Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What a novel can do to a reader

Here's a funny (or not so funny) little postscript to our reading group discussion about A M Homes's The End of Alice - a novel concerning the murder of a child by a paedophile - and food for thought about the power of fiction.

I have been in Wales, and yesterday evening, my final evening and a beautiful one, I was walking with my partner on the Anglesey coast path. It was my birthday; the walk was a birthday treat my partner had arranged, and it couldn't have been more perfect: the weather was warm, the sea below the cliffs was glassy, the fields were bright yellow with the biggest display of buttercups I've ever seen, everywhere there were birds, and I saw my first-ever ring-ouzel, that summer-visiting member of the blackbird family.

Then, as the path curved towards the next village, we rounded a corner and walked into the click of a camera: a lone man taking a photo and unaware of our hidden approach. He turned away quickly and began walking on ahead of us. In his hand he was carrying something bright and spotted, and as we walked behind him I made out what it was: a piece of clothing, in fact an anorak, the anorak of a small girl. Immediately for me all the calm and warmth drained from the evening. What on earth would a lone man be doing walking the cliffs carrying such a thing? There was no child in sight. And wasn't there something odd about him? On this warm evening he was wearing a heavy waterproof jacket, and his face was unshaven... Where was the child to whom the anorak belonged? All at once I was imagining her in a ditch somewhere, horribly mutilated: they were coming back, all those images prompted by the rape and murder of my own ten-year-old friend on just such a flower-scattered cliffside, images which, though I dealt with that experience in my novel The Birth Machine (or maybe exorcised it) have since become buried, but were resurrected by Homes's novel.

But, I asked myself, surely if this man had murdered a child he'd hide the evidence, he wouldn't carry such a bright, attention-attracting piece around with him. But then, if you'd just murdered a child wouldn't you be deranged, wouldn't you be deranged to have to do it in the first place? And when the man - who was walking quickly, as if to shake us off - suddenly stopped ahead and took a photo of the path ahead of him, the horrific possibility came to me that he was actually documenting the scene of a murder with the kind of perverted mentality suggested by Homes's novel. And I found myself noting every particular of his appearance in case I had to report it to the police.

And then, just as we reached the village, I heard the cry, 'Dad!' and from round the bend ahead a little girl came running towards him, and then into sight came the rest of the man's family, an older girl and a wife. And suddenly the man looked nothing like a sinister child predator, but an ordinary short man, a father kind enough to carry his little girl's coat, and who'd got left behind while taking photos and was simply hurrying to catch up.

But it left me thinking, and a bit shaken. My childhood was ruled by fear of the lone stranger, and when I became adult I saw this (perhaps not entirely wrongly) as linked to racism, and set out consciously to reject it. And I have revelled in the fact that in recent years, the old formalities have broken down and people are generally more friendly and casual and unsuspicious with strangers. But I have now been reminded that actually, that childhood fear was also to do with some terrible things that did happen very close to home, and that it's all too easy to slip into a comfortable false consciousness and ignore the darkness.

And it's Homes's novel that has done this for me. And that's the power of fiction.


Group 8 said...

Wow, E, what a great post. I could feel the menace while reading it while also guessing at the man's innocence.
So sorry to hear about your friend. I think my obsession with drowning (explored in my fiction ) comes from my 5 yr old cousin's drowning (I was also 5). These childhood events impact hugely.
I thank my stars that I have fiction to explore them in. What do other people do??!!

Elizabeth Baines said...

God, yes, Nuala, your novel You is so riveting in this way - that affected me deeply, too.

dan powell said...

I found this very interesting having been in the man's place a fair few times. I remember getting funny looks when pushing an empty pushchair once, when I'd dropped one of the kids round with a friend. Probably doesn't help that I have a beard too.

It's weird and slightly sad that we have a society in which a lone man is immediately seen as suspect. And I'd like to say that I don't fall easily into such suspicion but I am sure I have been equally wary of lone men when out and about with my kids.

Just watched Alan Fentiman's Roam to Write on Vimeo and he makes an interesting statement about how we want to know what a person is doing in a landscape before we welcome them. That section of the short film resonated with your piece.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, I thought of tackling this aspect in the post, but it seemed too complex in the time I had available. These thoughts did occur to me even as the incident was happening. It's true that in many ways that suspicion of men/adults around children has got worse. My parter is a child psychologist, and is no longer allowed to do the one thing that he always found calmed a frightened or angry child: put a hand on his/her shoulder. I used the same technique when I was teaching deprived kids in Glasgow, and I know I wouldn't be able to now... As you say, it's terrible that we live in a society where this has to happen.

Thanks for the link.