Making Creativity

You can’t make creativity, but you can make cake.

I have two days a week to write. Two glorious, empty, indulgent, frustrating days. Sometimes, the word count is high. My fingers are flying over the keys, I get to the end of it and bask in the glory of my beautiful sentences.

Other times, I write pretty much nothing, then hastily dash out a blog, or do some Tweedecking (like DJing, but way less cool) in a desperate attempt to have something to show for an eight-hour stretch.

The other week, things got even worse thanks to Snotgate, whereupon starting my day, I could barely breathe, had a drumming headache, and the most creative thought in my head was planning the shortest route to the supermarket to stock up on soup/decongestant/something to cheer me up.

I also had a birthday to prepare for. When I was younger, my mum would make the most delicious and elaborate cakes for us. Each year it was based on a different interest or hobby, with everything from a fairytale castle to a ski slope (it had a log cabin made out of chocolate fingers).

Lacking offspring, I’ve decided to carry this tradition on anyway, and set myself the task of creating an otter-themed lemon drizzle cake.

How I grunted and huffed at the thought of completing another chore. It was a rare evening without commitments, an opportunity to put pen to paper, to make up for Monday’s congested failure of a day.

Once I got going, all that fell away. My headache loosened its grip on my temples, the whiny little voice at the back of my head shut up, and I got completely lost in the task at hand.

Whisking, melting the drizzle, spreading the buttercream, missing together the different colours of fondant, rolling it out; basically creating a big lump of sweet food, where before there had just been a muddle of ingredients. Best of all, I fashioned two otters out of fondant. I’m not sure if it counts as a skill (can I put it on my CV?) but I seem to be a dab hand at creating cute animals out of marzipan and sugar paste. We all have our niche.

With my little creation finished off, I steeped myself (and my rattly chest) in a lovely warm bath, reading the National Geographic. Rested and with a real sense of accomplishment, I settled myself into bed.

And then something strange happened. Instead of my usual cataloguing of the day ahead, little nuggets of ideas started to germinate in my relaxed brain. I had to get up, find a pad and paper and scribble them down so they didn’t get washed away by sleep. After that, I was heading into my next writing day with a slew of ideas, notes, first steps, before I’d even begun.

So what made the difference? For one thing, apparently, being tired actually helps to boost creativity . That little filter in your brain that takes out the things you don’t need to worry about right now is switched off, so it allows all the weird and wonderful ideas out from behind your sensible fence.

While I’m sure that’s a factor, I reckon there’s something to be said for the cake (it looked pretty awesome in my opinion – see below). It was a also a physical activity. I was so focused on creating it that it blocked out all negativity. What’s more, it had a tangible outcome. All too often with writing, I might spend hours, days, even years, working on something, and not have anything that you can hold in your hands (and have even more editing to do). With a simple crafted thing (I’m sure it could work for knitting, colouring, sewing, drawing) I had something physical I could look at – a product of my efforts.

So, the next time I’m staring at the screen and the words simply won’t come, I’m going to step away from the desk. Go for a run, draw a picture, make some biscuits, anything that can allow my mind to readjust itself to a physical task with a tangible outcome.

Hopefully, it will relieve stress, boost creativity, and result in a whole lot of writing being done in 2017.

Plus, of course, there’ll also be more cake.

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The Jacket

It was bought for Harry’s christening. Sharp darts in the waist and a slippery blue lining. Mum kept it at the back of the wardrobe, shielded in a cover. Black makes anything look smart.

A baked late-September day; the interview. Perched at the back of the bus, the hum of the engine vibrated sweat into my skin. Keep the arms down. CV printed at the internet cafe with grades in a bigger font than the school name.

I’d tried to press out the cardboard shape from the shirt packaging. Iron too hot; a shine-streak down the front, a whiff of polyester plastic.

They put us in a room. The other candidates were beige flowing lines, rippling pages of magazines. I was the cardboard leaflet jammed through the letterbox.

The slick from the bus crept from beneath the fabric. That prized item. It didn’t belong here.

Supermoon

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Tonight the moon was huge. There was a tweet, an article on my feed, a pop up ad. Don’t miss it.

Scuttling out into leaf-speckled roads, I looked. Peered between the dark branches of chimneys, stretched my eyes to look beyond the splashes of brightness dropped from streetlights.

Something was glowing behind the house opposite. I imagined the size of it, the golden glow, the ballooning of it in the navy sky.

To get a clear look, I had to walk to the end of the road. Reach the onslaught of traffic on the corner. The crossing beeped, sparse fireworks popped, bodies hurried past. No-one was looking up.

Past the corner and up the road, I turned back and saw it. Golden, yes, but no more than the electric hum nearby that guided children on scooters. Huge, probably, but tucked between rooftops it was apologetic, an urban intruder.

Tonight I want the moon to be huge somewhere else, not trapped here where the sky is too small. 

When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

The Fragrance of Blood

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She lets the sun touch her through the window. Dips her head, past the dark line drawn on the table, sits her face into the sharp heat. Magnified warmth. It could be Ghana outside – thick orange dust, women piling yellow fruits. Amplify the squawk of a hedge-bird, it could be a gull – clawing its way into the sky, scissored feathers in glossy blue. She squints at the shaking strands of light shredded through the Volvic water bottle – a reflection of a swaggering pool, a shard of light cut from the shifting sea.

The minute hand of the clock stabs. They’ll be back soon. She pulls her face back into the shade, reconciles her eyes to the brown lines of houses across the road, next door’s terracotta fence too orange, like a beach with a fake tan. Crushing the waxy wrappings, she cups her hand and drags it over the wooden surface, scraping her skin white to make sure all traces are gone.  She picks up a bit of gristle and grinds it between her teeth.

The evidence goes in a sealed freezer bag, the air hushed out, then the rigmarole with the chair so she can reach all the way to the back of the airing cupboard, nestled with the others between the folds of the ruched curtains they took down last summer. Two slices of ham and a sealed pack of pastrami for next week.

It might start to smell. A quick squirt of Berry and Shimmering Mist, thorough hand wash, everything is hidden. She slips back the lid of the piano and smears some fingerprints on it, puts some pans on the hob and a willing carrot on the chopping board. The last moment before the clatter arrives at the door, she lifts one hand into the beam of evening light, dancing the warmth in her fingers.

Once they’re here, she changes. Three other bodies, shifting around hers, demanding, placating, the, ‘yes-but-I-didn’t-mean-it,’ and, ‘what-are-you-telling-me-for,’ dips up and down like a chorus, a tape-loop of grievances and defences, repetition smoothing them to melody. Her movements are easier, guided by expectations, pinned by these male eyes. Once separated from her body, they lifted and turned against her.

When they are almost at the table He will arrive, then is the ritual of the eating and the asking. The Requests, now the wallet is near, before they disperse into corners, leaving her to cleanse the portions of the house they have touched, to make it ready for their onslaught again.

Something sticks. Before the clatter of his key, a jump in the rhythm, a caught needle. It’s like a lump, a hard thing, too early in the month for that, and too high up, but a similar clenching around a hard mass, something she swallowed perhaps. The boys gape at her, this unexpected stillness. One finger under a rib – poke, rub, it will go soon.

It resumes, their dance exhaling back into what it was. Lentil bake today, followed by yoghurt and raspberry compote.  He arrives; ‘oh-what-did-you-get-for-homework,’ and, ‘you-won’t-get-better-unless-you-practise,’ until they scatter.

The obstruction persists, an accusation under her skin as she smooths on the thick blubber of face cream and reads five pages before sleep.

Mince sits in sops of it, gleaming on the edge of chops, the steak carved out from the redness itself. Blood smells more fragrant than Purple Lavender Meadow. Last time it was just a pork pie, a pink hunk hidden inside a clump of pastry. It could have been cheese, vegetable. Easy to hide. Before that a sausage roll, a turkey stick. All so hard and cold. She wants something with juice today, for it to leak between her lips as she eats it. Cooking is too risky, they might smell it.

Impaled chickens rotate in an oven, brown fat glistening on their hides. The largest one is sealed in a foil bag, pressed into her hands. So warm. She double bags it, shoves it in her large handbag, escapes into the street, planning her route.

“Lina!” Joanne, who runs the knitting and mindfulness class on Tuesdays, lumped across the whole pavement. A whisper of escape to her left, but now she’s hesitated too long.

“Didn’t think you’d be going in there.” Joanne nods through the glass, lumps of squashed red things delicate in their displays. “Although knowing you, more guests for dinner, yes?” Joanne leans in, her nose edging towards the bag. A silver chain drops out from under her chin, a drop of blue at the end, darkening to purple under the bloody awning of the butcher’s. So pretty. Just like the thing she lost.

Another dance will begin – the swaying of compliments, a dangled invitation to be snatched at or dodged. The heat is leaching from the bag, each minute solidifying the glorious fat.

“Sorry, got to get back, the boys.” It’s an easy excuse.

There’s a poke, lower down this time, shifted over to the left. Like it’s working down through her, dragging something with it. She walks past Joanne, a wince in her step as it nags at her all the way to the car, round the ring road and out to the industrial estate. She sits on a wall and buries her face in the grease of the chicken, sucking the meat from the white rounds of gristle and spitting them on the floor among the dandelions.

The thing she lost, was tricked into giving away. It had been a gift, from Aunty Fran, the cold chain dropped into her palm without a box, so Mum wouldn’t see. An upside-down V curved in gold, for wishes. She secreted it under her school shirt, sweated in a vest so it stuck to her skin. Mum worried the mark it left with a sponge in the bath. Before sleep, she slid her middle finger along the curve of it, soothed by the up and down, her hands aching from all the piano scales. A smile was given, if she completed the hours, ticked off the things on her list.

On Sundays they trooped to church. The new man came for a one-off guest appearance, highlighted on the leaflet like a headline act. He walked among them, gesticulated, had the first button of his shirt undone and a scruff of beard. You should give something precious, he said, to show your love. There was a bin bag, he rattled it, already full with his things. Stuff, he said, it isn’t important. A sniff of something as he walked past. Perhaps he had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, while they ground down cereals like cattle, spooned quivering egg folds onto toast.

She reached behind her neck, hid the strand in her hand, put the scratchy gloves on top, as if that were her gift. Her hands splayed flat, so he could see the flash of it as it fell into the bag. It had seemed obvious then, her way to an unspoken salvation. If not, she’d find a way to retrieve it, later. After the droning of the last hymn he led them out, breath claggy in the cold, out over the graveyard, to the river. She teetered at the back, craning her feet in the stiff shoes, enough to catch the carelessness of his hand as he flung the bag over the edge. Her wishes, submerged in scudding water.

There’s a spot of grease on her chest, bits of skin in her hair. She’s gasping, as full of breath as when the babies squeezed out. Different though, to be filled. A lemon wet wipe takes care of the worst of it. In the rearview mirror she finds a speck of rubbery pink on her chest. Where the wishbone used to sit.

No sun today. It could be Estonia – sharp spires, the rain a shivering waterfall, frothing mist in a green valley. Leek and mushroom pasta.

It digs in her stomach, this hard thing. Worse tonight. It must be the size of the large dollops of creme fraiche she spoons in. A little lower again, in the middle, where she got the first jabbing sensation. You’re a woman now, Mum said, cleaning her up and pressing flower-crusted pads into her hand. It felt like being emptied out.

Plates on the table, it resumes around her, the ‘but-it-isn’t-fair’ and ‘I-expect-better-from-you.’ After the first gift in the bag, it continued. Things to be bestowed on others. Your appreciation, your virginity, your grades, your debts from University, your hope of being an architect, travelling, your hand in marriage.

The clatter has stopped. She scans the faces, reflections of herself, cut into more angular shapes. They look confused. She feels something wet in her hand. A loop of spaghetti, draped around her neck, her middle finger sliding over it. Quite cold now, it must have been there a while. She slops it onto the plate, moves too early into the after-eating tempo, ignoring the resistant hands as she takes plates still strewn with food. Wincing over the bubbles, it feels like it’s growing.

On Wednesday the school calls. She was stooping her back in the sun, Guyana outside the window. Now there will be traffic and snivelling, vomit and soothing hands required. She takes the big handbag again, decides to pop in on the way, maybe something to have in the cupboard, to waft her nose over when it gets a bit much.

The lamb chops cling to the severed bone. On special offer. Thick steaks, seeping redness onto their little plastic tray. She asks for two, three, four. A squashy parcel of waxed paper, placed at the bottom of the bag.

The school is two roads down on the left. Outside, a necklace of yellow V shapes mark the boundary of it on the tarmac. She traces the inverse shape on her collarbone. Drowned, in such a beautiful stream. Her foot reaches for the pedal.

The ring road is quiet at this time of day. On the motorway, it’s surprising how quickly the miles are eaten up. At twenty, she throws the mobile phone out the window. At thirty, the keys to the house. Forty brings the remembrance of the thick packet of waxed paper. She pulls it out, opens it in her lap. With one hand steering, the other frees the hunks of meat. It wafts up to her – a metal tint of rotten fruit. Impossible to wait. She rips at the corner of one with her teeth, juice spilling down her chin. The hard knot dissipates, wetness between her legs. At fifty she’s onto the second fillet, cheeks red in the bleeding sky.

On Finishing a First Draft

It is done. I have typed the last word, finished the last scene, put my (relatively) new characters to bed. In celebration of this, I wanted to share some piece that I figured someone would have written about how great it was to have accomplished this. Alas, I was wrong. All of the posts I found revolved around what comes next. Where to go next, how to edit, all of that stuff that I was really hoping not to think about for a few weeks. I can understand the need to focus on improvement, but there should be something about the simple achievement of getting this far. So I thought I’d write one myself.

It’s the second novel I’ve written. A bit weird, compared to the first. While writing the first one, I had scheduled meetings with my tutor, a deadline for a certain number of words, I had to hand in the plot structure and have it assessed, all of that stuff. I wrote it on a Masters course at City University. Which was amazing. It gave me the structure and guidance I needed to make it through writing my first novel. It also allowed me to get over a lot of the pitfalls that I feel I would have had if I’d just gone ahead and written one. Especially seeing as, for the first one, I wrote a dual narrative. Who thought that was a good idea for a first novel?! Juggling two plots and voices, as well as tinkering between the two to create an interwoven narrative was not an easy task. This one, by comparison, is a more straightforward first-person story, which has been a little easier. It’s also been quite freeing. Away from the need to have anyone peruse my work, I’ve allowed myself to go wherever I wanted to with it. Like my imagination’s been let out for once.

And, you know what, other writers, it is easier. Every time we had a visiting author, we asked that hopeful question – does it get easier? Of course we did, we were all at the point where we thought every sentence we wrote was utter garbage and clearly we were never going to finish anything decent anyway. Every time, without fail, they all said that, no, of course not, writing a book was always hard. Needless to say, this did little to boost our morale.

I beg to differ. Of course I’ve only written a first draft, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, but it is still easier. If nothing else, having got to the end of an enormous piece of writing once, at least I know I can actually do it. That in itself makes the process less arduous. Not only that, you’ve already tripped yourself up over your own mistakes and failures for nigh on two (creeping towards three) years. So of course it’s not as hard. Perhaps as you write more it’s easy to forget that first one, the one that got you out of the blocks. Or maybe when you get so absorbed in your new project and it’s hard going it fools you into thinking that you are going through the same process again. Of course you are, to a certain extent, but experience changes you, and pretending otherwise just makes you sound pretentious.

What also doesn’t help, is all of the, ‘oh so-and-so wrote a book in three months/two weeks/a minute,’ talk. Of course, it makes for a more exciting, press release, but it’s also bollocks. What they mean is, they finished the first draft in a ridiculously short amount of time. After that, it would have gone through a huge number of edits, rewriting, proof reading, making the magical process not quite as magical, but a little more achievable for us mere mortals. Also, most people have to do other jobs, which makes it take a little longer! So yes, it took me 9 months. I still think that’s not bad.

But here I am, veering off the point. what I wanted to say is – it feels great. Under my own steam, with very little feedback, I have finished a story that I first had the idea for about a year ago. I researched it, I talked through my ideas with people, created a story, characters who I now feel are real people, and I got to the end. It’s not nearly often enough that we are told to just sit back and give ourselves a little pat on the back for a job well done. So the same goes for you too. Nice one, whatever it is you’re feeling proud of today.

In a world where we constantly seek for the next ‘target’ or ‘goal,’ let’s sit back and just enjoy the pleasure of having achieved something. Doesn’t that feel good?

We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

Squirrelling About – The Portable Veblen

It’s not often I finish a book in which the plot is almost entirely about a relationship, and I feel that it has been time well spent. Perhaps because of the squirrels, or the light-hearted take on the evils of big pharmaceutical companies, but whatever it is, The Portable Veblen has it.

I really don’t like the word ‘quirky.’ While it technically is just a way of describing something a little bit different, I always associate it with despicable practices like wearing a small hat at a jaunty angle on your head, or a hand-made printed T-shirt, just to be different. But I’m finding it hard to attribute another adjective to this novel. Our main character, Veblen, works at a dismally mundane job, taking into her hands the thankless task of translating, amongst other things, the works of the great Thorstein Veblen, into Norwegian. Add to that a propensity for finding spiritual connections with squirrels and a mother with severe hypochondria and you have, well, a quirky character.

The novel opens with a proposal. That, in itself, is refreshing. At least we’re avoiding the simplified notion that this is what comes at the end of a narrative. Paul, her new fiancé, is attempting to be as unquirky as he possibly can. Raised by hippy parents in what can only be described as a commune, with a disabled brother, Paul is desperate for the boring life of tamed suburbia. Put the two together, and of course you can see that this is not a story of love that will run smoothly.

But this novel is far more than a funny romance. Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, it has a wry wit that enables Elizabeth McKenzie to embark on an exploration of everything from a nation obsessed with war-mongering to mental illness. Her sharp observations are often uncomfortable, although she always seems to find the ridiculous and touching moments, even within the truly horrifying.

A quick flick through the book will reveal that a huge percentage of this book is written entirely in dialogue. This is no mean feat. New writers (myself included) often shy away from using too much dialogue, as it is incredibly difficult to not come across as cheesy, clichéd or downright clumsy. Of course, allowing your characters to speak is exactly what will bring them to life, but creating words that not only reveal personalities but also move the plot forward is more than tricky.

At its core, this is a book about all human relationships. The sacrifices, allowances and annoyances that we endure and cherish in order to develop the most important thing we can on the planet – a connection with each other.

After Me Comes the Flood

Last month, I went to the Emerald Street Literary Festival. Filled with intelligence, literature and inspiring ideas, it was a fantastic day out. And, best of all, it had a bookshop. In the end, me and my friend decided to buy three books each, that way we were effectively getting double for our money, as we could swap as soon as we’d finished. Nothing better than the feel of a weight of new books in your hand. The first I read was a debut novel by Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood.

In the middle of a heatwave, John Cole decides to get away from the heat of the city and visit his brother. On the way, he has car trouble and find himself at a strange house, where the residents seem not only to know him, but to have been expecting him. We follow his tentative steps to discover the true nature of the people around him, without revealing his true identity, and explore the eerie world the house has brought him to.

This is an intense novel. It could’t be any longer than it is (230 pages), if only for the suffocating atmosphere that imbues it from the very beginning. Her prose is also thick and dense, which helps to create the overall atmosphere of a stifling summer.

The setting is almost other-worldly. While no specific time reference is given, we could be in Victorian times once we arrive at the strange old house. With a piano, peeling paper and artefacts scattered around, the place seems completely isolated from the outside world. The threads of the truth begin to slowly untangle, and we are led, bit by bit, into the strange world the residents inhabit.

Elijah is a priest who has lost his faith, Claire is a childlike woman, Alex, her brother, is a fragile young man and Walker seems separate from the rest, while Eve is an entrancing pianist. Presiding over them all is Hester, a forceful matriarch who steers the course of all of those in the house as though they were her children. Perry creates a highly atmospheric interior, with lots of references to colour and shade, along with religious imagery. This heightens the importance of the house, and gives it a refuge-like quality, as if the people inside are choosing to cocoon themselves within.

Of course, if you spend a large part of a novel building up to a mystery, there needs to be a decent payoff that is equal to the level of suspense that has been created. I think, in this case, the novel was a little lacking. The reasons behind the people and their pasts seemed a little neat, perhaps obvious, and I would have liked to have seen something a bit more complex or shocking to counteract the tension that was built up earlier in the novel.

Having said that, the level of intrigue is not what the novel hinges on. The blurb is a bit of a mis-sell, as it implies that we are almost in thriller territory. A decision by the publishers to make the book appealing, no doubt, but that perhaps makes the content not live up to the promises made on the back of the book. What you are getting is something quite different. A dark, elusive book that takes time to linger on details in beautiful prose and to explore the fragmented reality we all inhabit, and how we might end up clinging to the most unlikely of people or situations, in order to feel at peace.

Sarah Perry has produced a notable first book, the tone and character of it lingered long after I read it. Not enthused perhaps, but certainly haunted.

Empress Orchid – The Mistrusted Empress

I first heard about ‘Empress Cixi’ through a BBC documentary called ‘The Ascent of Woman.’ An impressive summary of a huge swathe of human history, the programme asked questions about the subjugation of women over the centuries, and examined the reasons behind it. Much of it was startling, such as the fact that covering women up with veils was considered appropriate to show status and sexual promiscuity, many hundreds of years before Islam existed as a faith. It also examined the deep suspicion of women, their sexuality and their motives, and the way they have been mis-represented in history. One of these cases is the basis for the novel ‘Empress Orchid,’ written by Anchee Min. In it, we discover the hidden past of the woman who went on to be the main political power in Imperial China for 47 years. Historically, she has traditionally been painted as a devious despot, who was largely responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, this may well be another case of the mistrust powerful women are afforded.

She started out her life as a relative pauper, her father holding a position in local government. When they came to Beijing, she was promised to a less than spectacular cousin in order to try and sort out the family finances. Instead, she decides to enter a kind of ‘lottery’ that chooses the wives and concubines of the emperor. Due to her Manchu origin (the Manchu ruled over the Han Chinese for thousands of years) and beauty, she is selected to be one of that ‘wives’ of the emperor. She is effectively a very high-ranking concubine. As the story progresses, her relationship with the emperor and his ‘main’ wife develops, and she finds herself in a far more favourable and powerful position than she ever set out to be.

The description of the wealth and luxury of the Chinese court are fantastic. Having visited the Forbidden City myself, I know how intricate and detailed the carvings, buildings and palaces are. To see it through the eyes of Yehonla as she enters, and as gifts are bestowed upon her, is wonderful. Jewels, gold, silk, diamonds, all of these things are lavished on each item she and the other woman possess. Shoes become priceless objects, trays and wall decorations are the work of gifted craftsmen. It truly transfers us to another world, a place where a man can have thousands of women to choose from to secure his future heirs, a place where bathing and making yourself beautiful takes half a day, and a funeral procession involves tens of thousands of people and can last for weeks. In hindsight, it seems impossible that such wealth and splendour were available to so many (admittedly, a tiny percentage of the population). But then, if you leave peasants to starve in fields, I’m sure there’s more than enough for your gold teapot. It gives us a window into a forgotten and lost world, full of extremes.

The personal story of Yehonala is an interesting one. Min decided to follow her story from her poor beginnings to the moment when she gains her power. That seems reasonable enough, there are many writings on her as an Empress and it is good to see the ‘hidden’ part of who she was, even if it is a fictionalised account. Nonetheless, I think I would have liked to have seen more of her afterwards, to get a sense of the woman she became, as well as how she got there. If you want to read more about that part of her life, The Last Empress, also by Anchee Min, follows her later life.

A rather frustrating element in the book is the timeline. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a researcher to take disparate events in a person’s life, especially when there is so little to be found for this particular person, and then weave it together into a coherent narrative. However, there were places where we seemed to shift forwards or backwards to a few months or weeks later, with little sense of progression. I suspect she wanted to include certain details and just included them in the ongoing story, but it might have made the book flow better if she had considered more carefully where to place them and how they contributed to the overall narrative.

I think the parts I enjoyed most concerned the diplomatic and political situation of the time. While all the fancy bits were pretty, I was fascinated to discover a country that truly perceived itself as far superior to others in every way, and considered the rest of the world to be barbarians in comparison. The mistrust and lack of diplomatic success of China historically is far more understandable in this context. The marginalised role of women and the careful and surreptitious ways Yehonala has to manipulate her way into having any influence over her life or that of her family is also very illuminating. No doubt this is where the label of ‘devious’ comes from. However, when viewed from her perspective, you can see that the only way such a person could have any say in her own world would be through less diplomatic means.

Ultimately, Empress Cixi managed to gain and hold influence over a global power for decades in an era that barely allowed women the right to choose their clothes, let alone their destiny. This book is an important fictionalisation of a remarkable woman. We must remember how skewed our view of history is, and try our best to rediscover the forgotten women that helped to shape it in ways we do not understand. That alone makes it worth a read.