Book Review: ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

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Blogger’s note: I first read this inspirational book when it came out, two years ago. It feels even more relevant now.

Summer 2018

You may know Akala through his rap music. Or perhaps you’ve heard him on television speak on issues such as race, class or multicultural Britain. I came to Akala through Shakespeare: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to teach to a class of fourteen-year-olds. I was looking online for a starter, something to ease us in.

A TED talk appeared: Akala, on stage asking the audience to identify the author of various lines. Were they written by Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, or rappers from the modern age?

The audience were buzzed. As Akala spoke out the lyrics, it became harder and harder to tell: Was this iambic pentameter? And if it was, who was more likely to use it – a 16th century white bard of the English literary canon or the Wu-Tang Clan?

The effect on the class was electric. Suddenly Shakespeare wasn’t stuck in the past, but current. The beauty of his language paralleled by some of the great contemporary poets of our age – rappers, spoken word artists – beside whom Akala had raised him.

To call Akala’s new – first – book, ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ a polemic, as some have already suggested, may be to underestimate the scope of his work. ‘Natives’ is a challenging book. It pokes at the parts of British society which we prefer to push under the carpet, or periodically glorify through sport or nostalgia or public parade. Namely, our history as colonial oppressor and the effect it has had, not only on our relationship to ‘race’ in the UK but also on the inequities within the British class system.

Part personal biography, interwoven with an exploration of British society and its history, ‘Natives’ manages to marry a retrograde look at the writer’s own life with a deeply incisive examination of the history of class and race in the UK.

The strength of the book lies in the writer’s almost forensic self and societal examination, his need to know, share and understand the forces which have both formed him and threatened to destroy his life and that of those around him.

Kingslee James Daley (later, self-named, Akala) born into a working class North London family, with a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, places his own experience at the centre of the narrative. Early in the book he outlines why he has rooted his intellectual arguments in the context of his own history; this book will not pretend to be objective because even the most stringent academic study is not so. We are, all of us, standing somewhere on this Earth, with our own perspective. And Akala’s is enlightening.

His story is one of struggle – in that he has survived an early childhood of financial hardship, familial split, sustained racism from school and society while also managing in large part to transcend these difficulties as a well-known rapper, poet and political activist.

It is also a story of cultural enrichment:

‘I went to mathematics masterclasses,’ ‘I spent time in the black bookstore and outside of Dalston station debating politics with the nation of Islam,’ ‘I visited my great-grandfather’s grave and got a real sense of my family heritage.’

Akala refuses to oversimply, eschewing stock ideas or pat generalisations on the subject of race and class in 80s and 90s Britain in favour of honesty.

‘My schooling, like everything else in my life it seemed, was an entanglement of contradictions.’

The racism of one teacher towards the young Akala is harsh and overt.

‘Now I felt only rage and hurt. I knew that she did not like black people but I had not fully grasped the extent and depth of her hatred before that day.’

So acute is this writer’s memory, his skill in laying bare the facts of his existence, that he is able to carry the reader into a world that many in Britain would have witnessed only as bystanders, unaware of the personal and lifelong implications of such pervasive injustice.

On the nature of covert – often unconscious – oppression, Akala is outstanding. It is not just institutionalised racism which was born of our imperial past, he argues, but the divisions of class which have been scored more deeply, creating a society not only of haves and have nots, but one which blames those who try to break out from such a set-up.

As its title suggests, Akala’s book ascribes many of our current societal ills to the continued presence in British daily life of our imperial history:

‘…its legacies are so clear and visible and because unlike the Spanish, Portuguese, German or Japanese Empires it still sort of exists, albeit in attenuated form as second fiddle to the American Empire, despite what our free press likes to pretend.’

It is Britain’s acceptance of ‘hierarchical difference’ which is the book’s main beef against this legacy:

‘The fact remains: no one colonises another group of people out of love for them.’

And here lies the core of his argument. The appalling injustice still inherent in a society which seems incapable of looking back and owning its colonial past.

This book reads as an extended request for reflection. About suppressed narratives, and the dangers of typecasting social groups based on the responses of a minority of people to injustice.

‘Natives’ might serve as a helpful primer for a forgetful nation on the subject of its own history and identity. An opportunity to examine the wrongs of the past, the human rights violated by a knee-jerk failure to address the subject of British imperialism and its modern-day effects on people of all backgrounds, particularly those at the sharp end of societal injustice.

Akala’s book is a red flag, an extended song of protest, in this current ‘Brexit/’post-Brexit’ era. It asks us to examine some of the most basic notions about who we are – as the ‘English’, as Brits – as a people, and how we might decide to move forward towards a more reflective and equitable society, given our imperial past.

Beyond the soundbites of a disappointing national debate about Europe, ‘Natives’ could serve as a springboard to a proper discussion in a country in need of deepening its engagement with ideas around race and immigration, social class and access for all to the basic and cultural resources our isles have to offer.

It’s time we Brits talked about our history – not just kings and queens or how we won the war but the other parts: the shame of plunder and forced governance, the truth of what it means to have been the coloniser. This author has provided the perfect platform from which to begin. In the words of the writer who took me to Akala’s work in the first place:

‘Do it, England.’

Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of  ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights on what it means to be human (the elliptical title of the anthology is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed  as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are  breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat –

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

 

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’ 

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience –  the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

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It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

 

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with the 1978 classic, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, a book about fulfillment based on the author’s experiences as a psychiatrist and as a person.

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 email me, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

When the Earth breathed

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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

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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

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(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.

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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.

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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?

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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’

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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

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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

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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 🙂

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)