Writing update

Sometimes you need to go back to a piece of writing you thought was finished. I completed the nth draft of my first novel about 18 months ago, and my lovely agent sent it out. Some positive comments but no takers. So I worked on my second novel, and then the third.

But a couple of months ago something made me want to read number 1 again. Partly because revising and editing is so much easier than producing new stuff,  and the new novel needs time to work out where it’s going – but also from a sense of curiosity. What was novel number 1 really like? Is it any good? Would I buy it? So I sat down and read it through, as if I was reading any novel. An interesting experience: some scenes were so familiar I knew every word, and others I could hardly remember. But most surprising was the ending – I thought I’d made it very clear, but when I read it again I realised it was not what I’d intended, or even what I thought I’d written…

So, for the last 6 weeks I’ve been redrafting. It’s even got a new title! Which I won’t share at the moment because I’m going to submit it for a few of the debut novel prizes that are coming up. I guess the process of having written two and a half novels has given me a better grasp of how to write a novel. If this one is ever published, it will genuinely be my first, but i suspect a lot of ‘first’ novels are likely to be third or even fourth ones… You can learn a lot on creative writing courses (thanks City University for The Novel Studio), but the best way to really get to grips with writing a novel is, (yes you have to read and read)  sit there with your laptop or pen and paper and (as my dad used to say) just get on with it!

Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary PeopleDiana Evans’ third novel is bookended by a party to celebrate Obama’s election as the first black president of the USA, and by the death of Michael Jackson. Against this slice of history two relationships in London start to fall apart. The ordinary people of the title are middle class couples facing the strains of ordinary domesticity, possible extra-marital affairs and divorce, the loss of parents and jobs. They’re also the ‘ordinary people’ of John Legend’s lyrics:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
‘Cause we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow

At the beginning we meet Melissa and Michael who live in a lop-sided house in South London, not far from Crystal Palace (a recurring theme throughout the novel). They’re seen at the party both ‘on the far side of youth’ but still a glamorous couple. Adult life has ‘revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown’ but with their children away for the night, Michael at least feels ‘a pressing obligation… to deliriously copulate’. But nothing goes to plan and, after the party, back in their house in the ironically-named Paradise Row, domestic needs take over: Melissa finds a mouse, a wardrobe rail collapses and the sex is no good. Michael compares himself to the singer in ‘Ordinary People’ Passed the infatuation phase /Right in the thick of love. But everything is going wrong and he can’t control it.

Melissa is struggling with the joint pressures of crushing domesticity, and the loss of her career: where she was an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’. Descriptions of the dragging details of being at home with small children and trying to work freelance, are both hilarious and poignant. For Melissa there are hints (from her Nigerian mother) of the supernatural, of ‘night things’ – ‘beings who walk in the night hours, not quite human, who watch us.’  Symbolic of what is wrong in their relationship. There is a recurring image of the 1851 Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace was moved south of the river, and eventually burned down.

Then there’s Damian (Michael’s university friend) who lives with Stephanie in leafy Surrey. He’s reassured by ‘her aptitude for contentment’ so has been persuaded to move away from London to Dorking because she’s worried about inner city violence affecting the children. She loves their house with its ‘neatness and thick upstairs carpets and old wooden surfaces’. Damien is struggling with the long commute, the recent death of his father and a sense that he’s not doing anything important with his life. His father, a political activist, campaigned constantly against racial inequality, but ended up a lonely, disappointed man. Damien misses London: ‘the stern beauty of church women on Sunday mornings, the West End, the art in the air, the music in the air, the sense of possibility’. He has a running question in his mind: How long will you go on living your life as if you were balancing on a ribbon? Stuck at the bottom of a drawer he has an unfinished novel.

From here everything gradually unravels for both couples. But what makes this novel stand out is that although the main characters are black or mixed race, this isn’t the focus of the book. Race is addressed in Stephanie’s fears that London isn’t a place to bring up children, and in Damien’s father’s fight against racist attitudes, but this is a novel about relationships, not race. And in this it is quietly revolutionary. And also wonderfully funny. Ordinary People is a finely-nuanced novel of contemporary relationships that is both compelling and vital.

Ordinary People is published on 5th April.



Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

The One Who Wrote Destiny

Image from Amazon.co.uk

A family saga of repeating patterns of illness, loss and immigration. Often moving and funny, this is a novel about destiny and whether we have any control over our lives.

Nikesh Shukla has created some wonderful characters: Mukesh arrives in Keighley from Kenya in the 1970s to start a new life in London (!) and is bewildered to find himself the victim of race-hatred and violence while trying to fit in to the small local community. His English isn’t colloquial and he only has one decent suit, but then he falls in love with the feisty Nisha, the love of his life. So much so that after she dies, he fails to appreciate his own children. In the next generation we have their children: Rakesh, a wannabe comedian and his twin sister, Neha, a fascinating female character who (like someone in  TV’s The Big Bang Theory) is a computer nerd, completely out of touch with her feelings. When she develops cancer (like her mother) she tries to plot the destinies of her whole family, in what for me was the most moving part of the novel. Finally we meet Ba, Nisha’s mother, who briefly looks after her grandchildren when her daughter dies. She has experienced the most loss in the novel, and is only waiting to die and re-join her family. The One Who Wrote Destiny is laced through with terrible obsessive sadness, in spite of some very funny passages. The casual racism at all levels is shocking, but there’s also desperately sad male violence directed at family members (and donkeys).

If I have a criticism it’s that Nikesh Shukla doesn’t take his material far enough. We soon know the basic ‘story’, so that by the time we reach Ba’s chapters at the end of the novel, we already know what has happened and there aren’t any big reveals. I was left with the impression that there are some fascinating and memorable characters in this novel, and it’s a heart-wrenching story, but I didn’t feel it as much as I would have expected.

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published on 5th April 2018 by Atlantic Books

Review: The Trick to Time

The Trick to Time.pngFollowing the huge success of her first novel, My Name is Leon (described by the Guardian as a “touching, thought-provoking debut) Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time is even more ambitious. And already long-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize. For anyone honing their craft, it’s also an object lesson in that tired trope of creative writing classes: ‘show don’t tell’.

This time her narrator is not a young boy, but a middle-aged woman. Mona (short for Desdemona) is from Ireland and lives a quiet, lonely life in a seaside town in England where a carpenter makes the dolls that she dresses (upcycling charity shop clothes) to sell in her own shop.

She can look at a silk blouse with a satin cuff and see what it might turn into, which doll might wear it and how she might take it apart.

Now approaching her 60th birthday, Mona has complex memories and very mixed feelings. Her mother died when she was a child so she was brought up by her father. The image of the young girl playing on the beach in Ireland while her mother is ill in bed is only one of many memorable images in this heart-breaking novel:

Sand as soft as powder all around the wide curve of the bay. She splashes and plays and gets her sandals wet and stays away for hours… at seven or eight children can be heartless.

In a richly evocative and subtly nuanced story about the aftermath of terrible and ordinary losses: parents, a husband, a baby, the trick to time of the title is the secret shared between the young Mona and her father, and establishes time and memory, and what we can do with our memories as the main themes of this novel.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says… ‘By the sea all life’s worries wash away.’

Like Leon, in Kit de Waal’s first novel, Mona is a delightful character, a loyal friend and popular with the few people she knows well; and throughout the novel the reader is rooting for her: we don’t want any more tragedy in a life already full of loss.

Revelations about the insensitive treatment of stillbirths in the 1970s are shocking, but also provide an opportunity for the act of kindness that sets Mona off on her quest to help other parents deal with the grief of losing a baby. As well as managing her business, she runs an unconventional counselling service where parents can work through their own grief. But, at 59 Mona herself still hasn’t come to terms with her own loss. Kit de Waal is a talented and very canny writer: she sets up a range of possible futures for the lovely but lonely Mona. Half-way through the novel I made a note of my predictions and sat back to see if I was right. Would Mona go to Paris or stay in England? Would she marry the carpenter or the gent? Most proved to be wrong. Like opening doors along a corridor the writer keeps raising possible futures then, just when you think it’s inevitable, she bangs them shut. And Mona keeps walking.

Kit de Waal plays on our deepest fears with an expert touch. In less expert hands The Trick to Time could easily have sunk to melodrama: she steers a fine line between sentimentality and genuine emotion but stays on the right side. The determining factor is the generosity of spirit and remarkable sense of humour that come through every chapter. This book often brought me to tears – both at the poignancy of Mona’s story and at the absurdity of some of the scenes. The chapter with the hairnet (which I won’t spoil for you) must be the darkest and funniest of the whole novel.

The Trick to Time is an exquisitely written book dealing with real human feelings. There are no stereotypical drunken abusive Irish fathers or dodgy priests; Mona is the voice of many ordinary, working class women who reach middle age but still have an important story that should be told. And listened to.

The Trick to Time is published on March 28th, 2018.


Review: Conversations with Friends

conversations with friends ppb

paperback published, 2018
Well I’m gay and Frances is a communist.

Frances and Bobbi, both twenty-one and very bright, are university students in Dublin. They’ve had a gay relationship but are still best friends; Frances is an aspiring writer and she and Bobbi perform spoken word poetry at night. When they meet Melissa, a photographer in her thirties who wants to write a profile on them, Bobbi is attracted to Melissa and Frances begins an affair with Nick, Melissa’s glamorous actor husband.
Everyone labels Frances as cool, but it is more that she is guarded and reserved – there’s a history of family instability and, in spite of her political beliefs, she’s financially dependent on her father, a sad shadowy alcoholic. Seen through Frances’ eyes the world is flat, colourless and cerebral. She’s detached from her own emotions and, as she and Bobbi analyse their lives, without becoming emotionally involved, the language of the novel reinforces this sense of distancing.
I had a headache, I hadn’t eaten. My body felt used-up and worthless to me. I didn’t want to put food or medicine into it anymore.

At first Frances hardly knows herself – she is young and naïve; it’s only by observing her own actions and reactions that she comes to a level of understanding, as she tries to reconcile her intellectual beliefs with the messy reality of relationships. She falls in love with Nick but, of course, he comes with his own baggage and vulnerabilities – a complicated backstory of depression and his wife’s infidelities.

Frances keeps the affair secret and ultimately runs the risk of alienating everyone she cares about: her father, Nick and Bobbi. She uses her ‘coolness’ as a shield to hide behind and when everything starts to go wrong, both emotionally and physically, she starts to fall apart and takes it out on her own body.

By the end of the novel Frances is beginning to grow up: she has learned that it’s impossible to live in a completely cerebral way; like everyone else, she is subject to the limitations of her body. If she wants to be happy she will have to compromise.
You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

In this intriguing novel. Sally Rooney shows how precocious intellectual brilliance can mask ordinary vulnerability, and she has achieved a rare feat in letting us observe the complex process of Frances coming to terms with how to live her life.

Review: A Secret Sisterhood

A secret sisterhood

Now out in paperback, A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney, explores the often forgotten, or glossed-over, friendships between women writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Historically, male literary friendships whether supportive or acrimonious, have been meticulously scrutinised and recorded, with whole volumes devoted to: Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Verlaine and Rimbaud to name but a few. And, in this traditionally male-dominated society, important friendships between women writers have been consigned to oblivion. Austen is remembered for her place in the family and for her unmarried status; Charlotte Bronte is cast as the devoted older sister, defined by her early death; George Eliot is seen as a solitary figure shunning convention to live with George Henry Lewes, and Woolf has been defined by her mental instability and by her vindictive relationship with Katherine Mansfield.

A Secret Sisterhood turns this ideal of the ‘angel in the house’ on its head. Yes, these women may have had siblings and partners to support them, but they also benefitted from complex and close female friendships that rewarded and challenged them, both emotionally and as writers. Austen valued the friendship of her niece’s governess who wrote dramas; Charlotte Bronte found it in Mary Taylor, an early feminist, and Eliot enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Woolf’s relationship with Mansfield was precarious, but they recognised in each other the literary genius in the ‘echo coming back to me from her mind’. A Secret Sisterhood shows us how friends and family hid these ‘sisterhoods’ and suppressed documentary evidence of friendships that didn’t fit the image of the ‘lady writer’. I was particularly taken by Charlotte Bronte’s friendship with the feminist Mary Taylor who said of her decision to learn algebra ‘it is odd in a woman to learn it, and I like to establish my right to be doing odd things.’ She also defied convention by travelling to New Zealand as a single woman.

Beginning with their blog Something Rhymed, Emily and Emma have minutely researched the correspondence and diaries of these four writers, as well as bringing to light new evidence, to provide a fascinating exploration of writerly relationships. In their own friendship they have supported and celebrated each other’s literary careers since the first meeting in their early twenties when they admitted to each other that they were writers.

They have a fine eye for period detail, although for any reader already familiar with Victorian and early 20th century novels, it may be unnecessary and indeed occasionally strays into over-writing. But, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood, known for her ability to hold the mirror up to societal norms, A Secret Sisterhood is a much-needed piece of research, as well as very readable and accessible. The research is so well integrated that it’s only when you look at the extensive notes and bibliography that you see the detective work that has gone into the book. A Secret Sisterhood also benefits from a beautifully designed and eye-catching cover which would make it a fine present for a book-loving friend.

For a woman, until relatively recently, it was so ‘odd’ both to be a writer and to have female friends that it was largely kept hidden. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney have done us a great service in bringing the secret out into the open.

emilly and emmaEmily Midorikawa and Emma Clare Sweeney

Review: Painter to the King

Painter to the King.pngA compelling portrait of the long professional relationship between the painter, Diego Velazquez and his master, the 17th century King of Spain, Philip IV.

Amy Sackville uses the paintings themselves to create a vivid evocation of a dark, claustrophobic court where power is concentrated on the person of the king. As a young man, Velazquez is summoned to the court and (apart from a few visits home to Seville or to Italy) for the rest of his life there he stays, painting portraits of the king and members of his family.

In times of peace and war, and in the face of personal bereavement, Philip must be seen as a king who makes his confession to god and although melancholy by temperament he must be A Planet King, a golden king to warm and shine upon this golden age. We see the extravagance of the court but we also see the precarious nature of favour – the use and abuse of power; who’s in and who’s out. Inside their black clothes in the dark, [the courtiers] sweat like animals. The overriding requirement is for Philip to provide an heir (male) but this proves to be difficult; and over decades, as he ages and loses members of his family, the king gradually becomes increasingly world-weary. All of this is recorded by Velazquez’ paintbrush.

At a time of primitive medical knowledge, with the ever-present shadow of death waiting in the background, we see the fragility of life. A lot of people die in this novel, whether it’s children taken by a fever, women dying in childbirth or people simply succumbing to one of the many illnesses that were untreatable at the time. The brooding sense of imprisonment creeps into Sackville’s own sense of life passing, of the skull under the skin.

The story is told through the eyes of both painter and king, but what makes this intriguing novel even more nuanced is that throughout the work the author places herself in the narrative, as in the work of W G Sebald. In the present day we see Sackville travelling in Spain, researching the period, following in Velazquez’s footsteps and searching for traces of his life beyond that of his paintings.

None of these things, these solid objects on an outdoor table at the centre of this plaza in Madrid this evening, now seem as solid as that glossy red onion that rotted almost four hundred years ago.

Sackville’s language is lyrical and poetic, rich and minutely observed. She describes a feast:

… the larded lamb, the tongues of oxen mute and resting heavy on their silver plates; and the costly scents of spices, of saffron, of chocolate, shipped from the Americas… the almond confections and sticky honeyed fruit and cakes…

What is so striking about this novel is the link between the observer and the observed, how a painting conveys life but (like a photo) is a record of a past moment and, in the case of a court painter, of people who are long dead. Sackville uses words to convey a sense of what perhaps it feels like to make art, the habit of art as a daily occupation; which for an artist is so fulfilling and all consuming. Her own work echoes this obsessional need to work.

Painter to the King is a moving treatise on the brevity of human life, and of how little most of us leave behind, unless it’s art. This is not a depressing work. A moving, thought-provoking and fascinating glimpse into history and into all of our lives.

Amy Sackville, author of Orkney

                Amy Sackville (from The Guardian)