This book is what happens when a great writer decides to fill in the gaps of a factual outline. So many gaps in this case. We don’t know what killed Hamnet. We don’t know what William and Anne’s courtship was like, what their upbringing was like, why Anne and the children never moved to London with William … why he left her his second-best bed in his will.
Maggie O’Farrell weaves together an almost entirely plausible set of circumstances to answer all these questions. And then puts flesh on the bones of these most famous of historical characters, of whom we know so intriguingly little, as we watch them negotiate those circumstances.
I say ‘almost entirely plausible’ because of the supernatural angle of Anne’s character (the author uses the name Agnes, by which Anne was also known). I agree with Hamlet on this point: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’ But I suspect that some readers will find that side of it detracts slightly from the plot’s credibility. But, then, this is a work of fiction, and not a historical research project.
Above all, this is a study of grief in all its rawness, its binding together and its tearing apart. It’s about what happens when you lose something so integral to your being that its renting seems impossible to overcome.
Don’t expect a happy ending. There can’t be one. But do expect a powerful ending. Because this is Maggie O’Farrell on top form.
Heidi and I met thanks to a rather nice pair of boots. Well, two pairs actually – one on her feet and one on mine. It was at a literary festival in Lancaster. But some years before we bonded over boots, Heidi wrote me a book … a book that spoke just to me, a book that reflected back at me some of the darker days of my life and, perhaps most importantly, a book that said: you are not alone.
That book was Wounding, published by Bluemoose Books.
Heidi dedicates her book to all mothers, everywhere. So sweet. But, oh! Beware. This is no Maria Von Trapp fable. It is the most powerful adverse account of motherhood I’ve read in fiction for a very long time. Most people won’t have an experience as appalling as Cora’s, and thankfully I didn’t either, but there was still a lot there that I could relate to.
Cora is a mother. She feels the weight of expectation, not only from her children but from others around her, in relation to what motherhood means. When she finds she cannot match those expectations, she feels herself defined by everything she – in her own perception – is not: she is not a good mother, she is not grateful when she should be, she is not happy when she ought to be. And then comes the guilt and feelings of unworthiness, overwhelming and seemingly unstoppable, requiring punishment. Requiring wounding.
Heidi’s exploration of what it means to live in the world as a fractured personality is intensely perceptive and deeply moving. It took me a while to read Wounding, but that stands as testament to Heidi’s extraordinary insight and the power of her ability to render such fierce rawness in words. And anyway, you can’t rush a Heidi James book. Few authors can pack as much into a single sentence as she can. Her work deserves savouring.
As emotionally difficult as Wounding was to read, it was also cathartic. To articulate the incomprehensible, to say what can’t otherwise be said, to commit to print things that would bring a social worker running – this is what Heidi does for all mothers, everywhere.
So, yes, Heidi James wrote me a book. And I thank her for it from the bottom of my heart.
Are novels simply self-help books masquerading as, well, novels? Frankly, yes. I think they are. Novels help us to understand the world, ourselves, and those around us. What could be more self-help than that? And novels have an added benefit that (most) self-help books don’t have: they make us feel. So, having established that, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most joyous self-help books I’ve read for a while. Its joyousness radiates from the pages, projecting itself in rays into the readers’ head and heart. You'll feel a happier person when you finish this book!
So, what’s it all about? An easier question might actually be: what is it not about? It covers so many aspects of what it is to be human: grief, vulnerability, love, family dynamics, marriage, friendship, office politics, art, the power of silence, Lucozade… The list could go on.
The two eponymous central characters are both instantly appealing, and come with a supporting cast of well-drawn and believable characters, right down to Helpdesk Greg. (Seriously. You’ll see when you read it; we’ve all met Helpdesk Greg.)
This novel is not particularly long, and yet there’s so much packed into it. But on our journey with Leonard and Hungry Paul, as they try to digest and make sense of life’s ups and downs, the reader never feels overwhelmed by the flow of ideas and emotions that lap constantly at the mind. And that’s quite an achievement in itself; we’ve all read novels where we’ve felt that the author has packed too much in and ended up with a distracting cacophony. Well, this ain’t one of them.
The author’s writing style will surely appeal to most readers. The lightness of the prose belies the wit and wisdom that is draped across almost every page of the book. I cannot remember the last time I found an author able to combine moments of great sensitivity and poignancy with laugh-out-loud humour. My heart ached for the characters, even as I found myself laughing away. The whole book hums with a gentle energy that pulls the reader in and keeps them turning those pages right to the end. As I parted from Leonard and Hungry Paul today I felt a great sense of loss, it’s true. But most of all I felt joy. So Marie Kondo, eat your heart out. Because you won’t find many things that spark joy like Leonard and Hungry Paul does.
So here I am again, banging on about openings. But I just find them so important and very often they set the tone for me and reflect how I will feel about the book overall. We’re in another dystopian future; as in Sealed, the land is diseased, cracked, scorched. The prologue centres on a lemon, found desiccated and hidden behind a cupboard, a reminder of how things used to be when lemons were commonplace. Then comes some very unsettling and evocative imagery about what our narrator does to that lemon: ‘…broke the skin … squeezing … its flesh, and tore it out of itself. I splayed it…’ The delicious combination of breaking, tearing and splaying with skin and flesh seemed to foreshadow something deeply unpleasant.
In the first chapter proper, the narrator has a dream in which she morphs into her mother, aged and helpless. That feeling of helplessness is marked by the realisation that, ‘the window was still open, and the tart was still baking, and the kettle was still boiling, but I could only watch it, and sense that it was going on without me.’ This really struck a chord with me. I have felt like this at certain times in my life. I’m willing to bet that many of us have.
The French community regard the dreams as a sign of guilt … guilt that they got out where others did not. The narrator still suffers from the dreams, even years after she fled France: ‘Years after we’d pulled the ladder up behind us.’ You could view that two ways. Pulling the ladder up might be a very sensible thing to do if the only thing left to follow you is a threat. But it is also a deliberate action that would prevent anyone else from being able to escape.
So, we start with some great flesh-tearing; the articulating of a position in which I’ve found myself (but couldn’t have articulated so well) and a ladder metaphor that I found more than a little chilling. All in four pages. This is a good start!
As the book proceeds we see that this world is very like the one we know, except that the infrastructure is crumbling, and water and food are scarce and rationed. The author makes an explicit link, one that is repeated, between food and power. Farmers can apparently hold the land to ransom with their strikes. Or so we are told by the eerily absent, yet seemingly ubiquitous, Mrs P (Auntie knows best!).
It struck me that, like Sealed, this is a potentially not-so-faraway future. The bees are gone and antibiotics are useless. Just like Sealed, there’s talk of camps and the uncertain future that awaits those who end up in them. And more than that, there are countries in our world where this is a day-to-day reality now: lack of water and power; lack of healthcare and scarcity of food; children going hungry routinely. For some, this is not a dystopian future, but a dystopian present. Once that thought lodged in my head, every page of the book was chilling and uncomfortable reading.
Countries have secured their borders; hatches have been battened down. Mathilde watched labourers in the fields and put her hands up against the wires of the metal fences. They thought she wanted to steal the food. Mathilde says, ‘I had no way to tell them I only wanted to be where the people were, and feel a part of it. It wasn’t anything more than that.’ I couldn’t help but see this in terms of the migrant crisis that repeats itself constantly. Migrants are perceived as a threat to what we have and are voiceless to plead their case otherwise. Families in detention centres, in the Jungle… So then there’s another link in my mind with our present world.
Another aspect of this novel that I enjoyed was the thought-provoking exploration of what it means to remember. The novel is shot through with questions about memory. What are memories? Can they be constructed, or deconstructed, by others? And this is strongly linked to the way in which we sometimes structure our own reality using deliberately constructed untruths, which then become truths and, later, memories. ‘I had to tell myself lies, until they became true. It was only when we arrived here … that I started to unpick them.’
Other ideas abound: ideas about guilt; about the inextricable link between birth and death; about how the speaking of something breathes it into existence, gives it power (and how, conversely, not to speak of it takes away that power).
I love the literary references woven in. Second star on the right… ‘And straight on till morning’, I shouted back at the book. And Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Food first, then morals’ really made me laugh because I normally say this to anyone who wants to do anything that gets in the way of a meal or snack.
I didn’t fall in love with this novel in the way that I did with Raising Sparks (see my previous review), but there’s a confident and assured presence behind this novel which, together with an interesting set of characters and some fantastic and thought-provoking ideas, is a great formula for an engaging read.
Whereas Sealed opened with a marvellously unsettling oomph that propelled me straight into anxiety-central, Raising Sparks opens with poise and the sense of a breath held. It was every bit as effective. Rather than propelling me into the story, Raising Sparks lulled me instead, coaxing me in through the ubiquitous imagery of light interwoven through the opening chapter, ending with the light of the setting sun leaving Malka’s fingers stained like blood.
Ariel Kahn establishes a wonderful sense of place right from the start with Malka’s outing into Jerusalem: to the Christian quarter, an area forbidden by her father, and to the coffee merchant who teaches her Arabic phrases. Kahn creates a city which embodies the dichotomy of the overlapping and the separation of different cultures and religions in one place. It feels inevitable that this will be a place of conflict and transgression, of various sorts. And so it proves to be.
The imagery of light (which continues throughout the book) and the author’s descriptive talents elevate the prose to something beyond the usual. The author’s touch can be poetic, often lyrical, and sometimes reminded me of the writings of Kahlil Gibran. Some of the chapter titles also brought Gibran to mind. Hopefully, anyone who has read Gibran will agree that this is a very good thing indeed! In spite of this, the overall effect of the prose remains accessible and light. The lyrical sits alongside the modern and colloquial, and somehow the mix works.
This is a novel to savour, not to whip through. It is imbued with ideas (and ideology), with thoughts, with challenges, with dreams; they are draped over Kahn’s words, hanging there waiting to be pulled down and mulled over by the reader. I read several chapters twice; I just couldn’t move on until I felt I’d had the full benefit of what was on offer. It’s rare that I feel like that about a book.
Kahn explores some wonderful existential ideas in a way that, I believe, could appeal to readers of all faiths and none. The concept of silence as a quality essential to the well-being of the human race and the planet on which it dwells is central. The silence is not silence as we might think of it; it speaks, it has a message. Chashmal: the speaking silence. If you listen carefully enough, you might hear God’s words still sighing through creation, like the wind in the trees. If you can find that language in yourself, you can use it ‘to help remake the world, heal what is broken.’ Whether you interpret the presence in the silence as the word of God or whether you view it in a wider sense, few of us could argue with the fact that the human race and its cradle Mother Earth might be in a far better position if we stopped to listen more often.
Other ideas about the fulfilment of humanity abound. One that struck me particularly was the idea that if we ‘fully inhabit our own broken-ness, we can find the sparks of light hidden there.’ This struck me as a very Jungian idea, the embracing of the archetype of the Shadow which lurks in all of us and without which we cannot progress to individuation, the completion of the psychic whole.
I knew little about Kabbalah, I’m ashamed to say. But most of the terms that were unfamiliar to me were gently explained in the book, close to their first use and in such a way that the flow was never interrupted. So although I felt as though I’d entered a world I knew little about, it drew me in without any difficulty.
This is a textured book, with many layers. I strongly suspect I have only scratched the surface. There are references to Blake, one of my favourite poets and, as a visionary and mystic, so fittingly included here; there’s material that brings to mind Freud (and I have already mentioned Jung above); there are some beautiful quotes from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (whose work I confess I did not know). There are wise words about identity, fate, judgment and a whole host of other pertinent questions. And neither is the tension between Israel and Palestine ignored or glossed over. In fact, although it is not mentioned directly more than a handful of times, the question carries one of the strongest messages of the novel which, to pinch the author’s own words, showcases the possibility, the necessity, of a shared future. And we’re not just talking about the Middle East there.
I feel most passionately about those books that have something to say to me. Books which speak to us directly in some way are often the most powerful, I think. But this book didn’t just speak to me – it sang to me, from the very first page to the very last. I think it is one of the most engaging, poetic and mesmerising novels I have ever read.
And if all of the above hadn’t made me fall for this book, there’s more. Some very gentle humour runs throughout, never jarring but always welcome. There’s a recipe on page 185 which sounds delicious. And anyway, who can resist a book that includes the sadly underused word ‘curlicues’? I rest my case.
I normally keep my book reviews short and sweet so that they’re easy to skim. There are, after all, plenty of places to go for in-depth book reviews. But this year I’m reading all the books on the shortlist for the 2018 Not the Booker Prize run by Sam Jordison and his team at the Guardian. Week by week I’m posting my reviews and contributing to the online discussions with other reviewers. It’s a lot of fun! And because my reviews for NTB are more in-depth, I decided to post them as a blog post. So here’s the first review on Sealed by Naomi Booth (published by the fabulous indie press, Dead Ink books).
Openings are important to me. I don’t really mind whether they fascinate, lull, charm, annoy or coax me, but they must make me feel something. And I absolutely loved the opening of this book. Alice and Pete have moved from city to bush for a ‘fresh start’. In a sort of prologue, although it’s not labelled as such, we have the wise words: ‘No one said to us: beware of fresh starts. No one said to us: God knows what will begin.’ There’s actually some considerable truth in this. And it sets the scene incredibly well. I’m already feeling apprehensive. What a fantastic opener.
But just in case that’s not enough, there’s another layer of creepiness, another warning of what might lie ahead (in the vaguest sense at the moment; that just adds to the unease): the house. They are renting a house that seems too good to be true – and you know what they say about that! Alice and Pete loved the pictures of the house so much they rented it unseen. That’s a big risk; they are clearly desperate. And they never asked why this dream house was so suddenly available. And so cheap. They didn’t ask. Because we don’t, do we? If something seems too good to be true, we don’t want to be forced to face the reality that it probably is too good to be true by asking sensible questions.
It’s clear they are running from something; specifically that Alice is running from something. Pete says she thinks about things too much, but every reader knows that you can’t run from thoughts, you can’t sever them from your body and leave them behind. So whatever they are running from will no doubt follow.
Pretty soon, we realise that it hasn’t just followed; it’s beaten them to it, arrived before them. Everywhere there are signs of something amiss – deserted main streets, the ‘crazy’ neighbour accusing an unnamed ‘them’ of making his wife sick, the beggar on the streets whose feet have sealed over his toenails, a sign of the dreaded ‘cutis’ disease that Alice fears. Alice is alert to all this, but Pete is blind to subtle signs which, if put together, might form something the size of a billboard reading ‘You’re not safe here either!’ But Pete doesn’t put them together. He can’t join the dots. He lives in a state of denial, Alice implying in her narrative that joining the dots just isn’t who he is. She’s the dot-joiner. He’s the good-time guy, the drinker, the socialiser, the womaniser…
In her narrative, it’s clear that Alice feels keenly the isolation of being the one who notices things, the one whose mind is open to undercurrents, who realises that the official discourse is not reflective of what’s happening on the ground. And this isolation is enhanced when the person closest to her, Pete, doesn’t believe her even when she points it all out to him. It feels like a form of betrayal. Her isolation is further increased when, heavily pregnant with her first child, she cannot register with a doctor or get to see a midwife.
The scariest thing about the novel is that it all seems too plausible. It doesn’t seem like a very distant future. OK, so it’s a novel, I get it. But you don’t have to watch much news these days to see the connections. Weather patterns have changed, causing ‘heat events’ and fires. The air is polluted. There are terrible smogs. Food, other than ‘protected food’ grown in an indoor protected environment, is contaminated with toxic chemicals. The plastics issue is there; could anything be more pertinent? Racism and hatred of immigrants is commonplace and spoken of openly. Migrants travelling by sea are prevented from entering and kept on islands where no one monitors what happens to them. The poor and marginalised, the vulnerable and sick, are bullied into leaving their homes and moving to camps from which no one ever returns. Cutis is a disease which doesn’t actually seem all that impossible. It’s not some crazy, infects-the-whole-world-in-a-day, zombie-inducing virus. The experts think it’s akin to an auto-immune response, where the body produces too much of something (in this case, skin) in response to some perceived threat. The figures for the disease are skewed by authorities who don’t record the true cause of death.
Booth tackles some difficult pregnancy-related issues head-on. Alice feels like the baby inside her isn’t right, like it’s trying to kill her: it is ‘uncontainably destructive’. Not every woman feels all warm and fuzzy during pregnancy. It can be a time of enormous fear and uncertainty, even if you’re lucky enough to have a nice home and a stable family life (and no crisis of world-changing proportions happening right outside). There’s physical uncertainty: birth is painful and can have permanent consequences. Women do still die in childbirth. There’s emotional uncertainty: will I love the baby the minute it pops out? What if I don’t? Will I be a bad mother? It’s a bit taboo to raise some of these issues. Booth taps into that. Alice’s fear is palpable.
The childbirth scene is not easy to read. (Several Not the Booker reviewers suggested that this was not a novel for pregnant women and they’re probably right!) But hey, we read partly to be challenged, right? If we all constantly read within our comforts zones how boring would life be? But the great thing is that I totally thought I knew where it was going: oh, I see, the baby is going to pop out all sealed up as per her worst fears about the virus being considerably more widespread than the authorities were letting on. And it wasn’t as simple as that, at all. I love it when that happens!
My conclusion? I was swept along by this book. I couldn’t put it down, right from that first paragraph when I felt the prickles on the back of my neck. It’s gloriously horrific, deeply thought-provoking, and tender and hopeful at the end without any tacky sentimentality. But is it a potential Not the Booker winner? Because that’s a different thing altogether from it simply being a book I enjoyed. My answer? Oh, hell, yes! This is winning material, for sure.
My latest guest post on the writing blog of independent author Tony Riches is about taking positive steps as an author to make sure you get the most out of the relationship with your editor. Tony's blog, The Writing Desk is filled with fantastic articles for writers so hop over there and have a look around.
Every month a lovely magazine with a witty and vibrant front cover lands on my doormat and I’m a happy girl! A pot of coffee goes on the stove and I settle down with Literary Review. It’s important in my line of work that I’m up to date with what’s out there. And no one can read all the newly published books. What Literary Review gives me is a fabulous round-up of what’s new out there that month, both in fiction and non-fiction. There are in-depth articles on the works of non-fiction which are well-informed, thought-provoking and yet accessible. There’s great coverage of fiction, literary and genre. The articles are written by people with vast amounts of knowledge on their subjects. The tone is professional but not snooty. I love the magazine and would continue subscribing even if I didn’t feel it was essential for professional reasons. Anyone who has an interest in reading, writing and publishing should put a subscription to Literary Review on their Christmas list!
Read my new guest post on the writing blog of independent author, Tony Riches. There's a shadowy term most authors have heard: developmental editing. But what is it and what can it do for your book? Read the post here. And while you're there, have a good look around Tony's blog, The Writing Desk. It's well worth it!
What is ‘flash fiction’? Well, there’s some difference of opinion on this subject. Some say it’s fiction under 100 words; for others it can be up to 1000 words. The term itself is relatively recent, although the form has been around for decades. Other terms used include ‘sudden fiction’ (although this does tend towards the shorter end of the range) and – my personal favourite – ‘postcard fiction’.
It’s a great form for readers. I love flash fiction for its instant engagement, its sense of immediacy. But don’t let the ‘flash’ part deceive you. These stories can be layered and thought-provoking, containing depth and colour. Flash fiction shouldn’t be read in a flash!
For writers too – first-timers, budding, experienced – it’s a form to be embraced. With the rise of the internet the opportunities for publishing flash fiction have increased dramatically. There are journals (both in print and online) which accept submissions of flash fiction. There are several journals dedicated entirely to the form.
So, is flash fiction a flash in the pan? Short answer: no! I think it’s a wonderful form that will go from strength to strength. And I’m not the only one who thinks it’s worth celebrating; there’s been a National Flash Fiction Day on 16 May for 5 years now! Hurrah!
Proprietor of editorial business Splendid Stories. Experienced, professional editor offering creative guidance, developmental editing/critiquing, copy-editing, and proofreading.