RUSS JONES RETURNS WITH A SECOND ACCOUNT OF INDIAN TRAVELS.
Our driver, Om (yes we all made the ‘meditation’ joke), recommended a flash visit to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s largest city. Jaipur was famed for its nearby tourist attraction, the Amber Fort: a 16th century palace-cum-battle arena that consisted primarily of pretty wall patterns and a mass of ancient toilets. Its creator, Meenas king Raja Alan Singh Chanda, may have endured an unhealthy set of bowels but at least he enjoyed a pretty picture as he tore out his guts.
This mixture of peculiarity mixed with a sense of aesthetic beauty rather suited the city, which was home to a vast – but unsurprisingly similar – array of jewellery shops and gem cutters. We didn’t know Om well and were suspicious as he parked his taxi in a backstreet car park and ushered us into (what seemed to be) an old man’s back room. The owner met us, welcomed us to his ‘high quality’ establishment and we were taken through a small labyrinth of mysteriously degrading rooms, each veiled in gemmed ornaments: some tacky, some really tacky, and in their defence, some bizarre relics of the imagination, including a monkey god with rubies for teeth and eyes. The old man showed us how the gems were chosen, polished and carved, remarking on the various healing qualities they provided for the body and soul. It turned out he was a psychic too (we’d met three psychics already during our four days in India) and though he didn’t seem to pick up on my disinterest in gems he did offer to read the ‘nature of our chi’, free of charge. I don’t believe in all this spiritual stuff but the bargain hunter in me couldn’t resist. ‘You’, he said, holding my hand in his, ‘are in finance, very mathematically minded and – you’, he continued, taking my girlfriend (Jo)’s hand ‘are a very creative spirit, always making art and inventing.’ Her job is in competitor analysis, mine is as a poet. And we’re both terrible with money.
We left without buying any of the old man’s precious jewels set into pendants, wooden elephants or otherwise. Om drove us around the city for a while and eventually to our homestay, which was owned and run by a charismatic retired couple (him from the military, her having been a housewife but definitely still ‘wearing the trousers’ as she sent him on errands across town). It was getting late and we were getting hungry so we headed out into the night to find something both nourishing and non-lethal. Lacking any sense of direction, we walked out of the main streets of the city and only managed to find one or two places still serving food. One was bustling with locals, burning red tikka chickens wheeling around on a rotisserie, their fragrant spices begging us to enter. We’d grown confident in our iron stomachs and so strolled in, pointed at a few interesting-looking foodstuffs and sat down. What came – I assume – was goat patties with a yoghurt and mint dip, and half a chicken covered in a charred red tikka sauce served with sliced red onion. We ate happily, though cautiously. Jo queried the rawness of her chicken thigh but the ridiculous glutton in me scoffed his down with glee. Nothing can hurt me, I’m immortal; I’m on holiday.
The next day was one of the worst I’ve felt in my life to date. But it started off well enough: it was Christmas day and Om bought us a bouquet of flowers (because, being white and from the UK, we must be Christians . . .) But it was a kind gesture and it warmed us to him. ‘Want to see more forts?’ he asked in earnest. ‘No, we want to see monkeys.’ And if you like monkeys, Jaipur is the place to be . . .
The Jaipur Monkey Temple is home to over 2,000 monkeys who roam freely around a hilltop sanctuary. You can buy a large bag of peanuts from a local seller for around twenty rupees, which the monkeys have been trained to take (using their mouth or hand) from you without aggression. It was a magical world of excitement and joy: babies bounded from the tree tops and into their mothers’ arms, juniors swung across branches and chirped, adults took nuts from you and passed them out to their young. And then the goat and chicken had their revenge.
No-one wants to hear the details. I don’t particularly want to tell them. But being half way up a small mountain surrounded by monkeys repeatedly expressing their love for one another (with no consideration for the less churlish of us), as you gag from both ends in the ridiculous heat of an Indian winter is no way to spend your Christmas day.
We eventually made it back to the homestay, car seat unblemished, and I reminisced about our time so far in Jaipur: a city of beauty and brutality, glittering palaces and ancient wars, of backrooms filled with gemstones, of bustling chicken shacks and burning stomachs, endearing primates more lurid than loving. It was a place of two halves, which did neither without gusto, and as I sat on my porcelain throne, watching small colourful kites lift into the evening sky from the bathroom window, I began to understand Raja Alan Singh Chanda’s appreciation for a mass of toilets and pretty things.
– Russ Jones
THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE BOOKS THAT I HAVE READ RECENTLY. Having read Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which describes life in France after the German invasion in June 1940, I was struck by how Fallada shows the Gestapo in Berlin obsessively celebrating the French defeat. In this sense, Alone in Berlin is almost a mirror image of life in Berlin within the same time frame as Nemirovsky’s book.
Such is Fallada’s depiction of Berlin that one is left with a sense of the city and its denizens being under a constant grey mantle. The fog is both physical and mental. The plot concerns the reactions of ordinary Germans to the Nazification of everyday life. The perfectly ordinary Otto Quangel, with his ‘birdlike face, thin lips and cold eyes’, is an unlikely hero. His son, also called Otto, is killed in the war and Anna, his wife, in a fit of grief, flings the accusation, ‘. . . that’s what you get from your wretched war, you and that Fuhrer of yours!’ Stung by this, Otto is driven to express his disgust at the regime by leaving anti-war and anti-Hitler postcards scattered around significant buildings in Berlin where people will find them. He knows that he is courting death and is initially reluctant to involve Anna. However, Anna is determined that people should be brought to their senses and persuaded to repudiate the Fuhrer.
The reaction to Otto’s cards is utter terror, and virtually all the cards are handed in to the police as people fear that any link to these will brand them as enemies of the regime. For about two years, Otto and Anna succeed in evading the authorities. The Berlin police nickname the anonymous postcard writer, the ‘Hobgoblin’. Eventually, the failure of the inspector, Escherich, to track down the ‘Hobgoblin’ attracts the attention of the local Gestapo.
Escherich uses pins on a map of Berlin to mark each find of the postcards. The hunt thus forms the armature of the story, around which various other fates are twisted, and most end up facing torture and death, leading to the question ‘was it worth it?’ Fallada, at the end of the book, suggests that one such moral step taken in an ocean of evil spiritually cleanses, even if it is physically futile, but he is subtle enough to let the reader make up their own opinion.
The book is based on a real case, and the afterword provides documentary samples of the real postcard writer and his wife, and some of the cards, and details their fate. Fallada was one of the very few German writers of stature (he was internationally famous for the book Little Man, What Now?, which was made into a Hollywood film) who stayed in Nazi Germany throughout the war and could thus take in the whole atmosphere of the Third Reich. Alone in Berlin (whose German title translates as Everyone Dies Alone) is thus an early work of ‘faction’, in which the border between reportage and fiction is breached. There are even videos of the historical prototype for the judge at the Quangel’s trial available on the net www.youtube.com.
This makes one look at the book in a different way and to say that was how it must have been, rather than regarding it as historical fiction. Given the background the book is unremittingly harrowing. A host of characters of various degrees of vileness is leavened by a handful of good people, such as the retired Judge Fromm, a neighbour of Otto and Anna, who hides the Jewish widow, Frau Rosenthal, in his flat. He also gives the condemned Otto and Anna suicide ampoules of cyanide – which both decide not to use until the end.
Central to the narrative is the fate of Inspector Escherich, whose attempts to find the perpetrator initially fail. The Gestapo, angered by his failure, imprison and torture Escherich. His replacement also fails and Escherich is reinstated to complete the ‘Hobgoblin’ mission. When Escherich finally catches Otto and confronts him, he realises the futility of the Nazi myth and kills himself – his one redeeming act. The Persicke family, also neighbours of Otto and Anna, are a chilling embodiment of the Nazi ethos. Baldur, the sixteen-year old son, is a member of the Hitler Jugend and openly says,’We all want to get ahead in life, and how are we going to do it except through the Party? . . . we should follow the Fuhrer’s lead and make mugs of people, put on friendly expressions and then, when no one senses any threat, take care of business.’ This rhetoric has a sinister culmination in two instances. The first is when the Persickes decide to torture the Jewish widow, Frau Rosenthal, and ransack her flat. The second instance involves Baldur banishing his alcoholic father to a medical centre where patients are used in experiments. He orders the doctor in charge to inject his father with a chemical, which kills him.
Rather than individual characters, however powerfully drawn, it is the appalling atmosphere of a totalitarian state, where everyone is prepared to rat on everyone else to save their skin and the apparent futility of any resistance to the all-pervading evil, that haunts the reader long after the last page has been turned.
– Golden Langur
CHARLIE BRITTEN OFFERS A BRIEF INFORMATION GUIDE TO POLAND
If the best things in life are free, the most interesting attractions in Poland cost nothing, or very little. The various Polish governments believe that everyone should be able to see the abomination of the death camps free of charge. Whilst this is not exactly a fun day out, Auschwitz is something everyone should experience. By and large, the grim red brick buildings are much as they were, the treads of their stone steps worn down by innumerable feet. Photographs of beautiful Jewish children follow you as you pass displays of suitcases, pots and pans and a mound of human hair.
Less than an hour away is Poland’s only tourist trap for overseas visitors – Krakow, a historic city of splendid buildings, sadly blackened through proximity to the Nowa Huta steelworks. However, as tourist traps go, it’s bustling, rather than heaving. Rynek Square is a good place from which to watch the world go by with a quiet glass of wodka. Kazimierz, the old Jewish ghetto, is well worth seeing, either on foot for free, or (if you don’t mind coughing up occasionally) from a rickshaw listening to the driver’s commentary in fluent English. Follow the main road south, slowly, through one traffic hold-up after another, and you will reach the white–peaked Tatra Mountains, the last hurrah of the Alps, which are truly stunning, but Zacopane, the former Commie playground, is only exciting if you enjoy log cabins. The local cafe chain, trading under the name of ‘Goodbye Mr Lenin’, says it all.
The Baltic Coast is where the Poles take their seaside holidays, so be aware that this area is pricier and gets booked up before touristy Krakow. With its three- and four-storey red-brick buildings with gabled roofs, Gdansk, one of the many cities dubbed ‘Venice of the North’, is reminiscent of Amsterdam, although the ultra-modern concrete and glass waterfront is starting to look like London Docklands. Do visit The ‘Roads to Freedom’ Exhibition, featuring the independent trade union Solidarity: for an admission charge of just 6 zlotys (about £1.50), it contains more ‘primary sources’ than any other museum about the Communist era – and, despite what several websites say, it isn’t closed.
The British bucket airlines operate several flights a day to Polish cities, with prices starting at £10.99 one way. Hotels vary in price, the cheapest (when we went in 2008) being £35 for rooms in Krakow. One small caveat – Polska 2012. If you want to see Poland, not watch football, avoid dates between 8 June and 1 July.
– Charlie Britten
GOLDEN LANGUR INTERVIEWS NOVELIST AND POET, CATHERINE EDMUNDS
GL: In your signature you describe yourself as Novelist/Poet. Would you like to share a little about your writing as a novelist? How many novels have you published? What genre do you use? Are there any particular periods or theme that you focus on?
CE: I’m now onto my third published novel. The first (The Sand in the Painting) should probably never have been published, as it was literally the first novel I’d ever written – there aren’t any juvenile attempts lurking at the backs of drawers. When I look back at it now, I want to re-write every word, but at the time, I was so relieved to be in print, I couldn’t see a problem. It was a work of general fiction with an ensemble cast, told from various points of view. I learnt a lot through writing it, and even invented a couple of characters that interested me sufficiently to re-use them in my latest novel. By the time I wrote my second novel, Small Poisons (Circaidy Gregory Press), I’d matured as a writer. The book is technically far more polished, and I think it’s a much better read. It’s a work of magical realism, described by my editor as ‘The contemporary novel for Midsummer Night’s Dreamers’, and explores the wayward interface between illusion and reality in a totally unexpected setting (a suburban garden). The third, Serpentine (BeWrite Books), is the most personal of the three, as it’s about an artist, and for all I’m a professional musician as well as a published author, I would always describe myself first and foremost as an artist.
GL: When I first approached you for an interview you were awaiting the publication of a novel. Tell us about your latest novel, Serpentine. What is it about? Is it an ebook? When was it published?
CE: Serpentine is due for release by BeWrite Books on April 6th  as an ebook in the three main formats (mobi, epub and pdf), so people will be able to read it on any e-reader, tablet or computer. It opens with a quote from Nietzsche – ‘Art is the proper task of life’ – and follows the attempts of Victoria, a young artist living in London, to reconcile her absolute need to be a creative artist with her frequently cataclysmic attempts to make personal relationships function with any sort of success. Vicky is in turns sassy, difficult, funny, infuriating – all of which makes the book sound a bit chick-lit, but actually it fits far more comfortably into the literary fiction genre.
GL: Are there any dos and don’ts about submitting a novel that you might like to share with our readers?
CE: Don’t write in a vacuum. In other words, unless you’ve subjected the novel to the sharpest, harshest critique by your peers that you are able to obtain, you are unlikely to have written anything a publisher will consider worth taking any further. Wait until the vultures have torn it to pieces and you’ve put it back together, and they’ve shredded it again, and you’ve reconstructed it again – and then you might have something that’s becoming plausible. Then edit, edit, edit, edit, keep editing. Cut the first chapter in its entirety. Possibly the first two. Reduce the word count of the entire novel by at least a third. Make sure the grammar is immaculate and the spelling is absolutely consistent. Read the publisher or agent’s guidelines over and over again. Realise you’ll need a slightly different version each time you send it out, as nobody will be asking for precisely the same thing. Never use a generic letter. Always do your research and personalise it as far as you can.
GL: Following on from your point about not writing in a vacuum, what is your idea of an ideal reader? What are you looking for in your reader? Do you envisage those who read your poetry will take to your novels and vice versa? Or are the two geared to different readers?
CE: My ideal poetry reader is any poet who is more skilled at the craft of poetry writing than I am. They don’t have to write in a similar style, but they do have to be experienced and knowledgeable. I’ve been lucky enough to find a number of skilled poets along the way who’ve been kind enough to critique my work (and of course I’ve returned the favour). The poets who like my poetry also tend to like my novels as they occupy the same literary world as the poems, though greatly expanded, but it doesn’t often work the other way round. My best readers for the novels are skilled prose writers and avid readers, though not necessarily novelists. They often apologise for not appreciating my poetry. Anyone can read a novel, but reading poetry is a special skill, best learnt by writing poetry. This is why most readers of poetry are poets. You can’t skim a poem. You have to stop and think and digest every word. It’s a bit too much like hard work for the casual reader who simply wants to enjoy a good story.
GL: Would it be fair to say that you’re principally a novelist who also writes poetry? Which came first, novel writing or poetry?
CE: I came to writing relatively late, having not done any creative writing since schooldays until a poem popped out of my head and onto my computer in my forties. This was not entirely out of the blue. I used to spend time chatting in the old msn chat rooms and the friendliest people I found in them were the poets, but as a non-writer I felt like an interloper, so I wrote a poem in order to fit in. The feedback was extremely encouraging. I wanted more, became hooked, and haven’t stopped writing since. I began writing my first novel within a few months of the first poem, so the poetry and novel writing evolved together and have continued side by side ever since.
GL: Are there any novelists whose work inspires you? How important is reading for you as a writer and poet?
CE: You can’t – really can’t – write anything unless you are and always have been an avid reader. I’d realised this initially while still at school, when I noticed that my stories were always better if I wrote them immediately after reading a decent novel. I analysed the novels to see which were the most effective in this regard, and made sure to read an Arthur C. Clarke novel shortly before taking ‘O’ level English Language. It worked. I gained an ‘A’ grade.
As to the authors who inspire me – there are too many to mention, but two stand head and shoulders above all the rest. First: Jane Austen. So much unsaid. So much beneath the surface. So much passion. So much heartache along with gentle humour to make it all bearable. Second: Stephen Donaldson – both his fantasy works and his crime fiction, but especially his science fiction. Searingly effective writing. Masterful plotting, superb characterisation, and an emotional intensity that few contemporary writers can match. Austen and Donaldson make odd bedfellows perhaps, but I love them both and each has inspired and influenced my writing in their own way. If any diehard Donaldson fans read Serpentine I can guarantee they will go ‘Ha!’ at one point when one character utters one word. Yes, just one word, and suddenly you’re in Donaldson’s universe, albeit briefly. Nobody else will notice anything untoward, but I wanted to give a nod to my favourite contemporary writer.
GL: Do share a little about your poetry. How did you come to write poetry? Do you use any particular poetical forms? Again, are there any particular themes that inspire and shape your poetry?
CE: Once I had written my first free form poem in the old msn chat room, and become addicted to positive feedback, I started exploring different possible poetic forms, using Wikipedia as first point of call. I soon discovered villanelle, sestina, and in particular, the various types of sonnets. I’ve had publication success with all these forms now, and the discipline of writing them has certainly helped improve my freestyle poetry. As for themes, I’ll write about pretty much everything and anything, but it’s almost invariably fiction. I’m not someone who has an experience or recalls a memory and then writes it down as a poem. Never have done. I can’t see the point. I’m a storyteller, so that’s what I do, whether through my poems or novels. Autobiographical writing doesn’t interest me. Victoria, the artist in Serpentine, is emphatically not me, even though she’s painted some of the pictures I have (one of which is used as the cover art) and had some similar experiences. She is her own person, and she goes her own way, as do all the characters who appear in my writing, whether poetry or prose.
GL: Your poetry has been widely published. Would you please name a few anthologies, competitions and your own collections?
CE: My earliest publications were in now defunct e-zines that burnt brightly for a while, but were then snuffed out. Once I’d gained the confidence that early publication brings, I discovered Earlyworks Press and their route into print publication through competitions, so I had a go, and quickly became successful. I have now appeared in a good number of their anthologies as poet, illustrator and cover artist. I have also had success with Leaf Book competitions, both in poetry and flash fiction. Companies as diverse as Byker Books and Sam’s Dot Publishing have published my short stories, and my poems have been published in magazines and e-zines such as Antiphon, 14, The Journal, Fleeting Magazine, and many others. Circaidy Gregory Press published my first solo poetry collection, ‘wormwood, earth and honey’, which has recently been re-released as a fully illustrated ebook, and I am now working on a second collection. 2010 was probably my best year for competitions, with two short-listings for poetry in the Bridport, as well as many other placings and a few wins. So long as my winnings stay greater than the fees I pay out to enter, I reckon I’m doing okay.
GL: Are there any subjects that you as a novelist or poet would be reluctant to use in your writing? Are there any specific concepts that you are trying to express in your novels and poetry?
CE: I don’t write about subjects about which I know nothing or which I have no desire to explore. This is why you’ll find no short stories or novels with wartime settings and no Westerns. I haven’t written any historical fiction to speak of, though I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I don’t like to write at length about miserable subjects as I want my readers to go away happy, or excited, or inspired, or shocked, or in wonderment – but never depressed. I never set out to express any specific concept – I let the stories do that for me. The characters know what they’re doing. I simply take notes and type them up.
GL: Your blog also showcases your skill as a painter. Do you exhibit your paintings widely? Please expand a little more about how you use your painting in your poetry and novels.
CE: I define myself through my art, much as Vicky does in Serpentine. It’s what I do and who I am, and always have been. I’ve only recently started exhibiting, and that’s been largely due to the internet, as before I started exploring online I had no idea what opportunities were available. I exhibit widely online, and have received commissions, mostly for portraits, as a result. I also exhibit in the ‘real’ world – annually in local exhibitions, and occasionally further afield. Last year I was a prize-winner in the Patchings Exhibition in Nottingham. I also recently joined the women’s art collective ‘Vivian Vile’, which exists to encourage women artists and help them find opportunities for development and promotion. Through them, I managed to exhibit a self-portrait in the ‘Cultivate’ gallery in London.
Art influences my writing to an enormous degree. Serpentine is about what it means to be an artist, but all my poems are reactions to art works, even if that is rarely explicit in the text. Writing is my way of expressing and interpreting art.
GL: You have been a member of Writers’ Dock for quite some time now. How has this shaped your writing? What is it that you, a published novelist and poet, find particularly stimulating about a writing site like Writers’ Dock? Are there any aspects of the site that you think might need a rethink and revamp? Do you have any suggestions?
CE: The thing I like about Writers’ Dock is its flexibility. It’s a huge site – there’s something for everybody. I tend to use the daily prompts and rarely pop outside that section to see what everyone else is up to, which might sound a bit restrictive, but virtually all my writing, whether short story, novel, or highly edited poem, starts off as a quickly penned response to a prompt (picked up from the site) in combination with a browse through images on an art site. I don’t think the Dock needs a re-vamp or re-think. It simply needs to retain its fabulous variety and the warm welcome it gives all members.
GL: What is it about the use of prompts that stimulates your writing? Is it the challenge of writing impromptu?
CE: My writing starts out in a stream of consciousness style, so give me a word or two and a few images and I’m away, not thinking too hard about what I’m writing, letting anything bubble up from the corners of my psyche, and committing it to paper in a random way – only worrying if it makes too little sense later on. The poems I write for the daily prompt section only take a few moments to jot down, and then perhaps five minutes or so to edit to make sure they hang together. I often don’t see the meaning in them until people have commented on them and given their own interpretations, at which point I can say, ‘Aha! So that’s what I meant!’ and edit them accordingly. My writing is essentially imagistic. Concrete images, not vague abstract waffle. Present the ‘thing’, and let the reader worry about how to interpret it. All is metaphor – except when it isn’t. I sometimes write absolutely literally, just for the fun of it, and this can cause confusion if people are looking for hidden meanings.
GL: Which novel or poetry collection or even a single poem are you most proud of? Please would you tell us why?
CE: My favourite novel is always the one I’ve just finished, so it’s undoubtedly Serpentine at the moment, though had you asked me last year I would have said Small Poisons. Even with poetry, it tends to be a poem within the last half dozen I’ve written, and as I write two or three poems a day, that’s going to be a very recent one.
GL: Has the recent rise of e-publishing had any impact on your writing and publishing? What are the pros and cons of e-publishing for you as a writer and poet?
CE: I’m a huge fan of e-publishing. There are pragmatic reasons: ebooks are cheaper, so people who aren’t quite sure whether to buy your book or not are more likely to take the chance if it’s not too expensive. Readers no longer have to worry about whether they have shelf space for yet another book. They can store hundreds. Thousands. All on one natty little reader. The figures speak for themselves. In just a few years, ebook sales have shot through the roof, while paperbacks are struggling. Of course paperbacks and hardbacks will never disappear – on a shelf next to where I’m typing this interview, I have a collection of large art books which would be absurd on an e-reader, and not even much use on a widescreen pc – and of course there are many other examples where a beautifully bound hard copy is simply a wonderful artefact, almost irrespective of its content – but for convenience of reading, the ebook is the thing, without a question. In the world of poetry, e-publishing has enabled wide distribution of many e-zines that would have failed in no time if the publishers had had to bear the expense of print for every copy, and this has given opportunities for many more poets to be read, which has got to be a good thing.
GL: How has your writing changed over the years and what plans do you have for your writing in the future?
CE: The more I write, the more honed and skilled my writing becomes. I look back at my early poems and wince – as no doubt in ten years’ time I’ll be looking back at my current output and wincing – but no matter. I love writing. I start every single day by writing a haiku, and have done so for a number of years. I can’t see that stopping. The act of writing a haiku sets me up for the rest of the day, as I no longer have a virtual ‘blank page’ staring accusingly up at me – I’ve already written, so anything more is a bonus. As far as novels are concerned, I have a rule that as soon as one novel is published, I start another, so I’m now at the stage where I’m on the verge of setting out on the adventure of a brand new novel. I have no idea what it’ll be about, but the likelihood is I’ll write a poem one of these days and want to expand it, and eventually it’ll become an entire novel. That’s what happened with Serpentine. In 2008, I visited the Serpentine Gallery in London and wrote a sonnet about it (which incidentally is being published by South Bank Poetry in July this year) and from that the ideas grew and grew until I had an entire novel. I may very well write a short poem from today’s daily prompts on the Dock, which will become my next novel. Who knows? We’ll see.
GL: Finally, who is your muse?
CE: Ah, now, that would be telling. I have a number of muses. None of them know they are fulfilling that function. I’d die of embarrassment if they ever found out. Shhh . . .
More about Catherine Edmunds’ writing can be found here: www.freewebs.com/catherineedmunds
I SEEM TO HAVE A THING FOR BOOKS WITH A WOMAN’S HEART that use orphan-like characters in poor and crumbling habitats. If there are small practical points of magic or folklore interwoven, then we’ll be friends for life. Shelter, by Frances Greenslade, can now be added to this list.
Shelter, set in British Colombia, Canada, is Irene’s story. Although she is absent for a good portion of the book, everything leads to her. Using the voice of her youngest daughter, Maggie, it is ultimately a simple story told through the confused eyes of a child; a story of life getting between members of a family, resulting in separation, and how it becomes an awful mystery to Maggie and her elder sister, Jenny, and the mist that lingers as they grow up until they have to know the truth.
Maggie is an ideal narrator. As the youngest, her sense of feeling wrapped in the family – and desperately wanting it to stay intact – is an interesting point from which to tell the story. She is fragile as a daughter but with a strong heart.
Maggie’s sister, Jenny, is her perfect accompaniment with a very likable and deeply drawn character full of optimism and girlishness. In fact, you get a feeling she is a character that the author knows particularly well. This is especially conveyed through the idea that Jenny would like to be a writer, as she has certainly been given the wit and charm that make her good at it. As she grows up, Jenny appears to move on with her life more than Maggie, having her own teenage girl problems to think about. Maggie is much more anchored on the separation of her family and the past, but only when Jenny hits a wall, and realises that she isn’t ready to stand alone after all, does she really follow Maggie into the hurt that has come from the large hole in the family.
Greenslade says that the inspiration for this story came from the early loss of her own mother and how that made her feel. She says that she was able to write about this subject in a more balanced way now she is older and a mother herself, and in the book you do feel a sense of compassion develop for Irene from Maggie. More than anything she wants to understand where she has gone and who she really is. As Maggie starts to realise that her mother is a whole person of her own, separate of her children, the mystery begins to unravel.
The Canadian landscape and its mythology features as quite a prominent part of this story and the descriptions were knowledgably written. A real flood of imagery comes through the pages, and it is very much this family’s perception of their surroundings and what the land means to them, how they use it, not just any old Canada that could be lived in by just anyone. This brings the reader closer to the personal ways of this little broken family.
A lot seems to happen in this book, and fast. A hundred pages go by, the writing laced with femininity, and we’ve been through so much. This doesn’t in any way feel rushed though. The sentence structures are beautiful and intricately delicate while stamping within the reader a complete faith in the author. You have time to look around and feel at home in the scenery; I like a book where I can get to know intimate details like what colour the tea towels are, the smell of the curtains and how the air feels in British Colombia on an autumn morning, as well as keeping the story at a riveting pace. I read this book really quickly, flying through the pages, intrigued by the mystery and then holding my breath for the perfect end, the only end there could be.
– Clare Brierley