effective and chilling conjuring up of pure malice)
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (warmly discussed at my work book club – my daughter was also a fan)
The Love of My Life by Louise Douglas
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
Daughter by Jane Shemilt
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking
Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman
And also in 2015…
I taught my first creative writing workshop (at North Cornwall Book Festival).
I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.
There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience. There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.
North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore
These are the events I went to:
Dr Who expert Moray Laing on a roll-call of monsters old and new – the Weeping Angels are my scariest (just don’t blink…)
At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.
The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)
Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…
My workshop: handling romance in fiction
At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.
We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
On Writing – Stephen King
On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham
And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).
Someone who missed last train
Single parent on benefits
Soldier with PTSD
Santa (someone dressed as)
Depressed Hollywood star
American yoga teacher
Fancy dress party
Camping site in the rain
The moor at dawn
Edge of a cliff
Therapist’s waiting room
Ferry to a Greek island
Billiard table (full-size)
All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:
If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.
Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.
Outside was a preposterously beautiful, Technicolour autumn day, all blue skies and trees turning the colours of fire. If you’d used it in a film it would have been for heartbreak and parting, a belated outpouring of summer made all the more vivid because it is nearly time to say goodbye. Inside the grand but compact chamber of Henley’s Town Hall it was unseasonably warm; with five minutes to go there were only two seats left, and I took one of them. ‘Not much knee space. We’re rather close,’ somebody said as I squeezed in and arranged myself.
We were a packed and anticipant roomful of mostly women, book lovers and therefore by definition fond of the essentially private pastime of reading, though we were there not to read but to listen and to ask questions, to experience fiction as a public event. Instead of words on a page or a screen, we were going to see the writers who had drawn us there and hear their voices. We wanted stories, but more than that, we hoped for a glimpse into how and why they were told.
At one end of the room was a small and empty stage with three important-looking chairs, which were throne-like but in the manner of an English town hall and therefore designed for the comfortable sitting-out of long meetings as well as to be imposing. I imagine all sorts of practical things have been discussed in that room over the years: the price of corn or parking, the collection of refuse, the balancing of books and the taking of votes.
We weren’t there for any of that. We were there for semen and baby shoes, tales of a psychopathic rapist or a leech-like friend, families divided by wars and continents and the brutal convictions of an era, the tragedy of failed reconciliations and the power of impossible loves. And that was what we got, but as if that wasn’t enough, we also got to find out a little bit about what it takes to make all that stuff up and write it down.
Secrets uncovered: the prelude to post-lunch erotica
Windows were opened; the noises of outside – traffic, the market – drifted in along with the stirring of cooler air. A frisson ran round the room as our writers came in and went up to the little stage and took their places. We were on our way.
I’m sorry not to have a picture of them: they were a glamorous pairing. Patrick Gale is a dazzlingly charming silver fox, with a voice you could listen to forever – I think I’m right in saying he wanted to be an actor when he was younger and he has that gift that some actors have of making an instant connection with other people, a sort of receptivity that both gives and holds attention. I’m onto my fifth Patrick Gale novel now and am a committed member of his fan club, or would be if he formally had one. If you haven’t read any, and you have a space in your reading life for a writer who will draw you in, make you care, make you laugh and break your heart, then go get started.
Polly Samson was new to me. There’s something otherworldly about her which makes it not quite right to describe her in worldly terms. She’s beautiful, poised, measured, with the kind of cool intelligence and self-possession that suggest heat under the surface. She’s also kind of rock’n’roll. She’s a lyricist as well as a novelist; her other half is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and when she’s working on a book she reads what she’s written each day out loud to him in the evening.
Our hour with Patrick and Polly was hosted by Lucy Cavendish, who mentioned that Polly hadn’t eaten any lunch while Patrick had got through two chocolate brownies. If he was skittish, so were we. Off we went with a discussion about how both authors’ latest books had drawn life from their family history and secrets. Patrick told us about Harry Cane, his mother’s mysterious cowboy grandpa who emigrated to Canada under something of a cloud. Patrick set out to tell a story that would explain both what had happened to him and the way the family spoke about him, ‘a story that the women of the family wouldn’t have been told, but that might have been true’: ‘my nefarious scheme of gaying my great-grandfather.’ (I think that might be my favourite PG line from the session, along with the description of the readings as ‘post-lunch erotica’.)
Polly relayed a story from her own family history, a tormenting love triangle in which paternity was at stake. A couple who could not have a baby asked a friend to father a child for them, which he duly did before emigrating to the US, with the understanding that future contact between them would be minimal. But then war broke out and the husband sent his wife and child to their biological father in the US for safety, remaining in Paris to sort out paperwork… and ended up interned and separated from them for years, after which time his wife had decided that their child only needed one father, and was already living with him. A terrible story which culminated in the husband’s suicide.
This fed into Polly’s new novel The Kindness, though transplanted into a different time and place. Polly’s own complicated parentage also provided fuel for the story, and she told us about the father figure with whom she had lost contact, who she later learned had kept her baby shoes close by all his life.
A lesson in how to breathe and a cloudy offering
Both writers read aloud from their novels. Both read scenes that involved seduction, of one kind or another. Polly’s had a specimen jar, innocence yielding to scientific curiosity and a braless milkmaid, the examination of a cloudy offering. Patrick’s had a therapist who teaches a young man to breathe, then introduces him to sex on a bed so narrow that one of them must always be on top of the other. Clients visit in the morning, but the young man is invited to return in the afternoons: ‘You can just wait in the bed.’
We laughed and fanned ourselves with the useful cards explaining who had sponsored the event. They had us. We were sold. Now we wanted to find out how they had managed it. And this is what we learned.
(Warning: there are some spoilers in what follows, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but if you absolutely hate spoilers, you should go and read the books first. If, like me, you are undisciplined and sometimes even peek at the end of a story before you get there, you won’t care.)
The novel you end up writing may be quite different, in form at least, from the one you set out to write.
This was a bit of a revelation to me as I thought it was only me that did this and everybody else just put together their card indexes or flow charts or whatever and wrote the damn things, but no.
Patrick set out to write a very simple book, drawing on EM Forster and boys’ adventure stories, starting at the beginning and rattling on to the end: wrote it, and then set about chopping it up, both to tease the reader through the narrative and to break up the sadness in it. So the novel is a bit like a thriller, in that you learn early on that Harry has killed someone and that there are loves he can’t speak about.
Polly’s last book was a collection of interlinked short stories, and she set out to write this one as a series of stories but then restructured it so that she had two main voices followed by a third voice. She had been surprised by comments that it was like a thriller, and hadn’t set out to write a novel with twists and turns, but there they were. This meant she’d had ‘the joy of writing from two perspectives’ – she gave as an example an assignation in a Paris hotel described from the point of view of both the male and female lover, a fantasy made real for one and a seedy compromise for the other.
The story will be brought to life by the happy accident of characters who make their own way in.
Patrick told the story of Troels Munck, the antagonist to Harry Cane’s hero and, for my money, one of the most terrifying and convincing villains in all of literature. (A Place Called Winter is revelatory about evil, and how people try to survive it and can be destroyed by it.) The name was given by a real-life someone who had won an auction for it to be included. Patrick described the email exchange that followed: (PG): ‘Is it all right if I turn you into a psychopathic rapist?’ [LONG TUMBLEWEED EMAIL SILENCE] (TM): ‘OK, as long as he is hot.’
Is Troels hot? He’s a bully and a brute, but a compelling one – and he’s real, which is testament to the truthfulness with which he has been created. God save us all from encounters with the likes of Troels – outside of the pages of a book.
Polly spoke about Katie, the leech-like friend who was meant to be just a line in The Kindness but kept turning up. She also described the intense absorption of writing, how her children would come back from school and talk to her about their days and she would find herself not really taking it in, still caught up in the world of her characters. (I know that particular daze.) But she’d read Elena Ferrante while she was working on The Kindness – four years of close work, twenty years of gestation in all – and had found that Ferrante’s characters were as real to her as the ones she had invented herself and was carrying round with her. (Now I have to decide what to read next, The Kindness or Ferrante.)
Polly commented on how characters seem to turn up fully-formed. Patrick agreed: ‘They have to be, or they don’t work on the page.’
But what about planning? Patrick said he plans meticulously, but then ignores the plan. ‘It’s like getting ready for a play – I need to know about the characters and feel confident about who they are.’
The land you put into your book will shape it.
Patrick explained how as he worked on the book he had got increasingly angry about what had been done in Canada, but had wanted to show that in an elliptical way, without tub-thumping about imperialism. It’s there in the tragedy of Ursula. Also, as he explored the landscape and the history of the settlements, he became increasingly aware of how dangerous it was, and how vulnerable his characters were. Hence Troels.
Here’s a surprise nugget for you: there were no starlings in Canada till 1934, as a Canadian friend of Patrick’s told him after reading an early draft. Starlings follow agriculture and it took till then for them to arrive. So you won’t find them in Winter.
Patrick talked about his road trip to find his grandfather’s lot, and asked Polly if the house and garden in The Kindess were based on a real place: ‘I really wanted to go weeding there.’ Polly said the garden was a mixture of gardens she had loved.
Inevitably, your research will shape your book. Are there starlings, or not? Polly’s novel opens with a hawking scene. What size are the baby mice fed to a hawk?
Children in stories – yearned for or lost – exert a special power.
Harry Cane is a father, separated from his child by both distance and disgrace, and the plot of The Kindness hinges on the fathering of a child. Patrick said he felt that the male yearning to be a father is not much written about, and I think this is true; as he said, most stories that touch on this cast the father as the reluctant figure and the mother as longing for a child. (There is a weird nexus of cultural confusion around this, a mixture of blind spot and acute sensitivity – writers, take note: when that happens, there’s something to dig for.)
The story of Polly’s baby shoe lingered with us. (It made me think of the design for the hardback cover of Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing, which featured baby shoes, and which prompted a brilliant baby-shoe-shopping scene in the final version of the book.) At the end of the session, when I was chatting with my neighbours in the audience, one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s potent six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, nearly worn.’
Patrick was asked whether he had a favourite out of his books. And yes – he does: they are the ones he wrote during the happiest times of his life: Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music, Little Bits of Baby. ‘I’m always very protective of the most recent one, it’s like a child that’s just started school.’
And then we were done. We shifted and stretched, murmured to each other about how good it had been, formed an orderly line for books and signing, began to slip away.
Sooner or later we will start to read. We will hear those stories again, not in the august surroundings of Henley Town Hall but wherever we are – on a lunch break, in an armchair on a winter’s night, in the doctor’s waiting room. And once more we will allow those voices to take us somewhere else.
Polly Samson and Patrick Gale were speaking at Henley Literary Festival, in conversation with Lucy Cavendish, at an event sponsored by HW Fisher & Company.
Has everybody seen Kramer vs Kramer? I watched it again about a year ago, as part of my research for my (nearly-finished) work-in-progress, which is partly about the aftermath of a custody battle. I was talking about it with a friend in a cafe a week ago when something unusual happened: the guy at the next table chipped in to tell us how that film had changed his life.
I’d just been talking about how I’d gone back to the book on which the film was based, and the case it makes for how, under some circumstances, the father should get primary custody after a split. Our neighbour at the next table was American, about my age – a 1970s child. He told us his parents had split up around the time Kramer vs Kramer came out and he had been about the same age as the boy in the film.
The original plan had been for him to live with his mother when everything was settled, but he had been living with his dad for a few months when his mum came to him and asked him who he wanted to live with: her, or his dad? And he chose his dad.
She’d asked him because she had seen the film and had been so affected by it. ‘A boy needs his father,’ she said.
So how had all this worked out? All right, it seemed – though it had meant the boy had to get on a plane to see his mother, which happened around three times a year.
Looking back from an adult’s perspective, he wondered if he’d understood the question in the way that she had meant it, as a choice between his parents. Perhaps he had really thought she was asking, ‘Do you want to stay here with Dad in the place you’ve got to know, or come with me to a place you’ve never seen?’ and, as children do, had plumped for what seemed most familiar, the least upheaval, at the time.
Stories are powerful things and sometimes they change lives…
As the parent of a child with autism, you mess with routine at your peril – but once in a while you have to try something new. And so, last Saturday, instead of doing the usual things, I went off to Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest) to listen to authors talking about their books.
I also sat outside lovely indie bookshop Jaffe and Neale drinking tea and starspotting (I saw Lee Child! Charisma! Very tall! Nice to his fans! I was too shy to ask him for a photo/autograph though.)
And I set about filling up my biggest Books Are My Bag bag with signed copies. You can fit a *lot* in a Books Are My Bag bag, and here’s proof – this is what I got into mine:
All that, *and* a brolly and an outfit change…
Matt Haig talks to Cathy Rentzenbrick: Reasons to Stay Alive
First off, I went to see Matt Haig, author of The Humans, talking about his book Reasons to Stay Alive, which is about his experience of depression and – well, the title says it all, really. He was being interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrick, who is associate editor of The Bookseller and has a memoir coming out in July this year about her brother, who was hit by a car on a night out a fortnight before his GCSE results and was left in a permanent vegetative state.
Sombre subject matter, but listening to them was ultimately enlightening and uplifting, far from the ‘double dose of misery and disaster’ that Cathy drily referred to. It was obvious from the questions asked by the audience that Matt’s philosophical frankness about what he’d been through had touched people and connected with their own experiences.
In the end, Matt said, he was grateful for his experience of anxiety and depression. ‘It’s made me appreciate life more, and appreciate pleasure more. When I was younger, it was about extremes. Now I’ve got a thinner skin, I can enjoy going for a walk and being with my children.’ He added: ‘You need to feel the terror to feel the wonder.’
Matt on writing? ‘For me writing is both uplifting and depressing. The actual writing is uplifting; the career aspect is difficult.’
Richard and Judy with Julie Cohen
On to Richard and Judy, interviewed by my fellow Transworld author Julie Cohen whose novel Dear Thing was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. I never actually watched the Richard and Judy TV show… misspent youth! They’re brilliant – what a double act. It’s an art to tag-team the way they do, to be warm and open and personal, to tell anecdotes that work as stories. I was absolutely and completely charmed. It was a cosy venue − Chipping Norton’s lovely and compact Victorian theatre − and it really did feel like being invited into their living-room.
Richard talked about book programmes on TV – his view was that stand-alone book programmes couldn’t work, and that the Richard and Judy book club had been so successful on TV because it was an item on a show that was also about all sorts of other things. He recalled the first book they featured, Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, and how, three days later, the publisher rang up to ask for advance warning if they were to feature another book on the programme, as they had sold out of the entire print run.
Both Richard and Judy discussed their attachment to Cornwall (I can definitely identify with that), which is where Judy’s novels are set. Now I know a bit about Looe Island! They also both spoke very movingly about their memories of their friend Caron Keating, who died in 2004.
Richard and Judy on writing? Both stressed the importance of pressing on and finishing – and both recommended Stephen King’s On Writing (I’m a fan too). And Richard said, ‘I’m a bloke from Romford, Essex, who left grammar school at 16 – if I can do it, anybody can do it.’
Mothers in fiction: Clare Mackintosh, Hannah Beckerman, Rowan Coleman
Next: mothers in fiction, a panel discussion with three novelists.
Clare Mackintosh was the founder of ChipLitFest and her debut novel I Let You Go, a psychological thriller, is out in paperback in May. It’s about a mother who moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast in an attempt to start a new life after a tragic accident – but then the past catches up with her. Clare observed about her novel, ‘I think you write books like that, and you read books like that, because ultimately you want to count your blessings.’
Rowan Coleman has written more than twenty books, including The Memory Book, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and is about Claire, a mother whose family help her put together a book of memories after she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. The Memory Book has its fair share of romance – Claire has a lovely husband (Rowan explained during the course of the talk that she didn’t want anybody in this book to be villainous), but it’s also very much an affectionate portrait of a matriarchy, with starring roles for Claire’s mother and daughter.
Hannah Beckerman’s debut novel, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, is about a woman who watches from the afterlife, or a kind of limbo, as her husband and child adjust to life without her – and then her husband meets someone new. Hannah wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child – it was then picked up for publication and she did a thorough rewrite after having her baby, having realised that the emotions her heroine went through didn’t go nearly far enough to reflect the reality of motherhood.
The novelists were asked to name their favourite mothers in fiction, and these are the books they mentioned:
Room by Emma Donoghue
Dear Thing by Julie Cohen
The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey
… though the very first fictional mother mentioned was Mrs Bennett, and I have to say she’s the first one I think of too.
Mulling over this later, I found myself thinking about Rachel in Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition (especially the scene where she gets so absorbed in drawing by the sea that she more or less forgets about her kid – when you read this you are on tenterhooks wondering if he is going to be all right). Also: Moominmamma, and the scene in The Magician’s Hat when she looks into Moomin’s eyes and knows it’s him, even though the magic hat has completely changed his appearance. That’s mother love all right.
To give Rowan Coleman the last word on motherhood: ‘It’s about being there when nobody else will be there. That’s what you know your mum will do, and what you know you will do for your children.’
Writers, Not Writing: an exhibition of photos by Jane Stillwell
Finally I went to see the exhibition of photos of writers not writing, by Jane Stillwell. Cue multiple double takes as the subjects wandered round chatting and swigging champagne while their portraits looked on from the walls… Here’s mine.
It was a great day – though it was lovely to get home too. My son asked where I’d been: ‘Mummy was invisible,’ he declared after I tried to explain. (Charlie Brown turns invisible in a cartoon he likes.)
I was also glad I made time to sneak away from the hubbub, sit on a bench, take in the scenery and read my book (Rachel Hore’s A Gathering Storm, which features an exceptionally heroic mother.)
Stevie Smith said differences between male writers and female writers were more obvious if the writing was bad. I’m a big fan of Stevie Smith, but I’m not sure that’s true. Reading blurs and breaks down boundaries and allows us to access the imagined unknown, and to experience many different lives (to paraphrase a line from one of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, the man who reads has many lives, the one who does not lives only once). When I’m reading a book I love, I could be anyone, and so could the writer; there’s only the story. (Perhaps that’s what Stevie Smith meant.)
So why single out male writers for a list like this? Pretty much, to redress the balance – I’ve already blogged about women writers who changed my life (parts I and II – III will come at some point), so it seems only fair.
The male writers who have changed my life
This is a list of writers rather than of books, so the writers I have included have written more than one novel that has made a big impression on me. Hence some major omissions, of which the biggest is The Catcher in the Rye, which I discovered at the perfect time, as a lonely teen in the school library. Also, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which features one of my all-time favourite heroines.
I haven’t touched on non-fiction (Al Alvarez would definitely be on that list, and Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy – ‘f*** the begrudgers’ is a useful mantra) or poetry (that would be a long one, with a starring role for T S Eliot and, of course, my OH Ian Pindar).
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe have soaked into my unconscious. I still often find myself thinking about the uniquely biroid lifestyle, or the first ten thousand years being the worst, the second ten thousand being the worst too, and after that, going into a bit of a decline. Or it being too late to worry that you left the gas on when you’re about to watch the universe boil away into nothingness. Or the mark of civilisation being the question, ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ Or about how you might feel safe on an alien spaceship if only you could see a small packet of cornflakes amid the piles of Dentrassi underwear. And so on.
William Gibson. Discovered mid-90s, browsing in a bookshop. The inventor of cyberspace, no? The kind of cyberspace we’re still evolving towards – a virtual simulacrum of the world we live in, with criminals, hustlers, defended power bases and ghosts. And Molly with the retractable claws… I often think of William Gibson when I see a wasp’s nest, or read about the hyper-rich – he’s brilliant on the dehumanising effect of immense wealth.
William Gibson introduced me to Cornell boxes – years later I saw some for myself and was stunned by how beautiful they were. Sometimes when I see my son, who has autism, set out his toys, I think of those Cornell boxes. There’s something very precise about the spacing and arranging, something numinous, even if I don’t understand it.
I once tried to write an imitation William Gibson story. It wasn’t very good, as my boyf at the time reluctantly, but rightly, pointed out.
Ian Fleming. Mary Goodnight is the reason I wear Chanel no 5 (though Marilyn Monroe also has something to do with it.) A couple of years ago I wrote a short story called What would a Bond girl do? The story probably wasn’t up to much, but I still like the title.
Around the same time I read the Bond books (early to mid teens) I read a lot of Dick Francis novels, but all I really remember from them is the description of a hungry jockey griddling himself a steak. Also, that 80 hours into learning to be a pilot is the most dangerous time, because you begin to think you can do it and forget to be afraid, which maybe applies to a certain stage of learning in other areas too.
Raymond Chandler. Especially The Big Sleep. Love those slangy, cynical, man-of-the-world cadences – the beaten-up toughness of it. Love the old rich man with the orchids, the sharp dialogue, the ending. When I first read it I didn’t really get a lot of it, but it didn’t matter. And now I’m thinking of Bogart and Bacall. Btw, there is a brilliant essay on how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart in a collection of essays by Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (if you read the book, look out for Charlie Chaplin and the jolly orgy involving paint).
Ernest Hemingway. My dad likes Hemingway and once told me The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel. Hemingway was also on an improving reading list that my English teacher gave me, and I read a fair bit aged 16 to 18 and loved it – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. The short story Hills Like White Elephants has stayed with me – it catches so clearly the sterile feeling of being with a lover when there is almost nothing more to say. Read The Killers recently – eerily brilliant.
Patrick Gale. I read my first Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition) last year and could happily spend the next working through everything else he’s written. Look out for A Place Called Winter, out next month – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.
Patrick Gale’s novels give me a feeling of space and light: new people, new territories, illumination. He’s also a damn good storyteller. When his characters do unexpected things, or have unexpected and sometimes terrible things happen to them, you’re left thinking – yes, that’s how it is, that’s the truth of it. He knows what makes people tick.
Raymond Carver. Bought mid-90s, collected short stories, after Short Cuts came out. Shining example of what can be achieved by being lean and spare. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stays with me – an inspired sideways glance at the question of what love is, up there with James Joyce’s The Dead. Also the one about the three men who go fishing and find a body. And Cathedral.
James Ellroy. How do you find writers you love? Movie adaptations don’t hurt. I bought LA Confidential after seeing the film. Read the first page, thought what’s a shiv? Soon found out, read a load more. Big, ambitious books with amoral heroes – he shares some qualities with George RR Martin: an eagle eye for the workings of power; a desire to tell stories about bad people with a bit of good in them, and good people with a bit of bad in them; and an interest in twisted families.
George R R Martin. Nearly at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones as I write. George RR Martin has a spectacular ability to create real people in a fantasy world. Intensely believable and often terrifying. Grim to think that pretty much any of the dark stuff in the books has really happened sometime, somewhere – and a relief when humanity’s more redemptive qualities come through: courage, integrity, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour in the face of overwhelming odds, loyalty, vision, love.
Neel Mukherjee can do it all – his fiction is funny, profound, vivid, sweeping, and revelatory about how and why people do the things they do. After I’d read The Lives of Others I felt I understood more about why terrorist atrocities happen than when I started – it was an education. I’m very much looking forward to his next. The extract that appeared in January’s Granta was startlingly, shiver-inducingly spooky.
D H Lawrence. I read lots of DHL aged 16-21. (He was on the improving reading list too, and, later on, the degree syllabus.) The end of Sons and Lovers is one of my favourite endings of any novel – more affecting, to me, than the arguably more celebrated ending of The Great Gatsby. One of the endings of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others hits the same note: poignancy and exile, moving on and out into the world. And I like Ursula at the beginning of Women in Love, like a daffodil with all the growth going on underground, before the shoots come up for everybody else to see – and Mrs Morel with the lilies in the moonlight, her brute husband left behind indoors.
OK, so that’s my list. I know as soon as I post this I’ll be troubled by omissions – other names and books are occurring to me as I type, clamouring for inclusion – but you have to start somewhere…
Swift homage to Tolkien, in passing – The Lord of the Rings had pride of place on the bookshelf in my mum’s house and we painstakingly taped the radio adaptation. My OH recently acquired a bit of the recording and it’s still brilliant.
As a girl in the 70s I had dungarees with workmen’s tools embroidered on them and Richard Scarry books illustrated with all the primary colours. If I was a kid these days, I’d have been much more likely to spend my days in a pink fairy costume reading a pink book about pink princesses. I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia – I definitely wasn’t a tomboy – so probably I would have been quite happy with this, at the time anyway.
Looking back, I’m glad that my 1970s childhood didn’t indulge my pink princess tendencies, and that I read Richard Scarry as well as Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit.
Over the last year, I’ve travelled in time and space from Calcutta in the late 1960s to Canada in the 1900s. I’ve witnessed the sinking of a Thames houseboat (the cat escaped, but only just), the lifting of beet on a struggling Yorkshire hill farm and the smoking of Sobranies at a Hungarian party in a tiny London flat (‘Dar-link! Von-dare-fool!’) I’ve witnessed the invasion of a strip club, a miscarriage at a baby shower, people being abused and betrayed and drawn into relationships with those who have misused them; painters at work, alcoholics in recovery, and, from the perspective of the afterlife, a woman trying to get over her still-living husband.
I’ve encountered villains, lovers, rescuers, torturers, aliens and a whole host of heroines. I had the chance to get to know Penelope Fitzgerald and George Eliot, and I observed a Brush with Greatness: (fictional) artist Rachel Kelly bumping into Dame Barbara Hepworth on a booze run.
It has been a terrific year’s reading, mainly of novels, almost all by writers who were new to me. Some were published this year, others some time ago; one – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter − is due out in 2015. Some were recommendations; others I looked up because I’d come across the writers on Twitter or heard about them online. Twitter has played a part in my reading this year as never before – it’s a great medium for fandom.
The other novelty for me was that it was the first year I started reading on Kindle – though I’ve read most of these titles in paperback, which I still prefer. I was talking to a reader at a book group recently who said she read everything on her Kindle and had no idea what the books were called – if people asked her what she’d been reading, she had to look it up. She had started making a point of checking what the covers looked like. I’m still getting my head round this brave new ebook world… I don’t feel like I really own a book unless I have it on paper, and I don’t feel like I engage with a story as closely unless I’m actually turning the pages. OK, so we have severe book storage problems in our house, but as far as I’m concerned that is the only real advantage of the ebook. Also, I quite like reading in the bath. So chances are that 2015 will mean yet more demands on our limited shelf space…
Here are the books I read in 2014, which, in a rare fit of nerdiness, I’ve put in alphabetical order by author. (Check out the links to see their Twitter feeds).
Hephzibah Anderson: Chastened. What happens when you give up sex for a year in the hope that it will improve your chances of finding love – or at least make romantic disappointments a bit less heart-wrenching? Does treating ̕em mean keep ̕em keen, or is it just the route to a different kind of loneliness? This candid, witty, elegantly written study of sexual politics in and out of the bedroom is also a paean to the freedom of single-girl city living. It took me right back to my own London days and made me hanker to visit New York. (Should have gone in my twenties. Have still never been.)
Hannah Beckerman: The Dead Wife’s Handbook. The narrator of this novel is dead and grieving, existing in a nebulous afterlife from which she is permitted occasional glimpses of her husband, young daughter, mother and best friend. But as time moves on and their lives begin to change, can she find it in her heart to let go – especially when her husband is eventually coaxed into starting to date again? A smart, tear-jerking and expertly realised portrayal of the frustrations, sadness and joys of playing witness to your own life after the event, and coming to terms with your loved ones’ slow recovery from your loss.
Amanda Brookfield: A Family Man. This is the story of a man whose wife suddenly vanishes, leaving him to learn how to juggle work, childcare and the confusing possibility of new romance as a single parent. A warm, sympathetic account of a dad who finds that what looks like disaster is actually a chance of a different kind of life. Originally published in 2001, now available in ebook.
Julie Cohen: Dear Thing, Where Love Lies. Gosh, it has been a year of weepy reading! Dear Thing, Julie Cohen’s tale of a tug-of-love between two women who both come to want the same man and the same baby, got my tear ducts going. It’s crisply written, artfully structured and beautifully observed – the scene where Claire has a miscarriage at a baby shower is all the more heart-rending for its restraint. Julie has an acute eye for how people behave in extremis and how even good, kind, likeable people can be brutal when circumstances pit them against each other.
Where Love Lies is a lush, mysterious, time-travelling love story that sends its narrator back to her first experience of romance and then pulls her back into her present. Felicity is at the mercy of her senses, overwhelmed by flashbacks to her past and tempted to act on the old feelings that she is experiencing afresh; so who does she truly love – the old boyfriend who she feels impelled to seek out, or the long-suffering husband who has no idea what she is going through?
Tamar Cohen: The Broken. I *had* to peek at the end of this one – I literally couldn’t bear not knowing how it turned out and I had to get some sleep! It’s a study of conflicting loyalties, jealousy, rivalry and anxiety about doing the right thing. When their friends Sasha and Dan break up, Josh and Hannah find themselves sucked in to the fallout: is it wrong for them to meet Dan’s hot new model girlfriend, and is Sasha really as terrible a mother as Dan believes? The story is laced with dark humour and sharply-observed details of the insecurities and self-destructive impulses tucked away behind the shiny facade of North London domestic bliss. Wraps up with a mean twist. (I read Tamar Cohen’s The Mistress’s Revenge last year – there’s a bit about it in my round-up of my books of 2013.)
Rowan Coleman: The Memory Book. This is one to be read with the tissues at the ready, though it’s also very funny – one of my favourite scenes involves a mother and grandmother invading a strip club in order to retrieve the daughter they have found out is working there. This is a novel all about a matriarchy, and Claire, the mother, is at its heart, seeking to record her life in her memory book in a race against time, as she begins to lose her knowledge of who, when and where she is. However, the stories from the past are far from finished, and an intrigue unfolding in the present threatens to wreak havoc on the family as everybody struggles to come to terms with Claire’s worsening condition. Claire’s other half, Greg, is the love of her life, and yet she is meeting someone in secret, despite her increasing confusion. Is she putting herself in danger, and will she be able to help her loved ones make sense of their shared past before it’s too late?
Jenny Colgan: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe. A super-sweet comic confection that’s as much about getting your business dream off the ground as it is about choosing Mr Right, though it’s about that too. Published in 2011, it’s the story of how Issy Randall uses her redundancy pay-off to set up a charming café – but will her venture survive the interest that her property developer ex-boyfriend decides to take in it, and will Issy be taken in by him? I saw Jenny at an author event with Lisa Jewell and Rowan Coleman at Henley Literary Festival back in October, and Jenny explained that she was inspired to write Cupcake after moving to France and realising that she was going to have to learn to cook from scratch if her children were ever going to have anything to eat other than carrots, apples and crisps. I’m a baker of Bridget Jones-like incompetence myself, but reading Cupcake did inspire me to dig out my one and only truly reliable cake recipe.
Samantha Ellis: How to be a Heroine. Anne of Green Gables, Lizzie Bennett, or the ladies in Lace? This book, a re-reading of the formative novels that helped shape Samantha’s ideas about what makes a heroine, sent us all back to the fiction we read as children and teenagers to see how different it might look from the perspective of experience. It sparked a zillion conversations and got me thinking about my own personal canon of the women writers I’ve loved the most. Samantha’s book is a nostalgia-inducing book-lover’s approach to the questions that trouble all heroines: how to find love, happiness, yourself. Pure pleasure – and thought-provoking, revealing, brave, frank and funny, too.
Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop. Also Hermione Lee’s Life of Penelope Fitzgerald. I came to Penelope Fitzgerald through the reviews of Hermione Lee’s Life. I was struck by the details that conveyed the indignities of not having enough money and trying to find ways to make do, sometimes with disastrous results: the affordable but leaky and decrepit Thames houseboat that ended up sinking, the attempt to dye her hair with tea-bags. I read the biography and then read my first of her novels, The Bookshop. It’s short, succinct, devastating and brilliant, and the sucker-punch ending floored me and made me howl as few books have done (the ending of Notes from an Exhibition also caught me by surprise by making me bawl like a thwarted baby.)
Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition and A Place called Winter. (A Place Called Winter is out spring 2015 – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.) My work book group read Notes from an Exhibition some time ago; I missed it at the time (writing deadline – writing does sometimes interfere with my reading) and decided to catch up on it later. It’s set largely in Cornwall, so was great to read in the run-up to our first ever family holiday and my first visit to Cornwall in more than a decade. I admired and enjoyed it very much and it made me cry hopelessly. Some brief notes on what struck me: the portrait of the painter at work – so well realised, the physicality of the paint, the messiness of it; the Quakers; the relationships between the siblings, maternal and marital and filial love; and the pure storytelling – the movement from one point of view to another, revealing one surprise and then another until the last page goes over and you realise there isn’t any more. I’ve been in the process of moving from writing in the first person for my second novel back to the third person for my third, and it was a liberating reminder of just how much you can do with the third person.
A Place Called Winter – this is a historical novel about Harry Cane, a gay man in the 1900s who is forced by a scandal to leave England and settle in Canada. He embraces a new life as a farmer, but any chance he has of finding love and happiness is always attended by terrible jeopardy. It’s a profoundly romantic story – love stories need opposition, and if Harry is to be lucky enough to find a man to love and be loved by in return, their relationship will always be under threat, always required to remain a secret. There are some harrowing scenes of violence, and their consequences are explored with great truthfulness and insight. This is a novel with a sweepingly vivid sense of place, brilliant on the challenges and satisfactions of working on the land in different seasons and on the search for a place to call home and someone to share it with. It feels like a story that was crying out to be told.
Matt Haig: The Humans. A couple of years ago I read Moondust by Andrew Smith, which describes his mission to track down all of the surviving astronauts who walked on the moon and record their memories of it. It seemed that what was really remarkable about going to the moon was the perspective it offered on the Earth; how beautiful and precious it appears from a great distance, surrounded by blackness. Matt Haig’s wise and funny novel pulls off a similar trick. There’s no place quite like home and the people that make it so – and how better to arrive at a full appreciation of what it is to be human than by adopting the perspective of an alien who has fallen to earth, with a mission that is in jeopardy as soon as he begins to learn what it is to love?
Amanda Jennings: The Judas Scar. Amanda’s second novel is a dark, suspense-filled page-turner that explores the guilt felt by a man who failed to protect a childhood friend from a brutal history of boarding-school bullying. It’s also a tale of a marriage that is at risk from secrets on both sides, as well as being under attack from the treacherous intentions of apparent friends. When someone Will never thought to see again unexpectedly begins to play a part in his life once more, the consequences are potentially deadly – but who for? There is plenty that Will hasn’t told Harmony, his wife, and by and by Harmony will have reasons of her own to feel guilty… Amanda’s first novel, Sworn Secret, came out on the same day as my first, Stop the Clock – publication day twins! Amanda wowed a packed-out Henley Town Hall at Henley Literary Festival this year and I’m looking forward to her third novel.
Harriet Lane: Alys, Always. The scheming, shrewd, manipulative narrator of Harriet Lane’s debut novel is one of my favourite antiheroines ever. A dark twin of the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, she has no compunction whatsoever about trying to step into a dead woman’s shoes, and is dauntlessly predatory as she hunts down the highly-regarded widower she has set her heart on. A sense of something unseen, or something bad about to happen lurking around the corner, permeates this book. Will the schemer be exposed? Has she ventured out of her depth? It’s also a darkly funny account of what it takes to get ahead in the literary world, which might aptly be subtitled (with a nod to Tamar Cohen’s debut) The Sub’s Revenge.
Rebecca Mead: The Road to Middlemarch. One of my most vivid memories of reading this year is of turning to this book after a car breakdown on the road to Abingdon one hot summer afternoon, while waiting for the RAC to come and sort me out. It’s a personal appreciation of George Eliot and an exploration of her work and life, and it’s wry, witty, sharply observed and ultimately profoundly touching. I finished it filled with admiration for George Eliot, both for the brilliance of her writing and the courage it took to live her life as she did, on her own terms, flouting convention by cohabiting with a married man. Rebecca’s tribute to George Eliot was an excellent diversion from my roadside predicament, which was, thankfully, soon resolved.
Charlotte Mendelson: Almost English. Marina longs only to be inconspicuous at her super-snooty English public school, but her outspoken, glamorous, elderly Hungarian relatives have other ideas, and are not inclined to be discreet about them. They are ever ready to judge the appearance and behaviour of all and sundry – Marina included – with their favourite epithets, Von-dare-fool! and Tair-ible! And yet there is no doubting their love for her and the sincerity of their desire to see her succeed – and the weight of the responsibility she feels towards them in return. Includes an acidly funny portrait of Marina’s mother’s dangerous yearning for romantic escape, or, at least, a life that involves a modicum of privacy, a decent duvet and some labour-saving devices; an account of an almost-romantic reunion; a tragicomic tale of miscommunication between mother and daughter; a sly debunking of a smug male authority figure; and a hilariously liberating conclusion. All the joys of the school story set against the perfect foil: Marina’s Sobranie-smoking, silky-bloused great-aunts and their Hungarian expatriate community. And oh, the food! Made me so long to be invited to one of the great-aunts’ parties in their tiny London flat.
Lorrie Moore: Birds of America. I got this so I could read the short story People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk. SO GOOD. If you’ve ever spent any time in hospital with a child – or in hospital, full stop – or just want to read a miracle of storytelling packed into 39 pages, this is for you.
Liane Moriarty: The Husband’s Secret. This was recommended to me at a book group I went along to talk to about After I Left You. It’s a masterclass in how to build tension by moving between different points of view and raising the reader’s suspicions: just how dreadful is the husband’s secret, and what is the wife going to do when she finds out? It also explores a classic moral dilemma: what would you do if you found out the person you’d shared your life with had done something terrible before you even met? Cleverly structured and psychologically acute, plus every chapter is as well crafted as a stand-alone short story.
Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others. Neel’s second novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is now on the shortlist for the Costa and nominated for the Folio Prize. So many scenes stick in the mind, from the act of sabotage involving nail varnish and special clothes to the bitter, tender ending. It is a brilliant novel, and a devastating account of the violent and terrible consequences of great inequality.
Alice Peterson: One Step Closer to You and Monday to Friday Man. Monday to Friday Man knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the kindle no 1 spot; it’s a touching romance about how meeting fellow dog-walkers and taking a weekday lodger might just get you over heartbreak and change your life, with a moving back-story about a much-loved sibling. Alice is brilliant at weaving together heartwarming love stories with explorations of experiences that bring her characters into conflict and put them to the test. Her new novel, One Step Closer to You, is about addiction and its impact on family life and relationships; its heroine’s recovery is threatened when the father of her child seeks to come back into their lives. The AA scenes are brilliantly done and I found the scene from Polly’s childhood when her brother Hugo leaves home for a residential school absolutely devastating. Polly is left feeling that she can never make up for how much her parents miss Hugo, and the novel shows how this and other losses add to her vulnerability when looking for love.
Geoffrey Robertson QC: Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: The Case for Overturning His Conviction. I’m distantly related to Stephen Ward, which doesn’t make me feel any closer to his story than anybody else, but did add an extra frisson of curiosity to the experience of reading this spirited defence of a man who seems to have been a charming, hedonistic chancer, well and truly hung out to dry by the Establishment. I hope I’m still around in 2046 when they finally release the records relating to the Profumo affair – my hunch is that there may yet be some interesting stuff to come out… (Here’s a recent Guardian article by Geoffrey Robertson about the Profumo affair, written following the death of Mandy Rice-Davies.)
Barbara Seaman: Lovely Me: Life of Jacqueline Susann. I always approach books that touch on autism with both curiosity and wariness – will they be upsetting? Infuriating? Enlightening? I was appalled to learn that Jacqueline’s son, her only child, was given ECT at the age of three in an attempt to treat his autism. (He was institutionalised soon afterwards.) It’s a devastating book, but an inspiring one too – Jacqueline was nothing if not a grafter. Her Valley of the Dolls is, apparently, one of the ten most widely distributed books in history – along with the Bible, Mao Tse-Tung’s Quotations and the Guinness Book of World Records.
Susie Steiner: Homecoming. This debut novel about a Yorkshire farming family introduced me to a tight-knit world where old livelihoods are increasingly hazardous, and making the wrong decision about how and when to lift the beet is to incur the risk of financial ruin. But what happens when the capable prodigal son returns? The characters are beautifully and lovingly evoked, from the pub vamp to the daughter-in-law-in-waiting who loves nothing better than to be left in peace with her wiring. An illuminating depiction of the horrors of lambing gone wrong and the satisfaction of seeing new life brought into the world, sibling rivalry, the settling of scores and the dawning joy of finding love you don’t want to live without.
Rebecca Wait: The View on the Way Down. Rebecca is an honorary Abingdonian and I’d heard this debut novel spoken about admiringly by mums and grandmothers in my children’s school playground. It’s about a family that has fallen apart after the death of one child and the disappearance of another: is there any hope of reconciliation? Painful family mealtimes, brotherly bonding over computer games, the awfulness of girls at school and the edgy, forceful positivity of the mother who’s trying and failing to hold it all together are all brilliantly summoned up in this tender, bold and poignant novel. A terrific debut.
Polly Williams: Husband, Missing. Gina fell in love hard and married fast. Six months later her husband, Rex, goes on a trip to Spain with his brother and some friends, and disappears. As Gina investigates Rex’s disappearance and begins to uncover the secrets he has been hiding, she is forced to confront the possibility that the charismatic, successful man whose spell she fell under so quickly was an illusion. But what became of him – and what is his brother not telling her? And was there something crucial that she had failed to tell him? A cracking tale of marital mistrust and how falling in love can blind you to truths you don’t want to acknowledge.
So, what’s on my reading list for 2015? I’m currently reading Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In, and I want to read the new Louise Douglas, Your Beautiful Lies, and Sarah Vaughan’s The Art of Baking Blind. I’ve dipped into the autobiographies of Dame Stephanie Shirley and Margot Harris and will revisit them to read them more closely. My Christmas list included Daughter by Jane Shemilt, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and My Policeman by Bethan Roberts. I’ve bought Rachel Hore’s The Gathering Storm and Santa Montefiore’s The Butterfly Box as gifts but I think I’ll be able to borrow them by and by – so, plenty to keep me going!
I also predict that, in 2015, somebody will write an article bewailing the state of women’s commercial fiction. (To echo Mandy Rice-Davies – they would, wouldn’t they?) This year Julie Bindel had a bit of a go in a blog post for The Spectator, coining the phrase ‘sick chick lit’ (others have talked about ‘chick noir’ or ‘domestic gothic’ when attempting to highlight the publishing trend Julie was getting at). There was then a set-to on Twitter which gave rise to my phrase of the year (another Julie Bindel coinage): Chick Lit Lout. I’ll have that on a t-shirt please, in glittery pink.
I’ll sign off with a quote from one of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones books: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’ Merry Christmas one and all, and all the very best for 2015. And happy reading!