When the Earth breathed

river

They say that creatures, usually shy and prone to verges, walked cock-sure into the cities and sniffed the air

And birds circled above airports, painting journeys into empty streams of sky.

 

There was an opening,

despite the closures,

In every home a bargaining with the self, a move towards the possible,

beyond the tryings of the mind.

 

They say that men and women worked with such aching care that even as the sick lay dying, recognition flashed across their foreheads, as they witnessed compassion’s endless flow

And dedication reigned. In supermarkets, pharmacies, in ordinary homes

People sat still and… zoomed,

reached o’er-washed hands across the void and remembered that touch is also metaphysical.

In every twitter feed and insta show, in all the whatsapp chats:

this new world unpicked, re-understood.

 

And the trees swayed easy from the lack of traffic fume

As the readers and the listeners drank from this seclusion

like milk

 

A tiny virus, spikey as a medieval morning star,

was harming and enjoining, harming and enjoining

Entreating all to only think of

It.

 

Rivers sighed, unpolluted

Children danced on their own, not immune but almost so, and the elderly took extra care.

One morning the caretaker of our apartment building said his mother died

the week before in Kerala.

I could not cry, he said. Could not go home to say goodbye.

 

Ocean still lapped on shore.

Okay, it said in soft blue tones

Okay, said the spray

 

Leaders showed themselves in all colours.

Rainbows drawn by children dried to crisp

in the sunshine of watched-through windows

 

Parks were places of un-littered emerald, their silence only whispered to by rain

And the streets housed an Edward Hopper Sunday glow,

all lines and light without much traffic, onward flight.

 

It was a time, they said, when the Earth began to breathe again

Released its ever outward prayer,

Received the purest inward air.

Out of Touch: Book Review

window

Thank you to Net Galley for sending me an Advance Reader Copy. Note to readers: there are details from the novel mentioned in this review but (hopefully) no plot spoilers!

 

Out of Touch by Haleh Agar is a soulful story about two siblings, Ava and Michael, and the ways in which they try to make sense of their family’s past.

Michael lives in New York. Ava, England. And as their current lives unfold we are given glimpses of the way things were between their parents when Ava and Michael were growing up.

Towards the end of the novel, their father, Lee asks ‘What do good families do?’  and it is this uncertainty, this search for a happier future to eclipse a tricky history which seems to fuel both brother and sister in their daily lives.

Earlier in the story, a request is sent by Lee to see both his adult children urgently. As readers we are intrigued to discover how this part of the tale will develop.

The scenes in New York where Michael lives with his partner and son are vividly told, ‘everything in mason jars’ and with a straightforward realism which is compelling and enjoyable to read.

And the appearance of an artist neighbour who is able to see into Michael’s apartment adds an interesting dimension – a twist on the idea of the male gaze – for as she watches him and his young family go about their daily life, it is the female gaze making Michael conscious of his actions, affecting the choices that he makes.

Out of Touch is well paced and yet there is a captivating stillness to its prose, an acute sensuality reminding me of the film, ‘Yes’, by Sally Potter which also looks at shattered family dynamics and cultural crossings.

The international angle is delightfully told, not just through the dual scenes set in the U.S and UK but via the backgrounds of the characters themselves — Lebanese, Greek Cypriot and Iranian. Culturally-specific details add texture to our understanding of the main characters and a liveliness to their histories.

There is much depth portrayed in this novel but also a pleasing lightness to the writer’s style which makes it a book which is hard to put down (I read it in two sittings and I’m generally not a fast reader!)

It was refreshing to read how the twin taboos of physical and emotional pain are tackled and the myriad ways in which humans try to face or avoid them.

When something frightening happens to shake Michael and his partner’s family life in New York, his partner Layla responds by becoming overly cautious, taking a hammer on car journeys in case of an accident, deciding to try to become the ‘God’ of the family by checking everything she can. Layla’s anxiety which seems to stem from a disconnection from the nominal faith of her childhood is insightfully handled through the narrative.

While the difficult legacy of Michael and Ava’s mother, Elena, is portrayed in detail there is also space for complexity in our understanding of her. And it is this grappling with the dynamics of family and the way characters try to overcome their histories through new choices that this book is at its most captivating. We are given a window not only into the pain of the past but also the ways in which repair may occur in the present.

The love story at the centre of the novel plays out beautifully. Sam is earnest and believable, Ava wavering and confused until she has to make a decision either way.

There is something warm and life-affirming and ultimately important about the way human difficulties are addressed in this book. I was left at the end with the sense, as a reader, of being seen. The existential questions the characters face – whether it’s possible to make peace with the past (can old disagreements be mended?) and why a look at what happened long ago might shed light on our present responses – feel universal and timely.

I look forward to reading more from Haleh Agar.

 

Out of Touch is published by Orion, available to purchase from April 2nd 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with Me before You by Jojo Moyes, which also handles deep themes with a light touch and has a central premise of a young woman trying to move on.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

 

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton : Book review

house 2

(SPOILER ALERT… Contains some references to plot)

It’s been more than 2 years since my last blogpost… Reader, where has the time flown?

I’ve been working on a novel and was planning to return to this page in the new year, but I must confess I missed the buzz of blogging…

A character from fiction grabbed my attention. It was Frannie, heroine of Sara Collins’ debut novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton. 

A few weeks ago, as reviews filled the Twittersphere and The Confessions of Frannie Langton was ‘Book of the Month’, I was approached by a Waterstones bookseller saying he doesn’t usually read novels but…

‘Try this,’ he urged, holding the paperback pictured below.

I took his advice and bought it.

Frannie

The premise? A grand Victorian house in 19th century London, a young woman sent to work there from Jamaica, and the accusation of a crime, the double murder of her bosses, for which she may hang.

As she awaits her trial, Frannie gives an account of what actually happened before she was imprisoned. She hopes to set the record straight, taking us through a life spent resisting the servitude into which she was born.

At the centre of the intrigue is the love between the servant Frannie and her mistress, Marguerite, a French ‘eccentric’.

‘Knowing a person’s story, and how they tell it, and where the lies are in it, is part of love.’

And in each of their interactions, as in the rest of the novel, Frannie is determined to be treated as equal, in a household – and world – set on keeping her in her place. Her courage is the engine which keeps the pages of this mystery turning.

There are court testimonies by other dwellers of the house. Not just the masters but the staff too. We meet them in the kitchen and peek at the food that they prepare:

‘…the room was musty and dim, and still reeked of salt and old mutton fat. The cake made up for it. Golden and sweet, and no matter that I knew only too well how the sugar was made.’

Like the hit TV series Downton Abbey, exchanges between the servants are as central to the story as those of the family, but no cosy historical is this. Imagine characters, with grins and bones protruding, a little larger than life, and you get the idea. Much of The Confessions of Frannie Langton is decidedly gothic.

Frankenstein 2

We also see snippets of a journal written by Benham, one half of the murdered couple. This adds to our picture of Frannie, a forthright mix of bookishness and protest at her lot, an avid reader who even hides the pages of Candide into the seam of her dress so she may continue the story without being seen.

This devotion to literature gives Frannie the language of her oppressors, the tools with which to face them. It’s a wonderful surprise in this suspenseful novel to find that books are not just Frannie’s lifeline but her secret weapon, giving her the confidence to speak her mind, shocking those who would expect her ignorance, and compliance.

If you spend time writing anything lengthier than an email you’ll know that the mechanics of plot can be a challenge to get right. But Sara Collins has nailed it; the pacing of this novel is superb.

In one sense, it’s a classic ‘whodunnit’, but the language is so rich and the literary allusions detailed that another layer is added to what might have been a more generic mystery.

The descriptive passages too are evocative of a London we only usually meet, as modern readers, in the pages of a real Victorian novel (or perhaps a TV adaptation). Yet this book, published in the Spring of 2019, conveys life in the 1820s in exquisite detail.

There’s a sensuality to the prose which makes the voice of Frannie visceral and true.

‘If it was a crime, then I am guilty of it and I confess it here. But I just wanted to keep that book as close as I could get it to my skin. Not to remind myself happiness was still possible, but to remind myself that anger was.’

The novel entwines entertainment and message to extraordinary effect, standing face to face with England’s legacy of racialism without flinching. It enlightens the reader on the part played by pseudoscience to fuel the pro-slavery agenda of the English ruling class in the 19th century.

In another blogpost I describe the challenges writers may face when attempting to marry a thrilling story with a serious point. In The Confessions of Frannie Langton the plot is so deftly handled that Frannie’s righteous anger is made tangible through every twist of the tale. Line after line so well conceived, I must confess I drank this novel.

It brought not just the pleasure of a great yarn – the joy of another world to go to – but a strong social message in the tradition of Charles Dickens.

Frannie Langton’s struggle against appalling cultural forces is made memorable through her bold, unforgettable voice, and the gothic imagery which abounds, shining a light on the ugliness of racial injustice while leading us through the most entertaining – and educational – of confessions.

…………………………………..

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin, available to purchase at all good book shops.

This blog recommends pairing this book with A True Story Based on Lies by Mexican-American author Jennifer Clement, which addresses class discrimination and female servitude in contemporary Mexico.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement. If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

Crafting a light bulb: Are you writing a novel or a manifesto?

7562311530_b04c92e448_z

A few years ago I was talking to a friend and a light bulb landed in my lap. Not a real one – that would have been weird – but an idea I couldn’t ignore. It was a premise for the book I’m writing, whole as a nut.

The idea didn’t magically appear. It came after years of unearthing what on the surface seemed to be nothing at all. Until one day I understood a situation I couldn’t ignore, asking to be written.

Here’s a thing: Sitting with an idea is beautiful; crafting it into a tale is something else.

At the time, I was passionate for people to know what I thought about my subject. So much so that having laboured for months on the first draft, I realised my book – all 60,000 words of it – was in fact a lecture.

It got me thinking: Was I writing a novel or a manifesto? How could I give the reader space to think for themselves?

I didn’t have an answer.

But as I worked on draft three, some principles became apparent. So I’ve put together my notes on toning down message and amping up story. In case you’re going through similar (or curious!) here they are:

  • The reader is everything. When crafting a story, being like a courteous date and keeping their experience in mind shifts the focus to their journey (instead of the writer’s opinion).
  • When I wrote a manifesto for my beliefs (rather than a properly constructed story), feeding characters lofty speeches, I knew deep down that the part of my reader who was fired up to go on a journey would likely drift off…

Instead, I considered:

  • Asking questions. What if ones preferably. I just read a wonderful book (reviewed here) where the writer never answered her central question: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even? She generously left it up to the reader and her idea has remained with me ever since.

 

  • Investing in a brilliant book on plot (like the one in this post – here). Most writers need a map of some sort, to know where we’re leading you. Whatever your system, constructing a story which works will serve as a vehicle for your idea (and then you won’t have to lecture anyone!)

 

  • Your characters, after a while, may stop sitting on the page and instead fill your thoughts at the most inopportune moments. Let them. The more real they are, the more they will carry the story’s weight. There is an advantage in writing multiple drafts. You’ll really get to know the people in your story and they’ll start to work harder for you.

 

  • Research as much as you can. For me this involved travelling back to Madrid twice (here), note-taking verbally with a mobile phone at every location (feeling like Kermit the Frog in his reporting moments).

 

  • Readers like to travel without getting on a plane – if you can get them so immersed with the sights, sounds and smells of the story that they don’t notice your message until after they’ve put the book down, you’ve done it!

 

Storytelling – they say – is crucial to human survival. The strange thing that happened to me, might trouble you too. Or maybe you’re looking for a window into something you’ve never thought about before. Stories remind us who we are and were and want to be. They contain the type of glue that can stick whole lives back together.

So what are you waiting for? The manifesto in your mind, that premise you’re longing to explore, make a start. You never know whose life you might touch with your art.

 

I’d love to read your tips – writers – on how – if you’ve got a premise or a point to make –  not to lecture your reader in a novel!

Thank you to Quinn Dombrowski for the image, ‘Pontificating’ at the top of this post via creativecommons.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxiety’s cloak – Thoughts on ‘Love & Fame’

love and fame image 2

In the 1980s, before fan-girling was officially a thing, YA author Judy Blume used to receive letters from her teen readers.

‘How did you know what we were thinking?’ they would ask, as though her novels had reached magically into their minds and located the things which mattered most.

Ever since I started reading Susie Boyt’s columns in the FT, the same thought has often popped up:

How does she know?

Her latest novel, Love & Fame opens with a theatrical monologue. No sentence is completed, thoughts are left hanging, each one linking to the next like an echoing voiceover. We hear the incessant worries of a person who feels everything.

Newly married actress Eve and her husband, Jim, who is writing a book about anxiety, are honeymooning in Chicago. Soon we meet Beatrice (‘Beach’) a bereavement counselor and her sister Rebecca, a journalist. All are connected by the passing of Eve’s famous actor father, John Swift.

But it’s anxiety itself which gets the starring spot in Love & Fame. Eve’s new husband Jim writes about it but Eve, herself, is living it.

‘Is your conclusion that anxiety’s a bit of a dark hero in a cloak?’ she asks him, for beneath his research lies a premise: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even?

Eve thinks not. At dinner with Jim and his agent, Max, she allows her thoughts on the subject to overflow:

‘I would say anxiety has cost me some of the very best things in my life.’

Suddenly Jim’s earlier remarks about anxiety being like a helpful friend – the type who prods you when you’re straying from what you actually want – are re-cloaked. As readers, we are left to reflect on our own experiences.

Those who loved Susie Boyt’s famous FT column will enjoy the same detail and intensity in this novel. Like the ‘Legendary’ cheesecake which Eve passes on her nighttime walk, such delight is sometimes best savoured in small mouthfuls. And yet – as with the best confectionery – I found I could not put this down.

Its serious subject is lightened by a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces. Boyt is brilliant on middle class liberal do-gooding. Jean Swift, while deep in mourning for her husband continues to invite young ex-criminal mothers into her home to learn cookery. A couple of the mothers are described as ‘lovely ex-shoplifters’ – the book is peppered with surprising juxtapositions and one-liners. There is a warmth and love of human frailty in Max’s comment which could equally be true about Love & Fame itself:

‘Eve – this is really a book about kindness.’

Perhaps it is in kindness that the antidote to anxiety lives. In the forgiveness that Jim finds so easy, or in Beach’s endless listening. When grief is allowed to surface, anxiety beats a path to the back door.

Judy Blume used to answer her readers’ questions, saying that she wrote from the memories of her own childhood. “When I dream. I’ll frequently dream of the house where I grew up.”

Nothing in fiction is truly invented; there’s a reservoir of joy and pain and memory which in reading this novel, shimmers translucent. These are the parts of Love & Fame which move for it is in the story’s mining of these personal depths that as readers we find our own worries normalised.

This is a book so brimming with heart, its dialogue so finely tuned and touching that it felt like the best kind of musical. A triumph of love over suffering that I did not want to end.

In the opening scene when thoughts are rushing around the character’s head, tailing off in anxious uncertainty, I realise what a gift we have in Boyt’s prose. In answer to the question, how does she know? It is her characters who show us.

In funny searing chapters we are reminded how hard it is to be alive sometimes but that a listening ear can change everything. Anxiety, in the end, may be neither hero nor antagonist but a sign that there is more left to grieve. Only after tears have been allowed to fall – on Beach’s couch perhaps – may we see anxiety slink away, or at least begin to speak in a softer tone.

Love & Fame is published by Virago, available to purchase November 2nd 2017. Pre-order here

All views expressed in my posts are my own. If you would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page, here.

The little deaths: loss on social media

flowers

How do we navigate the little deaths? The ones which creep behind and stop our breath.

I’m talking of the things we lose, the people, places we wouldn’t choose

under normal circumstances, to part with.

Looking at Twitter the other night, I noticed that a chap I follow hadn’t tweeted for a while. I used to love the quotes he chose, his gentle life-affirming prose. Scrolling down the page it looked as though he hadn’t been online for quite some time.

I tried to find some recent words, not a re-tweet but a post written by him, and this is what came up:

Love my friends. 🙂 Be good to each other. Peace. 🙂

Shall be away for a while in hospital… his previous tweet began. He’d not been well at all.

After this, his account is silent.

What happens when the string of tweets runs dry? Are we to cry, and mourn the passing of a friend we knew only from 140 characters ?

I sometimes ask myself how long it would take to notice the absence of another on social media. And what then? Virtual communities hold not the flesh of real life hellos and hugs and a person’s absence may equally be from boredom, busy-ness as something graver.

I have, for the past two years, been writing a mystery set in Madrid and as I wrote I became interested in loss and how we process grief. What happens when the pain’s pushed down, the masks we wear to hide the shame coat and cover the bewildered frown?

This week, I quit my job. I had been hoping to teach for at least a year in Oman but something came up which shook my confidence in the school. I spoke to the head but the compassion I expected did not materialize. The well of care ran dry. After a few days I did not return.

These little deaths in daily life inhabit the body. They form a kind of coating of our cells. And until we take the time to dwell in their sharp poignancy they grey our waking minds, restrict and bind.

The people of Madrid, at the outset of my novel, are mourning the death of a local celebrity. They hang banners with her initials from their apartment windows, talk of her with a single name, as though they knew her personally.

But grief is as much the mourning of our losses from every day, as the funeral carriage, the thousands at the graveside and their sway.

 

This blogpost is dedicated to TygerBurning, a person I never met but whose tweets illuminated my day. 

If you enjoyed this blog-post, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here. You can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified each time I post. 

 

 

 

Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

bird

Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She taught me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher. What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂