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.

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)

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

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After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary yes but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North west of England and Pakistan along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place.

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by the losses of his wife, girlfriend, cousin, the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from religious rhetoric but from the sense that he has nothing left so nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

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For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly, Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives strapped to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this particular writer has put his own spark into Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

 

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)